Monday, July 23, 2012

L. Sprague de Camp: Looking Beyond the Hyperbole and Amateur Psychoanalysis to Find the Real Robert E. Howard , Part 2

There's a danger in wanting our real hero's to be flawless. What I mean is, when we admire someone so much, it sometimes angers us to hear anything negative spoken about them. This can, especially in research and scholarly work, get in our way of honest research. However, the opposite is true as well. Intellectual dishonestly usually stems from over-reaching boundaries, creating false assumptions (assuming too much), or exaggerating details. Another aspect of intellectual dishonesty is where one approaches a work or idea with the intent of disproving it without ever considering that it might actually be correct. I know, because I've spent over a decade in higher studies (5 years in post graduate studies). I've seen intellectual dishonesty of the worst kind occur in higher education. And, I've attempted to avoid it at all costs. 

In approaching my research on L. Sprague de Camp's work about Robert E. Howard, I've had to stop a few times, take a deep breath, and step back to see the big picture. I'll admit, there are times de Camp has angered me. Regardless, asking crucial questions (i.e. could that have really been the case? How is that possible? What is the motive behind that? And, the all important epistemic—why?) was of utmost importance. Digging deeper and finding information to counter false claims is necessary.

I never had an opportunity to talk with L. Sprague de Camp. I've never even met the man. So, I've never been able to ask him why he wrote some of the things he wrote, or ask him on what grounds he based certain claims about REH. That certainly would have made it easier to clear up a few things. What I do know, however, is that there are times—too frequently I might add—where I think de Camp is so far off base about Howard he's not even on the same planet. Why did he come to these conclusions?

I am currently reading Dark Valley Destiny: The Life of Robert E. Howard (from here simply DVD). I'm amazed at the claims de Camp makes about Howard; speculative claims presented as facts. This is true for at least the first 7 chapters of the work. de Camp paints Robert as a type of bi-polar toddler because of his parents. First, Robert's father is detailed as a foreboding figure whom toddler Robert develops a distrust, anger, and uncertainty toward simply due to the fact that he is 1) tall and large, 2) the provider of the family. Huh? How did we get distrust, anger, and uncertainty out of that? On page 50 of DVD de Camp writes: 
"The sheer masculinity of the father, absorbing, as it does, the full attention of the being who provides his food and care, prompts in every young child anger, distrust, and uncertainty.
Really? It does? Second, de Camp explains that Robert's mother's inability to meet his needs as a baby indicates that Robert becomes a victim of "malevolent forces beyond his control." The end result is this:
Thus, for Robert, in the first year of his life, two Dark Valleys came into being: the "good" valley of happiness and satisfaction, and the "bad" valley peopled with the demons of fear and disillusionment. Since he was never able to exorcise his fear, rage, and destructive wishes, Robert Howard was doomed to remain engulfed in unimaginable chaos and to be haunted by demons as long as he lived. The spirit within him suffered the dark chill of desolation.
What is de Camp doing here? First, he is using the name of a geographic location—Dark Valley—as a literary device, coupled with the alleged actions of parents to psychoanalyze the infant Howard. Second, there is no footnote here indicating an interview with someone who knew the family (which I might add is not always reliable) or, any source for that matter that would give substantial support for his conclusions. This is pure conjecture. How could de Camp ever know how Robert felt as a baby? What grounds does he he have for making such claims? The hard and fast answer: none. Sadly, de Camp is just getting started with these types of conclusions. They are pervasive throughout DVD. Here are just a few of the more blatant conclusions that de Camp comes to in the same vein as above:

Regarding Howard's Death . . .
By his death, moreover, Howard found the acceptance that he had sorely missed among the townspeople of Cross Plains. Death rejects no one, good or bad, superior or ordinary, young or old, rich or poor. Until he gave himself to Death, no one, except perhaps his mother and his dog, had ever thought he amounted to much or had seemed to care whether he did or not.
By his death, Howard became his own protector. No longer restrained by his regard for his mother or supported by her awareness of his needs, he faced the violence in his own nature. Just as his mother had protected him from the violence of schoolyard bullies, so now he must protect himself from the bullying of his own terrors and impulses. He must confront his fury in the dark valley in which he walked, for she would not be there to protect him as she had during his infancy in that real Dark Valley of Palo Pinto County. If he found the task too much to encompass, he had better do the gentlemanly thing and die. According to his lights, he died like a gentleman; for he turned on himsel;f and on no other the fury and the violence that are so clearly reflected in his behavior, his poetry, and his stories. (DVD, p. 8)
 Regarding Howard's "Lack of Experience" . . .
Isolation was an important part of Robert Howard's problem. Through an accident of geography, together with the isolation inherent in his exceptional intelligence and talent, the overprotection of his parents, and his subsequent withdrawal, Robert had few experiences with the real world. All of his responses were reasonable, logical, and often brilliantly conceived within his view of reality. It was his major premises, his underlying assumptions, that were faulty.
 With regard to the first quote above, there is no way anyone at the time of Robert's death, or especially today, could understand why Robert shot himself. Every assertion made about that event is speculative and should be addressed as such. But, to do what de Camp did above is unconscionable. Regarding the second quote, de Camp claims that Robert acted in life and on the page based purely on his lack of experience about life. Really? It seems that de Camp overlooked the events of Cross Plains during the oil booms of the 20s. Robert would have seen just about every type of person come in and out of Cross Plains. That being the case, just the opposite would be true. Robert's work would have derived from these experiences of events and people, not a lack thereof.

 In terms of conjecture, rumors and psychoanalysis, chapter IV titled Boy Nomad is by far the most ardent of de Camp's chapters from DVD. Where de Camp peppers here and there a practice of amateur psychologist up to this point, in Boy Nomad, he moves into the role of full-blown psychologist. He psychoanalyzes Robert's childhood from start to finish. I'll leave readers to see this for themselves. But I should declare that Boy Nomad, in my estimation, is the worst chapter in DVD if for no other reason than de Camp is at the height of taking speculative claims and attempting to make them actual fact.

DVD is a recent read for me. As I said in the first part of these posts, I did not actually read it back in the early 80s when it was first published. However, de Camp did write the introductions to the Ace paperback Conan series. He maintains the same vein in those as he did in DVD. In the introductions to the Ace paperbacks de Camps calls Robert a puny bullied boy who takes up boxing to end his incessant bullying. This, of course, is false, and has been demonstrated as false. In fact, it's not even chronologically correct.

In these same introductions, de Camp claims that Robert was "maladjusted to the point of psychosis" (emphasis mine). This is odd since research over the last 30 or so years has concluded that most people with psychosis are not functional. Especially if it goes untreated for long periods of time. Symptoms of psychosis include: 

  • Disorganized thought and speech
  • False beliefs that are not based in reality (delusions) especially unfounded fear or suspicion
  • Hearing, seeing, or feeling things that are not there (hallucinations)
  • Thoughts that "jump" between unrelated topics (disordered thinking)
(Source for above is found here. )

  Without a proper diagnosis, to claim that someone has psychosis is nothing but conjecture. And it's at this that de Camp excels. Given the fact that it takes a serious amount of discipline and concentration to write, I do not see how de Camp came to this conclusion. But, to write as well as Robert did, takes a brilliant mind with an exact and cogent intellect. That hardly describes someone who might suffer from psychosis. Granted, I'm not a professional psychologist, but neither is de Camp.

Despite de Camp's ill treatment of REH, and I have merely scratched the surface here, who is the real Robert E. Howard? Just how much do we know about Howard's personality, background, and personal traits? I will attempt to tackle these questions in part three.

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