Austin, TX: Monkeybrain Books, 2006, pp. 264.
I am generally not inclined to the biographical approach to literary analysis, or toward reading biography generally, but in Robert Howard's case I found myself making an exception. I suppose that is because of the kind of writer Howard was, concisely summed up Joe Lansdale in his introduction to Mark Finn's study of the creator of Conan the Barbarian. He credits Howard with not just a willingness to "wade into . . . [the] messy end of the literary pool wearing hip boots and a smile," and a knack for "masculine prose, action, and manly adventure . . . equivalent, if not the superior" of Hemingway's, but also a "special ability . . . to tap into the subconscious, into the true and often not-so-polite desires of what Freud called the Id . . . [especially] the male Id," which endows his best work with a "power . . . a rawness, a wet-bone visceral relentlessness" that is rarely equaled.
I wondered where all that came from, and that led me to Finn's book. And indeed, Finn's book devotes a great deal of attention to the formative influence of Howard's family (their constant, restless movement; the close relationship between Howard and his mother) and of the small-town, early twentieth century Texas in which he grew up (the violence and corruption that went with oil boom-and-bust in a place not far removed from the days of the frontier; the stifling anti-intellectualism and conformism of a Southwestern version of Main Street; the culture of the roughneck and the tradition of the "tall tale").
Reasonable as this approach is in the essentials, Finn emphasizes them to the point that his book reads like an overcorrection of the neglect with which he charges other biographers (particularly L. Sprague de Camp), especially given how little Finn says about Howard's literary and intellectual influences, an aspect of Howard's creative life I would have liked to see treated more thoroughly. It does not help that many of the details of Howard's life are scanty, and that there seemed to be little here that did not crop up before in the course of my earlier reading about Howard, casual as it has been.
Finn does the best he can with the available bits. His interpretation of them is well-grounded, compared with many of his predecessors (whom de Camp similarly took task for their "jejune" attempts to psychoanalyze Howard in the chapter on him in Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers, de Camp's own attachment to an "Oedipal" view of Howard notwithstanding). Still, while this is methodically admirable, I found myself wishing for more. I suppose part of this is my wanting to see the speculations so many have made about the author (inevitably made, I suppose, given that special ability to tap the unconscious, and the "wet-bone visceral relentlessness" Lansdale writes of) confirmed, or refuted, or at least acknowledged, and perhaps even to see Howard (or at least, his imagination) somehow emerge larger than life, like the creations for which he is remembered three-quarters of a century after he ended his life.