Sunday, March 7, 2021

The Literary Influences of Robert E. Howard: Pirates and Buccaneers by Todd B. Vick

Pirates and Buccaneers, their exploits, adventures, and duels, make a strong mark on many of Robert E. Howard’s stories. The sources for these inspirations are somewhat broad. There are nonfiction books about pirates, their history, their adventures and deaths that Howard read early in his life. Then there is the fiction Howard read that impacted his own stories with swashbuckling duels, high adventure, treasure hunts, and the like. All these pirate histories and fictional works played a pivotal role in Howard’s creation of various characters, especially his more famous Puritan duelist, Solomon Kane, and several Kane stories. 

At an early age Howard discovered and became fascinated with pirates and buccaneers. This is evident in T. A. Burns’ essay for the 10 July 1936 issue of The Cross Plains Review where she explained that a young Howard (likely age 12 or 13 at the time) proudly introduced himself and his dog to her (during one of her frequent outings to read and enjoy the outdoors) and declared that someday he was going to write pirate stories. There are any number of resources for Howard’s interest in pirates. The most difficult to determine are the books he read prior to the age of 15. But by age 15 and beyond, Howard mentions several works that fueled his passion for pirate tales. Howard wrote a brief essay for his English Class No. 3 at Cross Plains High school dated February 7, 1922. A few weeks prior he had turned 16. In this essay, Howard mentions that when he was younger, he read a Captain Kidd biography and various fictions about the pirate. These works enamored him. Here are Howard’s exact words: “Reading his [Captain Kidd’s] biography and fiction based on his eventful life, caused me to determine at an early age, to lead a life of piracy on the high seas. Tales of Blackbeard and Morgan clinched my resolve.” [Howard, Back to School, 271] 

Sometime later, Howard set aside his puerile notion of leading a pirate’s life after reading a different book. According to this same high school essay, the author’s name and the title of this other book escaped Howard’s memory. But he explained that this author “wrote an authentic book about piracy and by some means I secured it [. . .] and devoured it with avidity but was shocked to find that it contained a harrowing account of the deaths of Kidd, Blackbeard, and other noted gentlemen.” [Ibid.] Howard described, in his typical hyperbolic fashion and vivid detail, that the book contained a gruesome image of a known pirate, shortly after his execution, with a spike driven through his head. The contents and that illustration from the book caused Howard to reconsider his vocational desire of piracy on the high seas. It did not, however, deter his passion for pirate tales. In fact, it probably fueled it. 

Howard began reading pirate tales from around the age of eight or earlier. One of the earliest works Howard experienced in the literary crafting of high adventure is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Apropos to Howard’s interest or maybe even the cause, Stevenson’s tale is about buccaneers and buried treasure. What more could an impressionable boy desire than to be a buccaneer who uses a map to find buried treasure? Stevenson’s story ignited young imaginations around the globe. And that motif lasted for more than a century, first in fiction and later in films. Howard jumped on this creative bandwagon in multiple ways. In fact, his poem, “Flint’s Passing” is an homage to Stevenson’s story and characters, Captain Flint and Long John Silver. But what about that authentic account mentioned in Howard’s essay, that spurned his notion of living the pirate’s life? 

Pyle's Buccaneer illustration from Captain William Kidd and Others of the Buccaneers
Illustration by Pyle
It is anyone’s guess what book Howard is referring to. I recently spent several weeks online searching for pirate books that might have matched Howard’s description, but also discovered books he may have encountered that further ignited his passion. I found several. The first is written by Howard Pyle, the popular late nineteenth century pirates and buccaneers aficionado (and illustrator), titled The Book of Pirates (1895). While perusing the contents of Pyle’s book, I realized it was not a strong contender for the book Howard mentioned in his essay. None of the images matched the one Howard mentioned (a pike through the head of a pirate). However, Pyle’s book has a chapter titled, Jack Ballister's Fortunes. The name Jack Ballinster is strikingly close to Howard's character Jack Hollinster from “The Blue Flame of Vengeance.” All things considered; Pyle’s book could be one of the biographical accounts Howard indicated he read that influenced his notion of being a pirate on the high seas. And it is possible that Pyle’s book influenced Howard’s Solomon Kane fiction, especially based on Pyle’s illustrations. 

I came across another book that I thought might be a contender: Captain William Kidd And Others of the Pirates Or Buccaneers who Ravaged the Seas, the Islands, and the Continents of America Two Hundred Years Ago by John Stevens Cabot Abbott (1876). The contents of Abbott’s book is close to what Howard described in his essay, “it contained a harrowing account of the deaths of Kidd, Blackbeard, and other noted gentlemen.” [Ibid.] Some of the illustrations where gruesome for their day, and this image was toward the back of the book but did not depict exactly what Howard described.

Illustration from Abbott's Captain William Kidd

While I was poring over pirate books, I began corresponding with Howard scholar Rusty Burke. I told Burke about my research for this article and he immediately turned a light switch on. He said he had done something similar some time ago and the best book he could find that fit Howard’s description was The Pirates Own Book: Authentic Narratives of the Most Celebrated Sea Robbers by Charles Ellms (1837). The contents matched and in the middle of the book is an image of the head of Benavides stuck on a pole (below).

Towards the end of the book is an image of Blackbeard's head hung from a ship's bowsprit (below) It is possible that Howard mixed these two images in his memory. Viola! Here is the most likely candidate, at least to date.

It’s possible that all of the above-mentioned pirate accounts played a role in influencing Howard’s passion for pirates and buccaneers. As popular as Howard Pyle’s works were back then, it is highly likely that Howard encountered it at some point. It should be noted that Pyle also illustrated several popular articles and books for James Branch Cabell in various publishing venues. Cabell was a writer Howard read and enjoyed. Aside from the above-mentioned works of nonfiction, several works of fiction also played an integral part in influencing Howard’s own fiction with pirates, buccaneers, and buried (or mapped) treasure motifs. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island has already been mentioned; a story he read at an early age. In addition to Stevenson, Howard read an assortment of fiction writers who wrote pirate tales, or stories about sea fairing commanders like Phillips Russell’s book, John Paul Jones: Man of Action (1927). One of the earlier and most influential of these writers is Jeffery Farnol. In a letter to H. P. Lovecraft, Howard indicates that Farnol is one of his favorite authors. [Howard, The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, 2.517]

Jeffery Farnol wrote approximately 46 books in his lifetime. Most were period romance stories (not “romance” in the sense that we know romance books today), a few were swashbuckling pirate tales. Howard had at least five Jeffery Farnol books in his library, though he may have had more, and he probably read other Farnol books from the Brownwood Carnegie Public Library. The Farnol books that were donated to the Robert E. Howard Memorial Collection at Howard Payne College (from Howard's own personal collection) included these titles: Black Bartlemy’s Treasure (1920 edition), The Broad Highway (1911 edition), Guyfford of Weare (1928 edition), Martin Conisby’s Vengeance (1921 edition), and Sir John Dering (1923 edition). Black Bartlemy’s Treasure and Martin Conisby’s Vengeance were part of Farnol’s Treasure and Vengeance Series; both are swashbuckling pirate tales. Sir John Dering tells of couriers in sword duels with one another for women and royal rights. Howard’s style and his early use of Elizabethan language (‘tis, oft, doth, hath, etc.) may stem from Farnol’s works; though it was likely a combination of multiple authors (including William Shakespeare). Howard’s early narrative style and language (especially used in his early Solomon Kane tales) are similar to Farnol’s.

The five Jeffery Farnol books Howard owned
(Picture from my own personal book collection)

Like Robert Louis Stevenson, Jeffery Farnol was an early influence in Howard’s formative years. Farnol’s book, The Broad Highway (originally published in 1910 when Howard was four) was a huge bestseller in the U.S. in 1911 (see Alice Payne Hackett’s, 70 Years of Best Sellers: 1895-1965), especially with female readers, and Mrs. Howard may have read that book to her son at an early age. Given Farnol’s popularity in the U.S., it’s not much of a wild-haired guess that his mother (Hester) is where young Howard discovered Farnol. And he did have the book in his collection, which may have originally belonged to her. Farnol’s swashbuckling (pirate) stories— Black Bartlemy’s Treasure and Martin Conisby's Vengeance, were published around the time Howard discovered Adventure magazine. Each of these stories’ protagonists exacted vengeance on someone who wronged them, and while doing so, saved a lady in dire straits. Sound familiar? Though this was a common theme (with the common damsel in distress motif), the way it is presented in Farnol’s stories impacted Howard enough to transport the theme (and motif), along with the piracy aspect, into his own Solomon Kane (and other) stories. The fact that these two stories were published when Howard was 14 to 15 years of age, along with his discovery of Adventure magazine (at age 15, in 1921), and his passion for pirate tales (from other nonfiction and fiction works) seems to play quite nicely into the creation of his first popular character, Solomon Kane.

Adventure magazine was a game changer for Robert E. Howard. He discovered several authors who exponentially influenced his writing style, ideas, and provided him with enough fodder to create some his more memorable characters. He discovered the magazine early, in his mid-teen years (age 15). [see Lovecraft and Howard, A Means to Freedom, 2:606] At that time, Adventure was in the process of publishing the works of Rafael Sabatini. A few of the issues had cover art of pirates and buccaneers, several attached to Sabatini’s stories. 

18 June 1921
And while other writers who appeared in the pages of Adventure played a larger role in influencing the budding author, Sabatini is one who is often overlooked. Part of the reason for this is that Howard’s personal library only had one Sabatini book, The Snare. He may have owned other books by Sabatini, and when they were donated to Howard Payne College, over the years, those books may have been stolen from that collection. Sabatini was an immensely popular author in early twentieth-century popular fiction. It is also possible, and highly likely that Howard barrowed Sabatini’s books from the public library. Interestingly, Sabatini is not listed in any of Howard’s extant letters as one of his favorite authors. In fact, Sabatini is not mentioned at all. Regardless, there is no doubt that Howard read Sabatini’s stories in Adventure. Sabatini’s influence, however, seems to be short lived in Howard’s early life and works; his teen years to his early to mid-20s. And, along with Jeffery Farnol, Sabatini seems to have played a role in influencing Howard in the development of his character, Solomon Kane.

In Sabatini’s stories from Adventure, and several of his books, the idea of retributive justice looms large; much larger than it does in Farnol’s stories. And Sabatini’s prose pace is nearly equal to Howard’s, especially in those scenes where characters are in the middle of swashbuckling rapier duels. There is an uncanny similarity between the duels of Sabatini's stories and those of Howard’s early Kane stories. Moreover, in Sabatini’s novel, The Strolling Saint (originally published in 1913 and then reprinted in 1925), there is an underlying theme of religious hypocrisy blended nicely with acts of pious justice and revenge. Keep in mind, and Howard was fully aware of this, Puritans were a stringent sect of Protestants who made it their goal to purify the Christian faith by purging it of any trace of Catholicism. In that, the Puritans were dissenters, pious Christian rebels. But by being so, in far too many ways, restricted the freedoms of their own adherents, especially after they arrived in North America. Many Puritan theologians also emphasized the wrath and justice of God on the depraved and wayward behavior of various individuals, and too often believed that as servants of God, they were obligated to exact punishment. These ideas are underlying themes in The Strolling Saint (though not from a Puritan’s perspective). If Howard did in fact read that story, it is a mere stone’s throw away from this same theme in his Kane stories. This is especially true as Kane, who presents himself as a servant of God, and feels obligated as God's servant, to exact retributive justice on depraved and wayward individuals. Going back to the one Sabatini book that remained in Howard’s collection, The Snare, this book was given to Howard by his close friend from Brownwood, Tevis Clyde Smith. There is an interesting, and telling, inscription from Smith to Howard on the front/back of the first blank page in the book. Here is a portion of that inscription:

“Say, Bob, you remember that little passage about “wrecking the jail” and the shocking language which also included – shocking to a Puritan – by the way you and I have never had any love for Puritans – [. . .]”

The book was a Christmas gift from Smith to Howard in 1925. The Puritan reference in this inscription is interesting. The information from the inscription also indicates that Smith and Howard discussed Sabatini’s work (or works) and did so during a time when Howard was creating and developing his character, Solomon Kane. The Snare is a tale of love, dishonor, betrayal, and friendship. It is considered by most Sabatini fans and aficionados to be one of his worst novels, disjointed at various places and lacking a strong plot. It has less of Sabatini’s swashbuckling duels compared to his other stories, though there is some.

Howard made it easy for us to know which Sabatini stories he read from Adventure. In his papers (from his trunk) was a typing practice page that documented stories from Adventure that he owned (or at least had access to). These Adventure issues contain eight Sabatini stories beginning with the June 1, 1921 issue of the magazine and Sabatini’s story, “The Rebels Convict.” The other Sabatini stories in these Adventure issues include: “Don Diego Valdez” (15 June 1921), “The Prize” (1 July 1921), “Maracaybo” (15 July 1921), “Blood Money” (1 August 1921), “Santa Maria” (1 September 1921), “The Hostage” (10 October 1921), and “Captain Blood’s Dilemma” (20 October 1921). Several of these stories eventually found their way (as chapters) into Sabatini’s novel Captain Blood (1922). They also contain a nice blending of history and swashbuckling duels. Duels and swordplay that would impact Howard in his own storytelling.

From Adventure 3 July 1921

Regardless of all these influences and his childhood desire to write pirate stories, Howard was not successful at writing a pirate story per se. He was, however, successful at incorporating pirate themes and motifs in several of his stories. Between Farnol’s prose, which Howard emulated to a certain degree, and Sabatini’s descriptive duels and action, along with his early passion for pirates through the nonfiction works mentioned above, we see themes, motifs, and bits of content in several Solomon Kane tales, and these same things in several of his subsequent characters and their stories, which include "Queen of the Black Coast", "The Black Stranger," various poems, along with several early pieces of unfinished fiction.

Works Consulted:

Abbott, John S. C. Captain William Kidd And Others of the Pirates Or Buccaneers Who Ravaged the Seas, the Islands, and the Continents of America Two Hundred Years Ago. New York, Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1876.

Ellms, Charles. The Pirates Own Book. Boston, Samuel N. Dickenson, 1837.

Hackett, Alice Payne. 70 Years of Best Sellers: 1895-1965. New York, R. R. Bowker Company, 1967.

Howard, Robert E. Back to School. Plano, Texas, The Robert E. Howard Foundation Press, 2012.

Howard, Robert E. The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, Volume Two: 1930-1932. Plano, Texas, The Robert E. Howard Foundation Press, 2007.

Lovecraft H. P. and Robert E. Howard. A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H.P. Lovecraft & Robert E. Howard, 1933-1936. New York, Hippocampus Press, 2017.

Pyle, Howard. The Book of Pirates. New York, Harper & Brothers, 1895.

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