The Great Debate: The Letters of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard
by Brian Murphy
If you’re interested in taking a look under the hood of sword-and-sorcery and what makes it tick, a great place to start is the letters of Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft. Today these are readily available in a highly recommended two-volume set published by Hippocampus Press entitled A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (1930-1936).
Spanning more than 900 printed pages, this correspondence covers each man’s personal interests, history, literature, and politics, and paints a vivid picture of Howard’s 1930s Texas landscape and Lovecraft’s northeastern United States. The letters reach a crescendo in a spirited philosophical and political debate that included a discussion on the merits of civilization vs. barbarism. This spar of thoughts helped spur the development of the Conan stories and by extension the sword-and-sorcery subgenre. Howard had already written what is generally regarded as the first sword-and-sorcery story, “The Shadow Kingdom,” in the late 1920s, but his correspondence with Lovecraft pushed him to new heights. While Lovecraft astutely observed of Howard’s stories “the real secret is that he himself is in every one of them,” Lovecraft’s exchange of ideas fomented and helped Howard crystallize an underlying thematic richness that elevated his stories above common pulp fare.
The exchange began in 1930 when Howard, having just finished reading “The Rats in the Walls” in the pages of Weird Tales, wrote a letter to the magazine that both praised the tale and offered a mild criticism, noting that a phrase Lovecraft used for the story was Gaelic, not Cymric, and an historical anachronism. Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright passed the letter on to Lovecraft, sparking a wonderful correspondence that lasted all the way until Howard’s untimely death in 1936.
The early letters are less an exchange of ideas than a pleasant discussion of like-minded peers, as the two shared likes/dislikes, working writer woes, and news of the day. But gradually the letters turned to an exchange of thoughts on the political and metaphysical, including the true nature of humanity. Howard was stung when Lovecraft in a January 1933 letter wrote, “Naturally, there are primitive, retarded, and atavistic types to whom barbarism would be better suited than civilization. Behind every argument in favor of barbarism, it seems to me, there lurks a fatally fallacious romanticism and sentimentality, and a fatally reckless disregard of the actual facts and values involved.” Not without cause Howard assumed Lovecraft’s belittling words were an affront to his own character, and counterpunched by implicating Lovecraft of romanticizing civilization.
What the letters demonstrate, broadly, is the clash of the rationalist/skeptic, abstract/theoretical mind of Lovecraft vs. the romantically inclined, parochial/personal-oriented mind of Howard. Lovecraft is revealed as a skeptic, an atheist, and a materialist, and argued for a form of fascistic socialism as the ideal form of government. Howard meanwhile is revealed as an agnostic, but also a romantic. In the letters he relies on his intuition and a combination of personal experience and emotional truths to argue for a type of frontier libertarianism. The decade in which Howard lived provided ample evidence for civilization’s shortfalls, both home and abroad. “What constitutes human suffering?” Howard asked. “The German barbarians had their feuds and tribal wars; we have strikes, child labor, sweat shops, unemployment, gang-rule.” Of the unrest in Europe circa 1934 and its steady drumbeat toward a second world war, he described it as a “stewing cauldron.” “I’m not surprised at the massacre of helpless people, the torturing and abuse of women and children. It’s what I expect of cultured Europeans.”
Howard’s antipathy of civilization was fueled by recent events in his native Texas. In 1890 the United States officially listed the frontier as closed, and by the early 20th century it had been exploited by business interests, first by huge beef syndicates and later big oil companies. “Capital with its ruthless practices came to stay,” he wrote. “And with it came all the riff-raff that follows in the wake of whole-sale exploitation. A few corrupt politicians sold us out, and we’ve been fighting for our rights ever since.”
Howard employed a rather sophisticated form of cultural relativism to buttress his preference for barbarism. “Where does barbarism leave off and civilization begin?” he asked Lovecraft. “We can hardly conceive ourselves to be the sole possessors of the only true civilization that the world has ever known.” Howard offered as evidence the great accomplishments of the Vikings, which built the best ships the world had ever known and wrote “poetic sagas that have never been surpassed for strength and beauty.” Lovecraft, ostensibly the more erudite of the two men, argued that only cultures steeped in western concepts of rationality and scientific progress were worth preserving.
In retrospect, Howard held up quite well in the debate, and emerges as the more tolerant and egalitarian of the two men. Both scored points, and because each largely presented personal preferences, the issue of who “won” is somewhat of a moot point. Howard advocated for a high degree of personal freedom, Lovecraft for a subsuming of some degree of freedom in favor of an ordered society.
There is far more to the letters than I can cover here. Many have compared sword-and-sorcery to the American western, and Howard’s insights on the importance of the frontier as bear that out. We also see sword-and-sorcery forming in a rejection of the machine age, a sentiment both men shared. Mustard gas and the maxim machine gun leave little room for martial heroes, and the 9-5 office round or factory job erodes self-determination and foments dehumanization. In response to this void, Howard pioneered the figure of the barbarian hero/outsider, and imbued his stories with powerful themes of the inevitable corruption and fall of civilization, the potentiality for renewal in the frontier, and the ultimate triumph of barbarism.
In short, sword-and-sorcery emerged, powerful and vital and wholly formed, in no small part from his exchange of letters with Lovecraft. When Howard passed in 1936, Lovecraft’s remembrance, published in the September 1936 Fantasy Magazine, was a touching and incisive evaluation of the Texan—unsurprising as he had come to know Howard, deeply, in this great epistolary debate.