Lyman Sprague de Camp was born on November 27, 1907. He passed away in 2000. I hadn’t intended to do another birthday post so soon after the ones earlier this week, but when I saw today was de Camp’s birthday, I couldn’t pass it up. L. Sprague de Camp had one of the longest careers in the field (over 60 years) and worked as both author and editor. He was a major player in the history of Robert E. Howard.
We’ll talk about de Camp and Howard in a bit. First, I want to look at de Camp as a writer independent of Howard. Among Howard fans, that work tends to be overlooked.
I first became aware of L. Sprague de Camp when I was in the seventh grade. The Del Rey Best of collections were in print in those days, and they were an excellent gateway drug to many of the science fiction and fantasy writers of the pulp era. The Best of L. Sprague de Camp was one of the first I read. I picked it up at the flea market, and the cover had been removed. I didn’t know at the time that this was an illegal sale. It was about six months to a year before I came across a copy with the cover intact. This was year’s before I became interested in Howard or Conan, so my initial interest in de Camp was through his own works.
That collection may be the reason I prefer de Camp at short lengths. I’ve read some of his novels, as many in collaboration with Fletcher Pratt as his solo work. I get the feeling that he tended to get bored or run out of steam when he worked at novel length, but that might just be the impression I’ve gotten of the last few things I’ve read.
De Camp’s short fiction tends to be to the point and contain all of the wit and intelligence his longer works start out with but don’t sustain. I like his early science fiction and fantasy work, his Reginald Rivers time travel stories, and his Gavagan’s Bar (rhymes with “pagan”) tales he wrote in collaboration with Fletcher Pratt. These latter works fall into the category of tall tales told in a club or bar. I’ve been thinking about rereading them.
I was fortunate to meet de Camp several times before and after he moved to the North Texas area. When Luis Alvarez gave a talk at UTD, de Camp attended and presented him with a copy of the current issue of Asimov’s. One of de Camps Reginald Rivers stories was the cover story. I was sitting a few rows back, and I got to witness the exchange.
I always found de Camp to be open and friendly. At one convention, I ending up riding down the elevator with Catherine. She was going to meet Sprague, who was in the front row of the audience in a large room, listening to a panel. The de Camps were both in their 90s by this point, and I helped Catherine find Sprague, offering her my arm as we walked to the front of the room. We could see Sprague raising his hand to make ask a question. He gave me a nod of thanks as Catherine took the seat he had saved for her. I always enjoyed interacting with the de Camps. They were kind, gracious people who made time for fans.
Where de Camp’s reputation is somewhat tarnished is in his treatment of Howard (and Lovecraft, too, although I’m not knowledgeable enough to comment on that). Sprague and Catherine wrote the first full length biography about Robert E. Howard, Dark Valley Destiny. It has been roundly criticized both for its scholarship (or lack) as well as its portrayal of Howard. I have to say the criticism is well-founded.
The other area where de Camp gets flack is in how he edited Howard, particularly the Conan stories. Lynn Carter and L. Sprague de Camp were responsible for the Lancer Conan volumes. The positive side of this is that they brought affordable editions of Howard to the masses. It can be argued that the Howard boom of the 60s and 70s might not have happened if not for de Camp and Carter. I don’t know many people who would argue that this isn’t a good thing.
On the flip side, an argument can be made that de Camp tried to force the Conan stories into a chronology, so that Conan would have a “career”, something that Howard doesn’t really have intended. There is a big difference between a “career” and the order of the stories in an internal chronology.
But the big point of contention is that de Camp edited some of Howard’s non-Conan stories and finished some fragments so that there would be more Conan stories. I’ve written about this before. It wasn’t a good idea then, and it’s still not a good idea now. Let Howard’s work be Howard’s work.
There are a lot of people who hate on de Camp for this reason (among others). And while de Camp does have his defenders (waves at Gary), I have to agree that this heavy-handed editing should not have been done.
So, I’m going to raise my glass later to de Camp’s memory. He was always pleasant to me, and I’ve enjoyed his work over the years. I can’t simply forget that. In spite of some things I don’t agree with, he did a lot of good for the field and deserves to be remembered. For all of it, good and bad.