L. Sprague de Camp at 110

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.

11 thoughts on “L. Sprague de Camp at 110

  1. Paul McNamee

    I guess I could try some of his short stories. I tried reading one of his novels but it was just too whimsical for me.

    I don’t want to beat the REH/LSdC dead horse. I think it was summed up best by someone (I don’t recall who or where or else I would give credit) – “It seemed that de Camp thought of himself as a better writer than he really was, and he thought Howard was less of a writer than Howard really was.”

    That’s kind of my takeaway vibe from the whole business, too.

    1. Keith West Post author

      That’s an excellent quote, and it sums up the situation quite well. While de Camp does cast a long shadow over Howard fandom and more serious Howard studies, I think enough has been done that most people have pretty much moved on.

      Some of de Camp’s stuff is pretty serious, although if you don’t want whimsical, stay away from his collaborations with Pratt. They tend to try for that type of thing.

      1. Keith West Post author

        Of course I would think of something as soon as I hit SEND. From what I understand, de Camp did tend to think highly of himself (arguably with some basis perhaps), and I think it shows in some of his writing. There’s an air of superiority and elitism that sometimes leaks through. This translates into de Camp thinking he was a better writer than he was.

        1. Matthew

          The elitism is probably the key to his treatment of Howard. I read his fiction long before I ever read Howard and I did not think he was that good. The elitist lives to find fault in others.

          1. Keith West Post author

            I’ve read very little de Camp in the last 20 years or so, and most of that was in collaboration with Pratt. What little I’ve read since then that was his own work hasn’t impressed me. Like I said, he starts strong and seems to lose interest somewhere along the way. I want to reread some of his short fiction, because that seemed to be his strong suit. I was a lot less discerning as a teenager, so I might have a different opinion now.

            You’re right about the elitism.

    1. Keith West Post author

      I will say yes, at least give the first story a try. It’s been nearly 20 years since I read that series, and the details are fuzzy.

  2. Carrington Dixon

    My favorite De Camp work is probably the Krishna cycle of the Viagens series. Most of them could be described as Planetary Romances That You Could Sell to John Campbell. If you expect something lighter than Brackett or Burroughs, you should enjoy.

    ‘Course, LSdC was not the first to try to organize Conan chronologically. Miller and Clark did that while Howard was still alive, and Gnome Press used that chronology to organize the content of the first hardcovers. (Although the individual books did not come out in ‘chronological’ order.) LSdC followed suit when he was called in to answer the demand for more.

    1. Keith West Post author

      True, Miller and Clark ran it by Howard, IIRC, who basically agreed with them on the whole. I think he had a minor correction or two to make. I wasn’t aware of Gnome Press using their chronology, but then I can’t afford Gnome Press editions. I don’t have a problem with a timeline so much as I do with some of the filler between the stories where de Camp and Carter summarized what Conan was up to. It’s been a number of years, but I think they said Conan went back to Cimmeria between two of the stories. Uh,…no. We have no indication that Conan ever returned to Cimmeria after the events in “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”, which is (I think) the farthest north he appears. I’ll try to check when I get home to make sure my memory isn’t playing tricks on me.

      I’ve not read the Krishna books, but I have them. I’ve been intending to give them a try.

      1. Carrington Dixon

        The Gnome editions even quote the relevant bits of Miller and Clark to link the stories together. I think that Clark was involved early in the Gnome project. I don’t know if he was still involved by the time LSdC came on board.


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