Friday, May 15, 2009


I finished Conan the Warrior and thought: Was Robert E. Howard a racist? I don't know a lot about his personal life, and I realize the three stories in the Conan book were written in 1935 and 1936, but I have to wonder. Is he a racist, or does his Conan character show his contempt for "civilized" culture?

The realist in me says Howard thought blacks were inferior. The way they are written about as being savages and lusting after white women makes me think the author was just playing into the common stereotypes of the time.

The optimist says Howard was using Conan as a critique of white "civilized" culture. To buy that you have to say the stories are seen mostly though Conan's point of view. Leaders are indulgent, overweight, and ignorant. They have lost track of the enemies at their door,and when they do find them, they look down on them. Conan sees this and hates these people. Black characters are still savages, but white culture doesn't get off any easier.

The book itself is excellent. Howard's writing stands the test of time. It's as bloody as it is creepy, and he knows how to turn a phrase. That nagging bit about the untamed black men lurking in the jungle, though, doesn't play as well in 2009.

When it comes to writers from a less enlightened time period (Nietzsche is another who comes to mind), you have to take that era into consideration when analyzing their work. Granted, there have always been people who aren't racist or sexist, but are still products of their culture. An open-minded reader should be able to go into that type of story without those values ruining the experience. A less-than-open-minded reader will have a real problem getting through it.

I really suspect Howard is a bit of both things. He was the aforementioned product of the times and a bit racist, though he probably didn't look at it that way. But at the same time he has little respect for "civilized," white culture. We have gotten too soft, which is even more true these days.

It doesn't make Howard any less a writer. In all honesty, when all the normal smoke clears, I think you will find that Howard is actually stronger for it. His work still stands the test of time, and he is still popular. His Conan character thrives in other media (the recent Dark Horse Comics series is one of those), and while the racism is downplayed for modern audiences, Howard's original stories still containing the equal bit of contempt and attraction to the unknown and misunderstood.

If Howard were put on the stand and asked under oath if he thought blacks were inferior to whites, I'm not a hundred percent sure what his answer would be, but I do think that somewhere in it he would describe how all culture has become a mockery of anything rational. He would say that all the trappings of modern (for that time) society has robbed mankind of its survival instincts, and I think he would praise the "savages" for their ability to thrive and conquer in such a world, though he would admit that the blacks of his culture were vastly different than those in his stories.

Make no mistake. I'm not saying Howard is a David Duke type (who wrote racist books under a pseudonym). I'm saying he was, if nothing else, a man writing of his time, but wishing he were in another era, and it all came out in Conan.

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