In Round One of his review of Conan Meets the Academy, Brian Leno padded into the ring, finding that editor Jonas Prida has a highly breakable glass jaw in the arena of Howard Studies, because he can’t seem to tell much difference between Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague de Camp. Or Howard and Robert Jordan, or Howard and an Ah-nold flick.
But now he’s going into the meat of the book to see if that material is more effective.
Here’s Brian, gloves up:
The first part of Conan Meets the Academy deals with the literary Conan and starts with Jeffrey Shanks’ “Hyborian Age Archaeology: Unearthing Historical and Anthropological Foundations.” Shanks is well-respected among Howard fans — placing his essay as the first in the book was an intelligent decision for editor Prida. It’s a good start and helps to erase a little of the bad taste left in my mouth after the introduction.
Shanks nicely displays his knowledge, showing readers how books such as H. G. Wells’ The Outline of History: Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind and W. Scott-Eliot’s The Story of Atlantis may have influenced the Texan when he got down to his task of imaginary world creating. Informative and respectfully done, Shanks’ article compares favorably to other essays he has written.
Frank Coffman’s “Barbarian Ascendant: The Poetic and Epistolary Origins of the Character and His World” begins with promise but then strays as Coffman furthers his arguments. His main point is to demonstrate that when Howard states in a letter that there was no “conscious process” on his part to create Conan, REH “leaves his statement open to the contradiction by the truth of the matter—there were unconscious processes at work.”
Nothing really new here, but Coffman muddies the water when he attempts to prove that Howard’s view of barbarism wasn’t really as “dark” as the title of Don Herron’s groundbreaking The Dark Barbarian might indicate. This is apparently a pet project, as a recent essay of his titled “Conan as Bright Barbarian: Or—Barbarism is Relative” has appeared on his website. Mildly interesting, but I think he’d be better served to argue on more feasible topics.
Still, this essay is better than Coffman’s “Texas Talespinner: Robert E. Howard’s Ways with Words” which appeared in the Szumskyj volume Two-Gun Bob.
The third essay, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Women: Gender Dynamics in the Hyborian World” is by Winter Elliot and is the worst essay in the first half. On the very first page she cites Darrell Schweitzer’s Conan’s World and Robert E. Howard not once, but three times.
I really had thought Howard studies had moved beyond this ineffective little booklet from 1978, which is not very highly thought of by scholars or fans alike. She writes that Howard’s “bewitching population of female characters sometimes helped to land [him] the cover art of Weird Tales”, and then she cites Schweitzer’s book as her source — did she really need to read Schweitzer to discover that?
She adds “such lovely ladies could also lead to some pointed speculation about the contributors to Don Herron’s The Dark Barbarian…to a man these contributors are…well men.” I gather this is some sort of tongue-in-cheek comment; I really can’t imagine she is grouping Fritz Leiber, Glenn Lord and Steve Eng (well-respected writers all) as being from the Land of Misfit Boys because they may have enjoyed looking at the Margaret Brundage covers. Leiber is an internationally known writer and has appeared in the Library of America. Glenn Lord (forget de Camp) did more than anyone else to keep the memory of Robert E. Howard alive. And Steve Eng wrote the definitive essay on Howard as a poet. Their contributions to Howard studies stand head and shoulders above most.
To be fair, Elliot does cite the Leiber and Lord articles from The Dark Barbarian — but she does seem to rely mostly upon Schweitzer.
Later in her essay she writes that Howard’s character of Valeria had “wonder of wonders, more or less appropriate clothing” and then adds, in another touch of misplaced humor, that “apparently all of the chain mail bikinis were sold out.” First off, of course, Howard never wrote any of his women into a chain mail bikini and I could only come to the realization that Elliot isn’t really taking Howard and his writing seriously.
She adds to the misfortunes of her essay when she brings up the famous episode in “Red Nails” when Valeria strips an adversary naked and starts to whip her, attempting to gain valuable information. “Now,” Elliot writes, “as even the American CIA recognizes, there are many and varied ways to torture someone, and the methods’ effectiveness at producing information varies widely.” If you’re going to talk about politics let’s talk about politics in REH’s time, and how that relates to his stories. Why any modern writer would feel Howard fans are anxious to know his or her own political preferences is beyond my understanding.
Thankfully, the next essay, “Robert E. Howard’s Barbarian and the Western: A Study of Conan Through the West and the Western Hero” by Daniel Weiss is decent. Weiss quickly gets to the point and tells how, in his essay, he “will examine the structure and efficacy of the western through an exploration of several western novels and how they relate to Conan and the Conan stories.” He handles this intelligently, bringing up authors that Howard had, in all likelihood, read. Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, and Owen Wister’s The Virginian, and the novels of James Fenimore Cooper are only a few that fall under his literary microscope.
To his credit Weiss notes that for continued reading one should turn to Ben Indick’s “The Western Fiction of Robert E. Howard” which appeared in The Dark Barbarian. However he does himself a disservice when he cites from de Camp’s Dark Valley Destiny, a book that hardly anyone holds in high esteem anymore.
The next essay, “Canaan Lies Beyond the Black River: Howard’s Dark Rhetoric of the Contact Zone,” is by Paul Shovlin, a former contributor to The Cimmerian. His offering in Leo Grin’s superb journal was “Raising Kane: Transcendence through Subversion,” and it was a good one. One of the best articles ever on Solomon Kane, Shovlin won me over when he mentioned that in a story like “Wings in the Night” Howard’s Puritan adventurer “might as well be named [Joseph Conrad’s] Kurtz, as he evades cannibals seeking to literally eat him alive even while we realize with horror that Africa itself long ago swallowed him whole.” I’m a fan of “Heart of Darkness” and anyone who doesn’t see similarities between the Africa of Conrad and the Africa Kane journeys through isn’t reading very closely — even though Howard had probably not read Conrad by the time he was creating Solomon Kane.
Shovlin in this latest essay states that “it is a good time to revisit and reconfigure explanations of the role and race in [Howard’s] work,” because of the purer texts available. Shovlin goes on to write that he is “less interested in defending Howard’s reputation by how racist he was or what kind of racist he was, and more interested in figuring how racial representations work in his stories and how race relates to a particular set of philosophies or a worldview his literature supports.” He does this by an examination of “Black Canaan” and “Beyond the Black River” and it’s refreshing to read a writer who can go beyond the racist label that has been applied to Howard and give us a thoughtful, reasoned approach to a complex issue.
Shovlin gets high points for this article, but to my view the Kane essay from The Cimmerian is the better of the two.
End Round Two.
Brian goes to his corner to get ready for the final round — and keep in mind he hasn’t crossed gloves with stylometrics or the Really Boring Stuff in this book yet! Jeez. Poor Brian.
And due out at any moment is the 17th issue of Two-Gun Raconteur, where I toss in a quick 2000-plus worder on Howard Studies and academics — and address briefly the suggestive statement by Winter Elliot that The Dark Barbarian featured essays all by men.
To quote from that upcoming article: