Sunday, October 25, 2015

Advocating the Need for Critical Research: Robert E. Howard in Academia by Todd B. Vick

When I first read Tower of the Elephant back in 1981[1], I never imagined that 34 years later I'd be reading that work again with a critical mind and, using it as resource material for an upcoming article about Conan the Cimmerian for the 2016 PCA/ACA (Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association) conference in Seattle, Washington. But over the last 34 years, that is exactly where Robert E. Howard’s stories have migrated—to critical academic studies. In too many ways, this trend has been slower than a snail traveling through peanut butter. Additionally, many Howard fans have resisted the transition of their favorite author being placed under the academic microscope; sometimes with ardent vituperation against such a thing.

But, studying Howard and his works is, perhaps, not the ruination many have claimed it might be. In fact, I’m fairly confident the opposite will occur. REH criticism and studies will only elevate Howard to 1) a larger and broader audience, and 2) to greater opportunities for more material being published about Howard and his works, thus making the man and his work more important. More important than what, you might ask? The hard and fast answer: more important than being merely delegated to a hack pulp fiction writer. Robert E. Howard is anything but a hack writer. Of course, not all of Howard’s material is actually worthy of academic consideration, but a lot of it is. Additionally, there is a long history of pulp (popular) writers who have transitioned from being called “hacks” to being studied: Alexandre Dumas, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Jack London, H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, and many others.

Marquette University
When I entered Marquette University back in August of 2001 to work on a Ph.D in philosophy, the graduate school had one professor who was in the process of getting a book published titled Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale.[2] At the time I thought that was rather strange. Here I had just wrapped up my Master’s degree, was entering into a prestigious university to complete my education on what I considered a serious field of study and one of my professors was working on the philosophical aspects of a comic book character/television show. At the time I honestly thought this was crazy, but when he later told me that there was a whole branch of popular culture studies doing that very thing (PCA/ACA), and it was gaining in popularity, I stopped to ponder the possibilities. Years later, in 2012, when I attended my first Robert E. Howard Days and Jeff Shanks discussed his recent trek to the latest PCA/ACA conference, my ears immediately perked up. I remembered what my former professor told me back at Marquette. I got excited. Here was a great way to dig my heals into something I had been interested in since back in 1981 when I first encountered The Tower of the Elephant. I must admit, it has been an uphill climb ever since.

Here’s what I mean by uphill climb. I went home from that 2012 REH Days and began to try and dig up academic material on/about Robert E. Howard. At the time, there was scant material available. What was previous published several decades ago was difficult to find. When I did manage to find it, the sellers asked for enormous amounts of money. Bottom line: it was very frustrating. So, I did what any hardcore fan would do, I kept searching. I hoped that eventually I would encounter a listing for one of the half dozen academic books that had actually been published since 1984. Sure enough, I ran into an inexpensive copy of The Dark Barbarian edited by Don Herron. When the book arrived, it was not what the seller had advertized, so I quickly complained and ended up getting the book for free. That was a nice break. The book that was sent to me was an ex-library copy. Let me stress this: An EX-LIBRARY copy. The library was getting rid of it probably because it had not been checked out in a decade or longer. While I was happy to get a copy of the book, the fact that the Tacoma Public Library was getting rid of it was a good sign that it was 1) outdated, and 2) no longer being checked out or used. I say all that to say this.

From 1984 to 2012 when I first began searching for academic material on Howard, only a handful of material had been “published.” I put published in quotation marks because much of that material was published independently and not widely available. In 2012 when I began looking, here’s what was available[3]:

  1. The Dark Barbarian edited by Don Herron. This book is the granddaddy of REH criticism. I’m using the term granddaddy in the sense that it is the first and oldest academic work out there (published in 1984). Many libraries are now selling their copies off. Since 2012, I’ve seen dozens of other ex-library copies at various online book seller’s sites. While this book is very important, it is also old for an academic book. Since 1984 there has been so much more information uncovered and written about Robert E. Howard (especially from 2012 to the time of this article in 2015). This means that this book is 1) becoming more and more outdated and thus in several ways obsolete, and is 2) in need of a revision or an updated version with newly written material.
  2. Cromlech: The Journal of Robert E. Howard Criticism edited by Marc A. Cersini & Charles Hoffman. This series (which only includes 3 volumes over a three year period) was first published in 1985. It was, however, published independently and is extremely difficult to find today. The first volume of this series actually contains what is considered to be the first academic essay[4] ever written[5] on/about one of Robert E. Howard’s characters—Conan the Cimmerian. This series ended after volume three was published in 1988.
  3. The Dark Man Journal: The Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies edited by Rusty Burke. This academic journal was the brainchild of Rusty Burke with the help of Marc Michaud. Unfortunately, the journal was not well received by fans when it was first released back in 1990. That’s correct, REH fandom lamented that this type of academic journal would be the ruin of Robert E. Howard. Fortunately (no surprise at all) that never happened and the Journal, under the editorial work of Mark Hall, is still alive and kicking today. Also, back issues are fairly easy to find, and you can usually get them for about $5.00 to $10.00.
All the above, along with a few intentionally unmentionable works prior to 1984, were what fans and would-be-scholars of REH had to work with from 1984 to 1990 (and pretty much into the early 2000s). Each of these works are important in their own way but are scarce (or very expensive) and a bit dated for academic works. Moreover, if you go to a university library or public library you’ll be out of luck.[6] As for biographies about Howard, only three existed from 1976 to 1986 that could actually be called biographies: The Last Celt edited by Glenn Lord, Dark Valley Destiny by L. Sprague de Camp, and One Who Walked Alone by Novalyne Price Ellis. From 1986 until 2006 no other biographies existed (except for a brief biography by Rusty Burke). Then, in 2006 (20 years after Novalyne Price Ellis’ One Who Walked Alone) Mark Finn published Blood & Thunder: The Life & Art of Robert E. Howard. The biographical arena for REH Studies is still very much wide open and in great need of additional attention.

Additionally, about a decade or so ago, as everyone should know, Del Rey published eleven volumes of Robert E. Howard’s work. All of these works were published in their original publication format and each edition included nice introductions and appendices with academic essays. Moreover, the Del Rey series in itself was an academic achievement and to that end are crucial in furthering REH studies[7].  So, getting Howard’s primary works is quite easy. But, secondary works, which is what many scholars also use when doing research, are hard to come by. Fortunately, this scarcity and difficulty is slowly changing. Since my first visit to REH Days in 2012, several academic collections that include works on/about Robert E. Howard have been published. All of these are readily available at any university or public library (esp. through interlibrary loan).

Since 2012, these are the academic collections that have included works on/about Robert E. Howard:
  1. Pulp Fiction of the 1920s and 1930s (Critical Insights) edited by Gary Hoppenstand. This work actually contains a wide variety of essays (chapters) on various pulp fiction writers and a wide variety of topics. Jeff Shanks has an article in this collection titled History, Horror, and Heroic Fantasy: Robert E. Howard and the Creation of the Sword-and-Sorcery Subgenre. I recently managed to find a copy for a meager $13.95 from an online seller. However, you don’t even have to buy this book since it is fairly easy to get a reading copy (bound or ebook) through interlibrary loan.
  2. Undead in the West I & Undead in the West II edited by Cynthia J. Miller & A. Bowden Van Riper. Both these volumes cover all kinds of weird western works from the pulps and otherwise. Jefferey Shanks and Mark Finn have a collaborated essay (chapter) in volume two titled Vaqueros and Vampires in the Pulps: Robert E. Howard and the Dawn of the Undead West. Once again, I managed to find both these volumes for just under $30.00 each. But both are available in university and public libraries.
  3. Conan Meets The Academy: Multidisciplinary Essays on the Enduring Barbarian edited by Jonan Pridas. This edition is one of the first academic works to solely focus on Howard’s character, Conan the Cimmerian. Jeff Shanks & Frank Coffman (mainstays in REH studies) have chapters in this volume. The book covers a wide variety of topics from Hyborian Age archaeology to Statistics in the Hyborian Age (Stylometry in REH’s stories) to issues of masculinity and video gaming.
  4. J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard and the Birth of Modern Fantasy by Deke Parsons.  This work is a part of the “Critical Explorations in Science Fiction and Fantasy” series (47) and takes a look at the birth of modern fantasy via Tolkien and Howard.
  5. Race and Popular Fantasy Literature by Helen Young. I have only read the first chapter of this work, but it is available at the University of Texas at Arlington library (and other university libraries as well), so I’ll be reading the full book soon. Young deals with the issue of race in the works of Howard and Tolkien.
  6. The Unique Legacy of Weird Tales: The Evolution of Modern Fantasy and Horror edited by Justin Everett and Jeffrey H. Shanks. This is a newly published collection of academic essays on the history of Weird Tales (the pulp magazine) and its authors (e.g. H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith). Topics range from the first decade of Weird Tales, the Lovecraft circle, to Lovecraft and postmodernism and world building and gender studies in Weird Tales. 

The above are six (actually #2 counts as two, so seven) good examples of newly published academic works in REH (and Weird Tales) studies that have been published since 2012.[8] I am sure I have missed a few. The good news is, this list will only continue to grow. Even so, the crucial element in academic works is their easy availability. Do university and public libraries have them on their shelves, or at least have the ability to get them? The broader a works availability, the more often it will be accessed and used (cited from).

Moreover, as all the above six (actually seven) volumes have been published, the Dark Man Journal also continues to be published. But, as with any good peer reviewed academic journal, The Dark Man Journal needs to be listed on JSTOR (short for Journal Storage). The last time I checked on their site, it was not present. Why is this important? For two reasons: first, all university libraries access this site, and second, the public also has access to the site now. Back when I was at Marquette, JSTOR could only be accessed by universities, that has changed since then. This is also one of the go to places for academic research using journals, and there are millions of academic journals out there. Once The Dark Man Journal is on JSTOR, that will help open a larger door for a solid academic reference for REH Studies.[9]

A few months back several other things happened in the arena of REH Studies that is a plus. First, The Dark Barbarian & The Barbaric Triumph were put in eBook format.[10] While this will make it much more affordable for interested parties to obtain a copy, it still does not help those two works presence in university or public libraries. Most university students doing research will track a book through their library first. Plus, Don Herron did not update or improve either of the two volumes. Second, Brian Leno, who used to post regularly on the Two-GunRaconteur (TGR) website,[11] also released an eBook of some of his best material[12] titled Lovecraft’s Southern Vacation: A Robert E. Howard LitCrit Triple Punch Pack. I recently ordered a copy and look forward to reading its contents.[13]

So, all in all, REH studies & criticism is on the rise. A lot of first rate material is being released, and I know there will be even more in the future. And, despite the naysayers, these kinds of work will only increase Howard’s popularity amongst readers who may have never heard of him nor read any of his works. But more importantly, REH Studies will also help insure that future readers and researchers will be established to help carry the works of the Texas tale-spinner into the future.


[1] I first read Tower of the Elephant from an Ace paperback edition titled Conan with Frank Frazetta's cover art for the story Rogues in the House. Howard, Robert E., De Camp L. Sprague, and Lin Carter. Conan. New York: Ace, 1967. Print.
[2] South, James B., ed. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale. Chicago: Open Court, 2003.
[3] I use “available” loosely here, since most of this material was next to impossible to find.
[4] Conan the Existential by Charles Hoffman. An interesting fact, Charles Hoffman was the guest speaker at my first REH Days back in 2012. He discussed this work in detail in one of his panels. This led me to track down the Cromlech 3 volume set. It took me 2 years to actually find a copy of the set.
[5] It could be debated that the first real academic essay ever to be written on/about Robert E. Howard (or one of his characters) belongs to P. Schuyler Miller and John D. Clark, Ph.D. titled A Probable Outline of Conan’s Career published in 1938. A copy of that essay can be obtained through Jeffrey Shanks’ Skelos Press (
[6] With the exception of The Dark Barbarian. However, several libraries told me they no longer had a copy (I’m sure they sold theirs) and they were not able to get it via interlibrary loan due to it becoming scarcer.
[7] Easily accessible primary materials are crucial in any academic endeavor. The Del Rey collection did a fine job of replacing the older Lancer/Ace works and pastiches (and the various textual interpolations).
[8] I should note here that back in 2008, S.T. Joshi published a work titled Barbarism vs. Civilization: Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft in Their Correspondence. This article first appeared in the journal Studies in the Fantastic No. 1, Summer 2008.
[9] From my understanding, or at least I’ve heard it through the grapevine, Mark Hall is in the process of getting The Dark Man Journal on JSTOR.
[10] These two works can be purchased together strictly on Kindle eReaders.
[11] From my understanding, Brian has recently requested his material be removed from TGR. This is quite unfortunate, especially since he seemed to have a fairly solid following on that site. I used to read his material faithfully at TGR.
[12] You can get this latest release only on Kindle eReaders.
[13] I cannot speak of its academic prowess, but all the previous essays I’ve read from Brian Leno have been first rate and well worth reading.


greyirish said...

Hmm. I've got a few more volumes on my shelf, though those might fall into the "unmentionable" categories. I would generally agree that Howard studies, like Lovecraft studies and Clark Ashton Smith studies (with which they have some crossover), owes much of its existence to the early fan press. For Lovecraft in particular, I think the (relatively) early production of substantial re-publishing of his fiction and especially his letters were a tremendous spur to the critical study of his life, whereas Howard waited much longer to have even a fraction of his letters published in any form.

Todd B. Vick said...

I have some of those "unmentionable" volumes on my shelf too, Bobby. They are typically "unmentionable" because they would not really be considered academic works. The letters of REH are extremely important in furthering academic research for REH, but since they were all published prior to 2012, I did not include them. I tried to focus more on the previous trends in relation to current trends (academic work past 2012 and its growing interest). I find it interesting that REH Studies is taking a similar path in academia as HPL studies did, but REH studies is about two decades behind the curve at this point. That is changing though.

greyirish said...

It's a bit of a fine distinction in some cases, between amateur and academic and what we might call "pop scholarship" - I think in the latter category I'd stick stuff like Harry Harrison's Great Balls of Fire!: An Illustrated History of Sex in Science Fiction. But I don't mean only that REH is now where HPL was about twenty years ago - I mean that for a long time, because of the limited material available on REH as opposed to HPL, a fair chunk of early REH scholarship was somewhat tied in to Lovecraft scholarship, and a major focus of the literature focuses on REH's more "successful" weird fiction and Conan stories, while it's only been relatively recently that his western, historical, and sports writing has started to gain more of the attention it deserves (although, t'be fair, he's given some due in Dinan's Sports in the Pulp Magazines).

REH has also had a good bit of attention from some untraditional areas where fandom and scholarship tend to blur - film studies and comic book studies - due to the successful licensing and adaptation of the character.

I have to admit to a certain wariness at REH being the subject of more academic critical study. It's a good thing, yes, but a lot of grad students tend to a sort of blithering wonkishness that's painful to read and often useless as analysis (some of the essays in Conan Meets the Academy float immediately to mind), the kind of thing that tends to taint some of the more over-priced entries that pass for Lovecraft studies these days. I'm glad of the interest, but not looking forward to wading through many more of those.

Todd B. Vick said...

"[A] lot of grad students tend to a sort of blithering wonkishness that's painful to read and often useless as analysis (some of the essays in Conan Meets the Academy float immediately to mind)"

Yeah, I can see your point there, and Conan Meets Academy was a mixed bag for me as well. My PCA paper idea began as a reaction to one of the chapters out of that very book, though it has moved on (expanded) from that. There are always bad apples in academic study/research, but there are always some extremely good apples as well. I'm still upbeat about the future of REH Studies. The more recent collection (of which you have a chapter in)—The Unique Legacy of Weird Tales—is a much better collection (so far, I'm not completely finished with it) than was Conan Meets the Academy. At least, I think so, anyway. But a volume like Conan Meets the Academy helps to open doors for other volumes to come in. I'm not saying anything you don't already know, Bobby. Thanks for the feedback.