Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Barbarism and Civilization in the Letters of Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft: A Summary with Commentary (Part 1), by David Piske

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 initial bias was against Howard. How could anyone defend barbarism? Not that I believe that our present civilization is all it is made out to be by some. But I enjoy the relative safety of my domicile provided by the rule of law. And I am happy to have access to medicines and treatments that are the result of vigorous scientific study. Neither of these, nor many other benefits, could exist without at least some degree of civilization. Though Howard never knew the mad joys of smartphones, the addictive buzz of social media, or the rush of illegally downloading the latest episode of Game of Thrones, I could not believe that he would suggest throwing away the other benefits of civilization, especially in favor of subsistence living and constant threat of physical violence. I had to know more.

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.

It is well known that REH initially wrote to HPL in June 1930. HPL responded, and the  correspondence continued until REH’s suicide in June 1936. Many of their letters were quite long, and the topics of conversation were wide ranging, spanning months and sometimes years. My focus in this project is on the portions of the letters that specifically deal with the debate. In all but the earliest letters in the debate the subject is clearly introduced with a statement like, "as for barbarism versus civilization." Unless otherwise noted I confine my attention to these.

REH and HPL frequently discussed history, especially the fates of ancient civilizations and the circumstances around them. But not until two years after they began corresponding did these ruminations coalesce into a conversation about barbarism versus civilization. As the conversation continues the controversy intensifies. A likely cause for this is that neither of them define their primary terms. When they refer to "barbarism" they generally connote something primitive, but the specific meaning varies. In one place it refers to the animalistic or aggressive inclinations in humans. In another context it means lawlessness, either the actual absence of law, or behaving against the law. At other times they intend the term to mean a primitive social order. The term "civilization" is similarly multifaceted. Remembering this will be helpful in understanding the arguments in the debate, especially in the later letters.

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 Rome and Greece. 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
REH's response, in August 1932, is the point where the well-known conversation begins to solidify. The response is similar to previous ones, except this time REH is more specific and emphatic. He explains why he does not hold great interest in Roman history (with the exception of the early Republic, which REH described as a "a struggling tribal-state"):
"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.

Letter 61: HPL to REH (August 16, 1932)

HPL acknowledges his and REH's diverging historical interests, and suggests that the cause is their own early environments. For his own part, HPL states: "Greece and Rome are prime realities because they had the same general problems and attitudes which the settled nations of modernity have" (359). The similarity he refers to is developmental. Each of these societies advanced beyond the early stages by securing basic material and defensive needs, which allowed their minds to develop in new ways:
"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 Greece or . . . the age of the Antonines in Rome or . . . in pre-war England and France" (359). Though one wonders why HPL seems so affronted by REH’s merely personal preference for barbarism to mount such a crushing attack on it.

The only merit of which barbarism might boast is its "simple ruggedness" and "spirit of physical struggle." But to regard this as a primary value is only appropriate during the early stages of society's development when it is concerned primarily with survival. In a society that has advanced up the "scale of humanity" physical strength is regarded in equal proportion to other qualities (like reason). For this reason "a vigorous, intellectual, and orderly civilization at its zenith . . . is about the best system under which a man can live" (359). But HPL admits that as a society declines it may loose its esteem for "physical prowess" to such an extent that it is threatened. Only in this state of decadence might we understand the nostalgic look back to "a primal barbarian age when the lost quality was in its fullest flower" (359).

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 Rome. 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. . ." (360). 

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 Rome and the "strangeness" of barbarism to him, both in general, and that of his own Germanic ancestors. Finally he distills a general principle: 
"[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. 

This phenomenon of cultural assimilation is not directly relevant to HPL’s argument for the superiority of civilization over barbarism, and yet he writes nearly twice as much about it as he does to present his argument. As such it is unclear what HPL’s intention was in proceeding at such length. Verbosity is characteristic of his letters, so perhaps we should not be surprised. Perhaps also HPL feels the need to justify what he might otherwise consider betrayal of his own race (i.e., a descendant of Saxon England claiming identity with Rome).

When HPL finally concludes by reestablishing common ground with REH, saying that while he does not identify with barbarians personally, he does take an objective interest in them. And while he does not understand them, he admires them. And when they are contrasted with decadent societies, he actually takes the barbarians’ side (361).

Letter 65: REH to HPL (received September 22, 1932)

REH's response on the topic comprises only three paragraphs in a much longer letter. Here he doesn't directly refute anything in HPL’s letter. Rather, he seems to leverage HPL’s argument (tangential as it was) against him; he uses the idea of assimilation to an environment to subvert HPL’s boast about civilization’s superiority.

First, REH agrees with HPL on the relative strength of "cultural environment" over "blood heritage." He offers the Americanization of second and third generation immigrants as further example of the principle. Then he proposes a hypothetical scenario in which he is suddenly transported back in time with an option of living where he wished:
"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 select Egypt rather than Syria, to which otherwise my instincts would lead me. . ." (377).
With 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.

REH then expresses his truest preference with a more fanciful hypothetical. Given the chance to be born in an earlier time, with no memory of this life, he would choose to be a barbarian, "to grow up hard and lean and wolfish, worshiping barbarian gods and living the hard barren life of a barbarian" (377). This scenario is obviously unrealizable (and self-defeating, as HPL will imply later), but REH uses it as a springboard to his argument.

He says that primitive life is hard and barren only by comparison. Knowing no other condition, a barbarian does not suffer under his circumstances as a modern person doubtlessly would under the same situation, and actually finds contentment unknown to moderns. As evidence, REH appeals to conversations he has had with "old pioneers." They endured hardships that would kill many moderns, but REH claims that they all report that pioneering is a "fuller, more vital" and more content life, as compared to "this newer phase" (377). Therefore, "To a man of intellectual accomplishments the life of a frontiersman would be intolerable; but to a man who has never known anything else, such a life would be full of vital interest" (377).

In other words, assimilation to a particular set of conditions cuts both ways. A civilized man would not be able to adjust to barbarism, but this is not an argument against it, for a pioneer cannot adjust to civilization, either. By posing this equivalence, REH cleverly uses the concept introduced by HPL to argue against him (though the point itself makes several assumptions which could be debated). Further, REH’s argument is not formal, but it is structured. Starting with a hypothetical, he then makes a claim, offers evidence, and then concludes by roughly reiterating the claim. Despite not being highly educated, REH presents himself here as a shrewd intellect that HPL would be wise not to underestimate.

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.

Appearing to concede somewhat to REH, HPL says that barbarism and civilization both have their merits, and that personal preference for one or the other naturally vary. But just as before, he follows by reiterating the claim from his last letter: "Yet I think certain types of civilisation add much more to life, than they subtract from it" (401). If he believes what he says about the role of personal preference, it is difficult to understand why he is so animated about proving civilization’s superiority. It seems more like a merely superficial demonstration of fair-mindedness. Also the phrase, " certain types of civilisation" qualifies his statement so much as to be almost unfalsifiable.

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.


greyirish said...

For readers who lack access to the (sadly now out of print) two-volume work A MEANS TO FREEDOM, several of Lovecraft's letters to Howard are reprinted (in abridged form) in the SELECTED LETTERS OF H. P. LOVECRAFT, and several of Howard's letters to Lovecraft are reprinted in the SELECTED LETTERS OF ROBERT E. HOWARD (abridged) and the COLLECTED LETTERS OF ROBERT E. HOWARD (unabridged). You can follow which-is-printed where by following the links on this page:

Deuce said...

Good analysis, Todd! However, a correction (of sorts). There HAS been a very thorough look at this part of the correspondence recently. A couple of years ago, Karen Kohoutek wrote a lengthy and definitive (IMO) overview in REHupa. Many other REHupans agreed. We can only hope that Ms Kohoutek will publish it somewhere soon.

One thing you're doing which Karen didn't is providing an easy to follow "timeline". Keep up the good work!


Todd B. Vick said...

Hey Deuce, I hope you are doing well. It's been a while since I've seen you. The above article is not mine - it's David Piske's (see his name after the title).

I'd like to read Karen's analysis (but the REHupa website is down). Plus, there's always room for additional thoughts about this debate (and other things like it) and I think David will bring some good things to the table in this series. And yes, the timeline factor is a major plus.

BTW - is there another place where I can read Karen's article?



Deuce said...

Crap! Somehow I spaced off the fact that Piske is writing this. AFAIK, the only place you can find Karen's essay is in her original zine.

greyirish said...

There are a couple small essays that discuss it as well:

"The Lovecraft/Howard Correspondence" by Rusty Burke in THE FANTASTIC WORLDS OF H.P. LOVECRAFT (1999, Jim Van Hise)

"Barbarism vs. Civilization: Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft in Their Correspondence" by S. T. Joshi in STUDIES IN THE FANTASTIC #1 (Summer 2008, University of Tampa Press)

Unknown said...

Even though I'm a year late (the story of my life, really) I'm delighted to have come across this. Lovely site, David, by the way.

I've read a lot on this debate over the years, but judging from this first part you've done a fine job of summarizing; and, as the previous commentator said -- yes!! -- providing a coherent timeline.

Just one point, though: on HPL's comments on assimilation, I hope that you're not going to skip over his - unfortunately - frequent racist remarks. Deplorable as they often are, they still remain part of the way he wrote.

I'm looking forward to reading the rest at my leisure. Thanks again.

Todd B. Vick said...


Thanks for the compliments about my website. I'll let David know about the above comment. He's a guest blogger here at 'Underwood.' He's been working on the final parts to his series.