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Conan in Texas:

The Robert E. Howard Story

by C. F. Eckhardt

Photos Courtesy of
The Robert E.Howard Museum and Era Hanky

Robert E. Howard As Boy
"Barefoot boy with cheek of tan"
Young Robert as Noble Savage
Robert Ervine Howard-you'll find the terminal E on his middle name on his birth certificate and his tombstone, but nowhere else-was born either January 22 or January 24, 1906, in the Parker County town of Peaster, Texas. He was the only son and only child of Dr. Isaac M. Howard and Hester Jane (Ervine) Howard.

Robert's father seems to have been, although a physician, something of a milktoast type, while his mother, though sickly most of her life, apparently had a strong, somewhat controlling personality. Robert grew into a bookish, somewhat withdrawn child who had few close friends. He also had an above-average intellect and a powerful interest in history.

Robert E. Howard as young man

A more filled-out Howard about the time of his boxing career.

As a young man, Bob Howard, as his contemporaries knew him, was a robust six footer weighing about 200 lbs, and an accomplished amateur boxer. He was also something of a pre-Society for Creative Anachronism 'creative anachroniser.' He and friends armed themselves with wooden shields and wooden swords to discover how the real thing was used in the past. Most boys outgrow the 'wooden sword and garbage-can-lid shield by the age of 8 or 9, but Howard continued well into his teens.
By the time he was 8 the Howard family settled in the community of Cross Plains, Texas, near Brownwood. Robert was a voracious reader, ultimately devouring every history book and historical novel in the Cross Plains public library and the school libraries. At this point he apparently taught himself the fine art of burglary. He traveled to surrounding towns, entered the public libraries after dark, removed armloads of books, read them and apparently made notes on them-and then made an after-dark return of the books.

In his early teens Bob began to show a flair for writing fiction. He apparently sold a few stories to various pulp magazines, but not many. His father insisted he attend Howard Payne College in Brownwood, and Bob spent a year there. When he returned, he told his father he intended to become a writer of fiction, and college was doing him no good at all. Father and son came to an agreement-Bob would have a year to prove he could support himself as a writer of fiction. If at the end of the year he was not self-supporting, he would return to Howard Payne and get a degree. At the end of the agreed-on year Bob was not yet completely self-supporting, but he had cashed some-for the time and place-fairly impressive checks.

Robert E. Howard Museum, Robert E. Howard's former home

The Howard Home - now the Robert E. Howard Museum
- just SE of downtown Cross Plains

Robert E. Howard bedroom and workroom

Howard's porch bedroom / workroom. Mother's bedroom is through window at left.

This was the great era of the pulp magazine. Broadcast radio was in its infancy, television was only in the Buck Rogers comic strip. The entertainment of the era was the pulp fiction magazine-and there were myriads of them. From the 'dime novels' of the late 19th Century, the magazine industry had grown into a giant. Specialized fiction magazines ranged from general fiction to highly specialized. There were baseball stories magazines, railroad stories magazines, airplane stories magazines-even fighter airplane stories magazines. And, of course, there were fantasy, horror, romance, science fiction, western-you name it, there was a pulp fiction magazine that covered whatever you wanted to read. Into this Robert E. Howard plunged headfirst.

Robert E Howard Museum - Arnold Swartzenegger autograph

Arnold (as Conan) took time to autograph a publicity photo for the museum.

Though Howard is best remembered as the creator of Conan the Cimmerian, mostly today called 'Conan the Barbarian,' he also created King Kull of Atlantis, Solomon Kane, a dour Puritan who smashed pagan altars with a bronze-bound Bible; Bran Mak Morn, 'El Borak,' sailor Steve Costigan, and dozens of others. He wrote in virtually every genre with the possible exception of romance, under at least 100 different pseudonyms, often having two stories under different pseudonyms in the same issue of a magazine. In almost every case his stories featured thrilling high adventure with a larger-than-life central character-which was what the public and the publishers wanted. With the possible exception of Frederick Faust, who wrote mostly as Max Brand, Howard may have been, from about 1925 until his death in 1936, the single most prolific author in the pulp fiction field.
Personally, Howard was a box of contradictions. He once told a friend "I don't smoke. I don't smoke because the sorriest SOB I know of smokes, and I won't be like him. Well, Hell-he breathes and so do I." He wrote poetry-mostly unpublished until after his death-about his love for beautiful women, but had relationships with only two women in his life-his mother and a girl, later a schoolteacher, named Novalyne Price.

Novalyne Price portrait
Robert E. Howard in Fedora
L - Novalyne Price
R - Howard in a fedora - shortly before his death.

By 1930, when Howard was 24, a new urgency entered his writing. The depression had hit, his father's medical practice had gone down to virtually nothing-Dr. Howard was required, by the Hippocratic Oath, to treat patients, but he mostly went unpaid. In addition, Hester Howard had developed cancer-a cancer that would ultimately kill her. Robert's writing checks became almost the family's only income.

Replica of Robert E. Howard typewriter
A replica of Howard's typewriter. The original is now in private hands, but the owner has furnished documentation of the original - allowing the purchase of this authentic replacement.

An impressive income for the time it was, too. Though the maximum pay for a story in a pulp magazine at the time was only 1½¢ per word-a 5,000 word story would bring the author $75- -Howard's annual income was exceeded only by the salary of the president of the local bank. In 1935, the last full year of his life and his most productive year, Howard earned about $6,000 from his stories. He was able to buy-and pay cash for-a brand-new 1935 Chevrolet coupé, at the time about a $400 purchase.

Robert E. Howard Museum docent Era Hanky and period piano
Docent Era Hanky in front of a period piano. The encased bust of Cleopatra is one of the few items actually owned by Howard.

For a time-only occasionally-he dated Novalyne Price. She once commented that she thought he would have made a great warrior for Genghis Khan. He replied "I did." Reincarnation, in which he apparently believed wholeheartedly, forms a theme in many of his stories. He also told Miss Price "I don't write the stories, I just copy them down from what the characters tell me."

The Whole Wide World movie poster
A rather fanciful publicity poster for the movie - The Whole Wide World

By early 1936 Hester Howard's cancer was entering the terminal stages. Bob was writing 16 to 18 hours a day, sending dozens of stories a week to publishers. His mother, who was still ambulatory to some extent, all but cut him off from the outside world. When his mother entered the final coma, he asked the attending physician if there was any hope. He was told there was not, that his mother had only hours to live. He went upstairs, typed a bit of poetry and left it in his typewriter, went out to his car, took a Colt .32 automatic pistol out of the glove compartment, put it to his head just over his right ear, and pulled the trigger. He lived about two hours. His mother died the next day. Robert E. Howard was only 30 years old.

Robert E. Howard's final words left  in his typewriter
Howard's final words left in his typewriter.

Howard's legacy goes far beyond Conan the Barbarian. His many, many stories-some are even now being discovered by researchers of the pulp-magazine era, with new Howard pseudonyms coming to light-were hastily written, but were the products of a gifted writer. At one time it was popular, among critics of the genre, to refer to Howard's talent as 'slapdash and derivative.' The critics, at the time, were unaware of the conditions under which Howard wrote. As awareness of those conditions has come to light, Howard is being recognized as a giant of literature, forced to use his talent in a very mundane way to support his family and pay for his mother's medical treatment in an economic depression of monumental proportions. The fact that he was able to produce what he did in the time that he had to produce it certainly makes him one of the most prolific writers in history. Had circumstances been different-had he not had to work in the genres he did for the reasons he had to work there--he would probably have become a novelist with the stature of a Steinbeck or a Hemingway.

Robert E Howard in front of his home in Cross Plains, Texas
Photos of Howard (framed with actual pickets from the original fence) are available for sale in the Robert E. Howard Museum in Cross Plains.

© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas" November 1, 2006 column

Books by Robert E. Howard
The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian Kull The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane

More on Robert E. Howard:

  • Barbarians at the City Limits - Arnold is from Austria, Conan is from Cross Plains, Texas by Brewster Hudspeth

  • Typing Conan Stories by Norris Chambers

  • Peaster, Texas - Robert E. Howard was born in Peaster before moving to his longtime home of Cross Plains.

  • Cross Plains, Texas

    The Weird Works Of Robert E. Howard ...
    The Whole Wide World
    Conan - The Complete Quest

    See Cross Plains, Texas

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