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.