The Racial Consciousness of Robert E. Howard
“The Marchers of Valhalla,” a novelette by Robert E. Howard that did not see publication until 1972, is a clear parable about the Indo-European soul and its disintegration in the modern world. The story’s main character is a Texan named James Allison. Allison is the scion of an illustrious Texas family, and he says proudly to a lovely stranger: “My great-grandfather died at the Alamo, shoulder to shoulder with David Crockett. My grandfather rode with Jack Hayes and Bigfoot Wallace, and fell with three-quarters of Hood’s brigade. My oldest brother fell at Vimy Ridge, fighting with the Canadians, and the other died at the Argonne.” In a past life, Allison was Hialmar, a Scandinavian who helped conquer the Southwest long before the Spanish came. Such a story could be written only by Robert Ervin Howard.
Howard was born January 22 (some sources say 24), 1906. His family lived in rough-and-tumble oil boomtowns in Texas. Howard’s father was a doctor and his mother was an invalid. Dr. Isaac Howard was often gone for long periods, leaving young Robert alone to take care of his mother. This close bond between mother and son played a huge role in Howard’s life as well as his early death in 1936.
During the 1920s, the Howards lived in Cross Plains, in north-central Texas. Howard knew the city when it was home to only about 2,000 people. However, oilmen, riggers, roughnecks, and drillers followed the many oil booms, which meant bordellos and street violence. Rusty Burke, in a short biography of Howard, wrote that rapid change and frequent bloodletting gave Howard a tough outlook on life: “The influence of this boom-and-bust cycle on Howard’s later ideas about the growth and decline of civilization” contributed to his view “that societies are built by hardy pioneers, who are then followed by others who grow decadent and enjoy the fruits of the society but contribute nothing . . . .” Later, in letters to fellow pulp-fiction writers, Howard often vented his contempt for the Texas nouveaux riches.
Howard idealized the rough, uncivilized men who make up the pioneer races. In his fiction, such men are the protagonists, and Howard’s most famous creation, Conan the Barbarian, is a proudly independent savage from the mythical land of Cimmeria, who enjoys violence more than domesticity.
Like Friedrich Nietzsche, who suffered from physical and mental ailments his whole life, Howard’s admiration of masculine strength may have come from his own insecurities. Called a “sissy boy” by others for his bookishness and because he worked inside all day as a writer, Howard was an outcast from Cross Plains society. He also took digitalis for his weak heart—a fact that undoubtedly influenced his decision in around 1928 to begin to lift weights seriously and study boxing. During his short life, Howard was a scholarly recluse but also a man of action. He was also a steady writer who, in the Depression year of 1934, made $1,853.05 (roughly $33,899 in today’s money).
Because he was a working writer who was always conscious of the demands of the pulp market, Howard has often been called a hack by “serious” literary critics. For example, Howard does not enjoy the reputation of H.P. Lovecraft, the Anglo-Saxon supremacist, though Lovecraft and Howard kept up a strong and wide-ranging correspondence during the 1930s. In one exchange from 1935, Howard good-naturedly mocked Lovecraft’s support for Benito Mussolini and for the very idea of “civilization.”
Your friend Mussolini is a striking modern-day example. In that speech of his I heard translated he spoke feelingly of the expansion of civilization. From time to time he has announced; ‘The sword and civilization go hand in hand!’ ‘Wherever the Italian flag waves it will be as a symbol of civilization!’ ‘Africa must be brought into civilization!’ It is not, of course, because of any selfish motive that he has invaded a helpless country, bombing, burning and gassing both combatants and non-combatants by the thousands.
Oh, no, according to his own assertions it is all in the interests of art, culture and progress, just as the German war-lords were determined to confer the advantages of Teutonic Kultur on a benighted world, by fire and lead and steel. Civilized nations never, never have selfish motives for butchering, raping and looting; only horrid barbarians have those.
While Lovecraft fretted over the deterioration of Anglo-Saxon civilization in America, Howard hated the idea of civilization itself. For the Texan, civilization was a thin crust—a false reality that overlaid the innate barbarism of man. In one of the author’s most famous quotes, Howard claimed that barbarism “is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.” In many ways, Howard was an early anarcho-primitivist, the offspring of settlers who desired absolute freedom in the wilderness.
Despite his views on civilization, Howard’s fiction often shows an inclination towards some civilizations and peoples over others. Indeed, many of Howard’s best stories are about the conflict between masculine, Indo-European civilization and total barbarism. In “Black Canaan,” which was published in the June 1936 edition of Weird Tales, the magazine that published so many of Lovecraft’s stories, the son of a powerful local family in rural Arkansas comes home to put down a black rebellion against white neighbors. The leader of the rebellion is the conjure man Saul Stark, a native of South Carolina who claims descent from a Congo witch doctor. “Black Canaan” refers several times to the bloody legacy of slave rebellions (“The blacks had risen in 1845, and the red terror of that revolt was not forgotten . . . .”), and Stark’s occult power and his desire to turn this part of Arkansas into a black stronghold reflects Howard’s view of the anti-white animus and superstitious nature of blacks. In one scene, a beautiful quadroon witch reveal’s Stark’s plan:
Those black dogs? They are his slaves. If they disobey he kills them, or puts them in the swamp. For long we have looked for a place to begin our rule. We have chosen Canaan. You whites must go. And since we know that white people can never be driven away from their land, we must kill you all.
Fortunately, Canaan is populated by the sons of Texas and Arkansas pioneers—proud white men. They may be uncouth, but they are willing to defend their land with their lives.
In another Southern horror story, “Pigeons From Hell,” two New Englanders come across a zombie living in a dilapidated Southern mansion. Also set in that swampy region that straddles Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana, the message of this story is that no white American, regardless of where he was born, is totally free from suspicion of blacks.
In another Howard classic, “The Horror from the Mound,” published in Weird Tales in 1932, a Texas man destroys an undead aristocrat who had come to the Southwest in the 16th century. This tale puts racial distinctions bluntly: “Latin-Indian devils had no terrors for the Anglo-Saxon . . . .” The story reminds American readers that our nation is much older than 1776 and the Constitution. Similarly, “The Marchers of Valhalla” notes that North America was settled long ago by Indo-Europeans.
The old rivalries between Anglo-Saxon and Celt, Germanic and Latin mattered less on the American frontier. America was an Anglo-Celtic nation, but its founding stock also included Spanish and French Catholics and Dutch Calvinists. Americans should not descend into the old, inter-ethnic rivalries of Europe; we are a unique people who should take pride in our Celto-Germanic and Latin civilizations. This pride should be our bulwark against the vileness of the modern, multiculturalist world.
Howard spent his life creating brave heroes, but was felled by tragedy. On June 8, 1936, his mother slipped into her final coma. When the nurse told Robert that his mother would never regain consciousness, the 30-year-old writer sat down at his Underwood typewriter and wrote:
All fled, all done
So lift me on the pyre.
The feat is over
And the lamps expire.
Howard then shot himself and died eight hours later. So ended the life of one of America’s greatest writers and visionaries.
Every American man should read Robert E. Howard. His tales of brave Indo-Europeans stir the soul, and short stories such as “The Black Stone” are disquieting and highly literary. Howard’s heroes, whether they are the Cimmerian Conan, the Texan conqueror of Central Asia El Borak, or the gun fighting Puritan Solomon Kane, remind us that brave white men have long wandered the globe.
The Indo-Europeans rode down from the steppes in conquest. Alexander and his men captured much of Asia and left behind blond, light-skinned descendants. Roman soldiers marched all the way to western China, the ancestral home of the red-haired Sogdians and Tocharians. Indo-Europeans settled North America, Central America, South America, Australia, New Zealand, and southern Africa. Portuguese merchants and priests modernized the Japanese city of Nagasaki, while British imperialists established Hong Kong and Singapore.
This lust for adventure and creation may lie dormant in modern American men, but it is still there. Howard certainly knew that, and we must remember it, too. This era will pass. Howard teaches that we must embrace the ancient, the pre-modern, and the masculine.