Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Literary Influences of Robert E. Howard: James Branch Cabell by Todd B. Vick

Now that I have a bit more time to blog, I’ve decided to do a series about certain writers Robert E. Howard encountered in his life. Each post will cover one author whose work had some kind of influence on Howard’s life (as a reader) and/or his own work (as a writer). To inaugurate this series, I’ve chosen James Branch Cabell.

James Branch Cabell

Cabell was born April 14, 1879 in Richmond, Virginia, to an affluent family of medical doctors and politically connected Virginia ancestors. Because of this, Cabell was raised in what many believed to be an aureate environment. At fifteen, Cabell was enrolled in the prestigious College of William and Mary. He graduated four years later at age nineteen. Even then, Cabell was a master wordsmith and linguist, with a strong command of several languages. So much so, he taught French and Greek courses as a nineteen-year-old. He later became a journalist and began writing short stories and essays for Harper’s and the Saturday Evening Post. The latter being the most likely place Howard first encountered Cabell’s work. Cabell would eventually write novels, of which Jurgen: A Comedy Of Justice (1919) would be one of his most popular.
Cabell’s work has ebbed and flowed in popularity over the past century. When Cabell was alive and writing, H. L. Menken and Sinclair Lewis held the esteemed writer in high regard. Predominantly popular with the reading public of the 1920s and 1930s, Cabell wrote fantasy fiction, fictional satire, and was a master writer of essays written primarily for their aesthetic effect.; the latter likely being the main reason Menken enjoyed Cabell. Simply stated, Cabell was a wordsmith of the highest order. To be such and reach the masses required a near perfect balance between the common and highly sophisticated, a balance not easily reached by too many writers in literary history. This is also probably the reason Robert E. Howard enjoyed Cabell’s work, though the two writers are diametrically opposite in their styles and interests. Cabell’s sophisticated humorous sexual innuendos are what Howard most likely enjoyed.
             Cabell had little influence over Howard as a writer. Howard's humorous fiction was never as elaborate or as sophisticated as Cabell's, but much more low-brow and jocular; a slapstick style like the vaudevillian performances. The only time Howard ever emulated Cabell’s style was when he wrote his so-called book review of Cabell’s Something About Eve for The Junto. Besides the Junto, other places Howard’s review can be found is Amra volume 2, number 47 (August 1968), The Conan Grimoire (Baltimore: Mirage Press, 1972), and The Spell of Conan (New York: Ace Books, 1980).  In the Junto review, Howard assumes that the other Junto participants may have not heard of James Branch Cabell. He wrongly assumes this because he thinks that Cabell is not widely read. That might have been the case in the central Texas area of Cross Plains, but it was certainly not the case among  the broader population of readers in the United States and around the world. Cabell was, in fact, a quite popular author at the time Howard wrote his review of Something About Eve.

1927 edition, illustrated by
Frank C. Papé
In his review, Howard calls Cabell the ablest writer of the present age. Along with many other readers back then, Howard was seized by Cabell’s command of the English language. Something About Eve is Cabell at his finest. But Howard is especially attracted to Cabell’s cynicism, something to which Howard could relate. Cabell pokes fun at his own art, his readers, and the world in general. In Something About Eve, his sardonic humor is communicated through a nineteenth century romance gone awry that bores the protagonist so much he quickly acquiesces to the devil’s invitation of a wild promiscuous adventure elsewhere. In his Junto review, Howard’s focus is not on the plot or events of the Cabell’s novel so much as on the sexual innuendos, the way women are presented in the story, and Cabell’s linguistic prowess. In his review of Something About Eve, Howard attempts to emulate Cabell’s linguistic style. As far as I’ve been able to determine, this is the only place Howard does this. It’s uncertain which edition Howard reviewed. If it was the Robert M. McBride & Company 1929 edition, illustrated by Frank C. Papé, Howard would have delighted in the illustrations and likely mentioned those in his reviews. But he did not, so there’s no telling which edition he read.
In reading Howard’s collected letters, there are two letters where Cabell is mentioned. The first, is a humorous poem (“A Fable for Critics”) Howard sent to his Brownwood friend, Tevis Clyde Smith (CL 1:272). In it, several writers are mentioned in a comical way. Cabell is mentioned, knees knocking, embarrassed at the modern school (of writers) who drank and whored. On a second occasion, in a February 14, 1936 letter (Valentine’s Day) to Novalyne Price, Howard responds to Price’s struggle with a Cabell book she was reading. Howard indicates that he has not read that particular work by Cabell, but asks her to wait a few days until he can visit and go through the book with her. (CL 3:420). The title of Cabell’s book Price is struggling with is not mentioned. But it is interesting that Howard is confident that he can help her understand its contents. This would imply that he believed he had read enough of Cabell’s work to communicate confidently his ability to understand its contents.
 In late 1934 or early 1935, Howard was still buying Cabell’s work. In fact, on a date with Novalyne Price, they drove to Brownwood to visit Dublin’s Bookstore. Howard had his eye on a different edition of Omar Khayyam's The Rubáiyát. Being one of his favorite stories, he already had one copy, but this edition offered something the other, perhaps, did not. In addition, Price indicated that Howard also had his eye on a book by Cabell (OWWA, 92). She does not indicate the title of Cabell’s book, but this tells us that Howard was still actively buying and reading Cabell. Price was introduced to Cabell’s work through Howard and, on one occasion, she was apparently arguing with her cousin Mary Enid Gwathmey, likely about the sordid content of a Cabell book, which was interrupted by Gwathmey’s realization that Price was ill and had no business teaching that day. (OWWA, 123) Nothing else is said about Cabell, but this indicates that Price, probably because of Howard, was reading Cabell’s work.

1927 illustration by Frank C. Papé for "Something About Eve."

I have not been able to ascertain any indication that Howard was so influenced by Cabell that his own writing style and sentence structure changed in any of his own stories. Even so, Cabell did play an important role in Howard’s passion for literature, at least of a certain kind. The strongest indication of this is clearly seen in his review of Something About Eve. After Howard’s death, Cabell’s popularity slowly waned, especially once the second world war began. However, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the advent of The Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, spearheaded by Lin Carter, James Branch Cabell made a brief but relatively strong resurgence in popularity. The Cabell titles chosen by Carter for The Ballantine Adult Fantasy series included: The Silver Stallion (August 1969), Figures of Earth (November 1969), The High Place (February 1970), Something About Eve (March 1971), The Cream of the Jest (September 1971), Domnei: A Comedy of Woman-Worship (March 1972). Though there are likely other titles by Cabell that Howard read, the titles we know he read include: Something About Eve and The Cream of the Jest. The latter book was part of the Howard Payne University holdings, books from Robert’s personal collection given to the college by Dr. Howard after his son’s death.
I can’t help but wonder if Howard, despite his claims that he wrote for a paycheck, and the restrictive markets he was (in a sense) chained to, secretly desired to write on a level equivalent to Cabell. Among other authors, Howard pays Cabell some of his highest praise. And though Howard, likely to save face for some silly argument, disagreed with H.P. Lovecraft's opinion that writing could be considered a form of art, Cabell was probably the one writer who might have changed Howard’s mind on that opinion.

Works Cited
CL                The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard
OWWA         One Who Walked Alone

Sunday, March 22, 2020

A Letter From Seabury Quinn by Bobby Derie

Seabury Quinn—whose longer tales I simply cannot wade through—is the perfect popular ideal—those who differ from him have just so much less chance of suiting cheap editors.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Emil Petaja, 4 Dec 1934, LWP 390

Seabury Quinn was the most popular writer at Weird Tales during his lifetime, and his sales eclipsed those of Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith. Where those later writers have gained greater respectability in death, and their work published and republished, adapted to comics, film, music, and other media, Quinn’s fiction has only partially and periodically regained the notice of the public, and the study of his life and works largely neglected. In part, this is because unlike Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith, there are very few surviving letters from Quinn’s pen or typewriter, and those are mostly in private hands, unpublished, or lingering in obscure fanzines.

This is one such letter, a relative rarity both in length and content. It was written to Weird Tales fan Emil Petaja in December 1934. Around this period, Petaja had also written to and received letters back from both H. P. Lovecraft, recently collected in Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja from Hippocampus Press; and Robert E. Howard, the latter incident appearing in Novalyne Price Ellis’ memoir One Who Walked Alone.

[Address - Seabury Quinn]
24 Jefferson Avenue,
Brooklyn, N.Y.
December 6, 1934.

Dear Mr. Petaja:

Thanks a lot for the mighty good letter you sent me November 25. I’ve been intending to get an answer off ever since I received it, but the necessity of making a trip over to Cincinnati upset all my plans, and this is my first opportunity to attend to any personal correspondence for some time.

About a Ms. I’m sorry, but I haven’t got such a thing around the house.[1] You see, I’m mos casual in my work. My stuff is roughed out in longhand---and very rough it is, too, being little more than a series of notes, set down for the most part in my own private system of shorthand. Then it’s typed, and I make only one copy---no carbons. They are a damned nuisance, and when one is an inexpert typist, such as I, the necessity of doubling all corrections makes the work too heavy for a lazy man. Too, the fact that I’m pretty much a one-magazine man, writing only for W.T., and then only as occasion, inclination and pressure of work permits,[2] I have a rather small output. In 1934, for instance, I wrote only three stories.[3] “The Jest of Warburg Tantavul” was published in September, in January will be another de Grandin yarn, and the last of the year’s output comes out in February, I think. I called it the Web of Bondage, but only God and the NRA[4] know what Farnsworth Wright will decide to call it when he prints it. However, it’s a departure---for me, at any rate. Not about Jules de Grandin --- but I hope you like it.

Several of my readers have been kind enough to ask for Mss. and I have suggested that they write to Editor Wright and ask him for his copy when the printers are done with them. He’s a good scout, Wright is, and will let you have a Ms. if he has one available. Then, if you’ll trouble to send me the title page of the thing, I’ll be mighty glad to put my John Hancock on it and mail it back to you and voila, as we occasionally say in Brooklyn, you’ll have the autographed Ms. though only Secretary Wallace and the AAA know what you want of the damned thing.[5] Me, I always want to get rid of ‘em as fast as I can.

Just at present I’m seething to go on some more yarns, but just haven’t been able to find time to put ‘em down on paper. I’ve a notebook full of new plot situations, and if I can get around to it, I can turn out a year’s supply for W.T. in a couple of months. The job is to get started, however. I’m not a slow workman. Two thousand words a sitting is my usual stint, and generally a story takes only about a week (evening work) from inception to mailing. Typing is the hardest work of all. If I could bawl ‘em out to a stenographer it would be a lot simpler, but I’ve tried it a couple of times with disastrous results. The darn girls all think they now what I wanted to say better than I did, with the result that dictation meant double duty--- one job of making notes and dictating, a second one of revising and “restoring” the typist’s ms. No luck in that.

During October I was down in New Orleans and had a great time poking around a lot of out of the way places. Tried to drink up all the licker in town, too, but failed miserably in the effort.[6] But I came back with a lot of plot suggestions, and 1935 should see some of them germinating into real stories. An afternoon spent in old St. Louis cemetery, reading and coping the French epitaphs was an inspiration in itself.[7] Yeah, I surely feel the birth-pains tearing me right now.

Have you read Price’s latest?[8] That feller is surely one great writer, as is Hamilton.[9] I’m a great admirer of Greye La Spina, too. She’s a hot number, and one of my greatest pleasures is to have her over to my place for dinner and a chat. How about Lovecraft? He, personally, is a delightful chap, but I don’t go for his writing in such a big way.[10] Like Hamilton better. Or Price, or Kline.[11]

If you’d really like to have one of my Mss. just drop a line to Farnsworth Wright, tell him your desire, and I know he’ll be glad to let you have one. He’s might decent and accommodating that way.

And thanks again for your kind criticisms of my work. I’m going to try to merit some more from you and the other W.T. readers in the coming year.

Cordially yours,

Seabury Quinn [12]

[1] Petaja, like R. H. Barlow, wrote to pulp writers asking for the manuscripts of their stories that appeared in Weird Tales.

[2] While not always a “one magazine man,” Weird Tales was the main outlet for Wright’s pulp fiction in this period, as The Magic Carpet Magazine had ceased publication in 1934.

[3] Probably “The Jest of Warburg Tentavul” (Weird Tales Sep 1934), “Hands of the Dead” (WT Jan 1935), and “The Web of Living Death” (WT Feb 1935).

[4] The National Recovery Administration.

[5] Henry Agard Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture and a supporter of Roosevelt’s New Deal administration, including the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA).

[6] Prohibition was repealed in December 1933.

[7] New Orleans formed a backdrop to several of Quinn’s stories, the French epitaphs may have been a possible inspiration for “Pledged to the Dead” (WT Oct 1937). In a letter to Virigl Finlay in 1937 about illustrations for the story, Quinn wrote:

To walk through old St. Louis Cemetery is to turn the clock back two centuries. Even in broad daylight, ladies arrayed as Julie was [...] St. Louis Cemetery in the moonlight --- how H. P. Lovecraft would have reveled in it! (FCA 25)

[8] E. Hoffmann Price, probably “Queen of the Lilin” (WT Nov 1934) starring Pierre d’Artois, his own occult detective. This was the last of the d’Artois stories, and Price wrote in the introduction to Far Lands and Other Days:

Quinn and I conferred. Although my Pierre d’Artois was coeval with his Jules de Grandin, so that neither could be considered as having influenced the other, Quinn’s hero had won such tremendous applause, and had appeared so many times, that I told him I did not wish to be in the position of doing pastiches. I dumped d’Artois. (xvii)

In his memoir of Quinn in the Book of the Dead, Price expanded on this:

Seabury and I exchanged letters, and I said to him, “This is not a matter to debate. As a matter of self protection, I am killing the Pierre d’Artois series, lest someone fancy that I am imitating you. Not that I would not—it is that I could not do a good job of it!” (164)

[9] Edmond Hamilton, better known for his space opera stories, but a Weird Tales regular.

[10] Quinn and Lovecraft had met in 1931; neither was particularly fond of the other’s approach to fiction, though they recognized their respective talents.

[11] Otis Adelbert Kline, who had some early success with Weird Tales and by the 1930s had largely turned to being an agent, working with E. Hoffmann Price, Frank Belknap Long, and Robert E. Howard among others.

[12] Quinn had a habit of drawing a smiley face (and, less often, a frownie face) in the culminating Q of his signed letters; this is very typical of the signatures in his letters to Virgil Finlay, published in the Fantasy Collectors Annual 1975.

Works Cited
FCA     Fantasy Collectors Annual 1975
LWP    Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja