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


Mike Tuggle said...

Thank you for posting this intro to a talented writer I was not familiar with. I did a little research, and found a Wiki article that gave his birth date as April 14, 1879.

Todd B. Vick said...

Hey, Mike. Glad you liked the article. Checked my source again and yup, 1879 (via The Encyclopedia of Fantasy). Typo on my part, thanks for the heads up.