|The 2015 Cross Plains Postal Cancellation|
artwork by Mark Schultz
Like most others, my first taste of Robert E. Howard’s writing was his Conan stories. A prominent theme in these works is the tension between Conan and the city. It helped define the character and fuel conflict, I thought little else of it. But during my second visit to REH Days in 2014 I learned of the debate between Howard and H.P. Lovecraft on barbarism and civilization. The topic immediately became my hook, drawing me deeper into the study of Howard.
My first step involved haranguing other fans and some experts at REH Days. Based on responses my impression was that everyone knew of the debate, many had actually read it, but few had anything like an analysis of it. The most memorable response I received about the written debate was, "It was all just bullshit." Unsatisfied, I resolved to read the debate and assess the merits of the arguments myself. The following reflects my attempt to do that. My primary source is A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, edited by S.T. Joshi, David E. Schultz, and Rusty Burke. I will attempt to provide context as I proceed through the debate, but anyone wishing to follow along would be well-served by having this two volume set handy.
Letter 60: REH to HPL (August 9, 1932)
In the letters leading up to the beginning of their specific conversation about barbarism versus civilization, HPL comments at length many times on various aspects of the classical worlds of
REH repeatedly responds with polite interest, thanking HPL for the education,
though admitting only minor interest. His real interests lie with the
barbarians. Yet HPL persists many times in continuing to praise classical
civilization, even at times expressing a plainly derogatory attitude toward the
subjects of REH's interests. Two months before their "debate" begins,
HPL characterized the Dark Ages, one of REH’s favorite historical periods, as
"ignorant barbarism" (307). It was only a matter of time before their
diverging attitudes clashed.
|REH, posing as |
Conan the Conqueror.
Cross Plains, TX ca. 1933
Photo by E. Hoffman Price
"I am unable to rouse much interest in any highly civilized race, country or epoch, including this one. When a race – almost any race – is emerging from barbarism, or not yet emerged, they hold my interest. I can seem to understand them, and to write intelligently of them. But as they progress toward civilization, my grip on them begins to weaken, until at last it vanishes entirely, and I find their ways and thoughts and ambitions perfectly alien and baffling." (338)
At best, he can maintain interest in a race yet emerging from barbarism, but the farther they get from that primitive state, the weaker his interest becomes. Clearly this more specific explanation perturbs HPL, for after this, he finally seems to get the point.
"Important brain areas – such as those connected with pure intellectual curiosity and with the finer nuances of rhythm and coordination – which had been necessarily underdeveloped in the peril-beset barbarian, began to expand and enrich life among the people who had reached a stage of relatively stable adjustment to nature and to the problem of group-defence" (359).To HPL, the trajectory of development itself teaches us which stage is to be preferred. The "few simple motives and pleasures" of more primitive man represents "only a small fraction of his heritage as a highly evolved primate," especially compared to civilized man's "infinitely vaster variety of stimuli and rewards which accrued from a more all-around development of his capacities" (359). Indeed, HPL cannot fathom "why the half-life of barbarism is preferable to the full, mentally active, and beauty-filled life typical of the age of Pericles in
|HPL at Van Wickle Gates|
Providence, RI ca. 1933 (?)
At this point HPL seems like he is about to conclude his comments on this topic: "Accordingly I can't feel any great kinship with barbaric tribes, even when they happen to be my blood ancestors" (360). This echoes his introduction of the topic on the previous page in which he reports a natural interest in civilizations like
Greece and .
It also parallel’s REH’s statement in his previous letters about how civilized
societies are alien to him. Perhaps writing the next line triggered a
tangential line of thinking for HPL: "As I told you once, my sense of personal identification leaves the
English race when I go back to the period of early Saxon England – skipping
over to Rome
and causing me to view all antiquity through instinctively Roman eyes. .
HPL expounds on this subject for a page and a half (as they appear in the published volume). First he writes for more than twenty lines repeating, detailing, and emphasizing his identification with
"strangeness" of barbarism to him, both in general, and that of his
own Germanic ancestors. Finally he distills a general principle: Rome
"[B]lood is thicker than water only up to a certain point. At all times, the force of cultural environment . . . is a potent competitor of biological instinct; so that when the two are opposed, it is hard to say which will win the tug-of-war."He mentions two possible contingencies that could interfere with the force of assimilation (one of which is a plainly racist assumption), and then illustrates the principle with the Romanization of the Gauls. A once defeated people can become so assimilated into it's host culture as to view its own history from the perspective of their adopted identity.
"I would naturally select the most civilized country possible. That would be necessary, for I have always led a peaceful, sheltered life, and would be unable to cope with conditions of barbarism. Thus, for my own safety, I would selectWith this hypothetical, REH strengthens HPL’s comments about the force of cultural environment. Despite his own preference for barbarism, REH recognizes the effect of living in relatively nonbarbaric circumstances: he is ill-suited to survive in a much more primitive environment.
Egyptrather than , to which otherwise my instincts would lead me. . ." (377). Syria
|Barbarie vs. Civilisation|
Hand drawn poster ca. 1900
Letter 67: HPL to REH (October 3, 1932)
HPL’s response is briefer than both his previous entry and REH's last contribution. He introduces the topic as "the relative merits of barbarous and civilised life" (401). Clearly he has interpreted this discussion differently than the apparent intent of REH’s claims, and views this as a debate, though this letter does not represent a strong defense.
He reiterates (with some contingency) his position: "the odds may be in favour of civilisation for those who utilise its advantages to the full" (401). But he claims this description does not fit the pioneers that REH mentioned in his last letter. As they moved into a more urban way of life, the pioneers probably never experienced its full benefits:
"The transition is apt to come a trifle too late in the history of the individual to permit him to extract the most good from the intellectual and aesthetic advantages of civilisation. Therefore, the thing he weighs unfavourably against his old pioneer existence is by no means civilisation at its best" (401).This would be a good point if REH had used the testimony of pioneers to condemn civilization. But as noted, it is more likely REH used the pioneers to demonstrate that a person can be just as content in a barbaric setting as another person can be in a civilized one. Apparently, to HPL, claiming any kind of equivalence between barbarism and civilization is an affront to the superiority of civilization, which must be rebuffed. This echoes his reaction to REH’s initial statement of personal preference for barbarism.
Even less valid is the swipe HPL takes at the pioneers: "there is always a tendency to exalt the conditions of one's own youth" (401). Here HPL is quick to identify the bias of nostalgia in the pioneers, but fails to recognize it in his own preference for civilization.
The last few lines do little to strengthen HPL’s already shaky case. They seem like half attempts to maintain his position without actually arguing or giving any evidence. And he concedes to a moderated version of one of REH’s points, as if to show fairness. He notes that some literature conveys an overly flattering view of the barbaric life, concealing flaws which we might not even suspect. And yet, he agrees that some individuals would be more happy under barbarism than under the conditions of a decadent civilization past its peak (401-2). He then ends simply: "The whole question is a complex and baffling one, and perhaps no conclusive answer is possible" (402). Here it seems HPL is willing to bring this topic to an end, being at a somewhat subjective impasse, yet poorly pretending to have the upper hand. It seems that he has indeed underestimated REH and as a result come up with a weak hand.