Monday, July 13, 2009

The Cave Inside Us All

Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) , the creator of Conan the Cimmerian, of Solomon Kane, and Kull of Valusia, wrote of having been born out of his time. “…I am infinitely thankful that I am no younger,” he wrote. “I could wish to be older, much older.” He spoke in his letters of how he’d just missed the frontier days. Had he lived his thirty years a mere thirty years before, he would have been in the middle of the final settlement of the American frontier. Sixty or ninety years before and he would have been a pioneer.

Yet, he was a pioneer in his way. He was certainly the first in his home town of Cross Plains, Texas to make his living writing fiction. He was one of the first in the entire state. But I don’t think he ever saw that life as being as fulfilling as wresting his livelihood directly from untamed nature would have been. He wanted to have been born a barbarian, and not because he held an idealized view of the Noble Savage. He found civilization too filled with parasites to enjoy it. That is, the kind of people we see around us now who brought the current economic downturn upon us due to their own greed.

Howard is one of my favorite writers, and recently we’ve had the publication by Del Rey of two collected volumes of his work that really showcase Bob at his best: The Best of Robert E. Howard, Volumes 1 and 2, subtitled “Crimson Shadows” and “Grim Lands.” I recently finished these, mostly rereading stories that I’d read once upon a time.

At the same time as I was reading the Howard collections, I’ve also been reading The Lost Notebooks of Loren Eiseley (1907-1977). Eiseley was a very different fellow than Howard in many ways, being an academic and educator. But Eiseley was an anthropologist, a man with an absolute passion and fascination for the past, which comes through in all his writing. And in that way he and Howard were much the same. Howard loved the study of history, mostly the written history of humankind. Eiseley was more interested in the earliest human world, before there was any history as we know it. He was interested in that time when humans were becoming separated from the animal world in which we evolved. Though, judging from Howard’s first professional sale, a story about cavemen called “Spear and Fang,” maybe they weren’t so different in that way either.

Just this morning I finished a short essay by Eiseley that made me think of Howard. Loren wrote of being attracted to items that are useless in today’s world, a large club-like bolt, a broken shard of blue glass that he spent time shaping into a kind of spear point. But they might mean the difference between life and death if you lived in a more primitive world. Eiseley too seemed born out of his time. Maybe he was even born out of his species; he wrote so intimately of the natural world.

What is it about some people that they live in this world but dream of others? Neither Eiseley nor Howard held idealized views of the wondrous past. They knew that life in the savage world is often nasty, brutish, and short. But something in that world attracted them, invoked them perhaps. Could it be that they both understood, better than most of us, the true nature of humankind? We are all old souls under our clothes.
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37 comments:

Travis Erwin said...

I recently traveled through Cross Plains and thought of you when i saw the sign for his museum. Wish I would have had time to stop.

X. Dell said...

I always thought I should've been born in the 1940s. I think I could have fit into the '60s better than I could the '80s.

In short, I can relate.

laughingwolf said...

either old souls... or aliens?

Steve Malley said...

I actually feel pretty at home in my own time. I mean, yeah, I have this deep, raging affinity for the 20's through the 40's, and yes, I often think it'd be even better to be born 30 years from now, or 60 or 100, when the miracles keep on coming. But mostly, pretty much at home.

Travis said...

Your enthusiasm for these works makes me interested in sampling them. I've never read any of Howard and I don't recognize Eiseley at all.

Charles Gramlich said...

Travis Erwin, it's well worth a stop and doesn't take long to tour. You might have to stop at the Cross Plains library, however, to get someone to open the house. It doesn't have a permanent staff.

X. Dell, mainly I wish I'd discovered writing earlier and been able to really focus on it when I was in my 20s.

laughingwolf, maybe reptiles or ape men.

Steve Malley, I really appreciate the advantages of technology and indoor plumbing. I wouldn't have wanted to miss out on those, but replicators would be nice.

Travis, Eisely's most famous book is "The Immense Journey" and that's probalby the easiest to find. His best work, to me, is the Night Country. I have two copies of it, one at home and one at work.

Inside our hands, outside our hearts said...

Charles,

I have always thought I was born in the wrong era. I have always been seduced by the early 1900's, more specifically 1912. I am sure why, but I have felt drawn to it my whole life. Complicated times and yet so simple. If I had the chance I would travel trhough time and find out why I feel more at home, if you will, than I do in the now.

Nice piece Charles. You have given me some new things to read, thank you.

soft love,
t

Cullen Gallagher said...

I never realized Howard died so young. I just read the circumstances on Wikipedia - so tragic.

Scott said...

Charles,

I've been caled an old soul...sometimes I wonder if I'd have been better off in a different age, but I,too, like the modern conveniences.

JR's Thumbprints said...

I'd like to think that any thoughts about the true nature of mankind led them totheir fictional worlds, but it's funny haw we get from point A to point B.

ivan said...

Perhaps because I can't trace my family history forther back than my great gtreat gradnfather, I at least share Howard's fascination for the neolithic past. Lots there. Kostenki people making their yurts out of mammoth tusks, livng in the felt igloos, dressed like Indians. Cimmeerians, actually. Howard would have loved those eras.

the walking man said...

I can think of other era's I may have been better suited for by temperament but I honestly know that to try to capture those times and bring them forward would be pure whimsy on my part.

So for me I will walk unflinchingly through the days I have and only yearn for them to be as kind to others as they are to me.

Charles Gramlich said...

Tara, Howard spoke at times, and I've heard others say similar things, about reincarnation being the reason someone feels so attached to a past time. I'm pretty skeptical of reincarnation myself but there are weird things that happen.

Cullen Gallagher, yes, only 30 years old. And really physically at the height of his own personal health.

Scott, yeah, microwaves, sushi, showers. It would be hard to give those up, but if we'd never known them I guess it wouldn't matter.

JR, or from point A to point sigma in some cases.

ivan, It's virtually impossible for me to see those times or imagine them without an overlay of romance. It might be good for many of us to go back to those days for a few days to see how hard they were. We might appreciate our modern lives more.

Mark, by temperment I might have been more suited to a world like Victorian England where the upper classes at least did a lot of reading and writing.

Jon said...

I love Robert E Howard's work and I have that same nostalgia for simpler times but I know that its misplaced. We may be old souls in new clothes, but so are the bankers. There have always been parasites. We can dream of fighting off the boss with an Aquilonian broadsword but I think that’s about taking control more than nostalgia for simple times.

I like the 21st century :-) And if we're honest, it's much easier to say "shove this job" and head off round the world for adventure now than it ever was before. Life used to be simpler because there were fewer options.

- Jon

Cloudia said...

Yes, we are old souls in newer containters.
"civilization too filled with parasites to enjoy it. That is, the kind of people we see around us now who brought the current economic downturn upon us due to their own greed."
this consensus is growing. A Hopi medicine man I had the privlege to hear said that "The rich wil be hunted down like dogs."
All created equal whe we pay one millions and other must live on the street. something's worng with the dream!

Aloha-

Comfort Spiral

Lana Gramlich said...

But isn't the grass always greener, whether you're talking about another job, state, country or yes, even time? That's not to say that I wouldn't have prefered to live in early Iron Age Wales (before it was even Wales,) of course...
Also, you're sessy under your clothes. Mmm MMMMM! ;)

Charles Gramlich said...

Jon, I do too. For one thing, many of us today have far more leisure time to contemplate adventure than people did in the past. And you're right, there have always been parasites. I figure that's the way the first Shaman's survived.

Cloudia, I know there have always been the greedy ones, but they seem able in the modern world to hurt far more people than ever before.

Lana Gramlich, yes, I think you're right. We always want what we don't have, or especially what we can't have. no you.

Erik Donald France said...

Nice intertwining. Makes perfect sense, the post and what they dreamed of.

Wil said...

I too used to wish that I was like 15-20 or so years older than I am. I thought that it would have been cool to have been a teen in the late 60s to witness all of that. Perhaps I could have bought a 70 Hemi Cuda when they only cost 4-5 grand and would have been smart enough to have taken care of it, LOL.

As I've gotten older I guess I have backed off from those wishes and resigned myself to being happy where I am. I dig the technology and all that which we're seeing now and I'm not too old to enjoy it. Still haven't got that 70 Hemi Cuda though, and unless I hit the lottery, I never will.

Wil Harrison.com

Middle Ditch said...

Such a short life! He would have hated living today I think.

I would not like to be born today.

You're missing an episode of MD. I'm missing you there. X

jodi said...

Charles, sometimes the old pearl of "I'd like to start over and know what I know now" sometimes seems so very true, but I am content in my own skin, on my own time.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I remember reading Darwin's Century many years ago. Thanks for the reminder.

JennyMac said...

This is great exposure for me. Excellent post.

Charles Gramlich said...

Erik, they were two of a kind in many ways.

Wil, I've often wished I could make my money today and spend it in the fifites, sixties, seventies. I always imagined myself buying an early GTO.

Middle Ditch, I think you're right. He would have thought today was so much worse than his day, and in many ways he's right.

jodi, I was thinking a variation of that very thought last night. Was thinking of being born earlier and writing in the genres I knew were coming.

pattinase, that's actually Eiseley's weakest book to me. It has almost none of the poetry of his more naturalism style work. I read it a couple years back though for some research I was doing.

laughingwolf said...

methinks a different breed of alien, altogether...

ARCHAVIST said...

I've still got so much Howard to catch up on - on a related point I've just read and enjoyed Robert Jordan's Conan the Invincible

David Cranmer said...

I've read several bios on Howard but have yet to read his work which I will correct soon. He is an interesting character with one of the saddest endings I've ever read. And I'm just the opposite of Howard because I want to skip ahead and see how its all going to turn out.

SQT said...

If I belong in another era, it's the romanticized version of a simpler time. Like you Charles, I like indoor plumbing. Heck, I'm pretty happy with the computer too. But I also have to raise kids in the internet age and that's a scary prospect. So yeah, I wish our culture still had some naiveté left-- but I can't change it. Guess I'll have to learn to deal with it.

BernardL said...

You've dreamed of Talera for quite some time, my friend. We write fiction from our dreams of other worlds or realities. We right wrongs and further justice where none exists in our everyday lives. Howard lost his Mom and his dog. It carved him up inside because with all his imaginings he couldn't imagine life without them. The rest of us then and since lost untold multitudes of his creations.

Jack said...

I've often had those feelings of wanting to live in another era, but I'm not sure if I could have made it in another time. I'm having enough trouble making it in this one.

R. E. Howard is one of my favorites too. In junior high school I listed him as my favorite author and nobody knew who he was. That was the late 60's. No one gave me any guff about it. They just thought I was a little odd.

Charles Gramlich said...

laughingwolf, there are many out there among us.

ARCHAVIST, I was hungry for more Conan when Jordan's Conan books came out and read most of them fairly early. I then read probably another 20 or so pastiches before I really burned out on them.

David Cranmer, yes, there is a part of me that wants to live to see the future, which I hope is cool. Starting with those "best of" books for Howard would be a good introduction.

SQT, I sometimes wish for a kind of steampunk era, with technology advanced in some areas and not in others. I'm glad my son is 21, although I still worry a lot about him in this world.

BernardL, you're absolutely right. By writing, especially writing heroic fantasy, we're really trying to create those kinds of worlds for ourselves. A world where people are appreciated for what they have to offer and not just surface looks, and where justice can be served and good people get just rewards.

Jack, When I was in junior high school I was torn between ERB, L'Amour, and Bradbury as my favorite authors. Howard really began to impact me a bit later.

Rick said...

Charles, this is one of my favorite posts. I love the comparison and contrast between the two men. Now I'm off to read some more Howard. You've inspired me.

Charles Gramlich said...

Rick, thanks. You can't go wrong with REH.

Shelby said...

I think I could've fit into the 40s way of life... or 30s maybe.

Charles Gramlich said...

Shelby, I usually think of earlier times than that, but I would have liked to have been writing during the days of the pulps and the early paperback explosion.

Barbara Martin said...

I have always had a yearning to live in the past, and I'm certain I would be able to as a farm I lived on for a time had no electricity, no running water, an outdoor facility, with a wood stove to cook on and heat the house. Those were the best years of my life...I loved it. Conveniences are fine, while they work. If they stopped tomorrow, I would be able to return to a rustic way of life having already done it. It's not a difficult life, just very busy, i.e. like using a hand pump to get your drinking water.

Charles Gramlich said...

Babara martin, I've cut wood for fires myself, and done many of the things that I'd need to do in an earlier time. But I think it would cut into my reading time. lol.