No. 12 – A Member Journal of Robert E. Howard: Electronic Amateur Press Association
Special thanks to Brian Kunde for his assistance in completing the article.
1. People Can Disagree
Believe it or not, I disagree with L. Sprague de Camp over several issues. Yet I remain a fan. The most flagrant example of this disagreement is de Camp’s support of the status quo in the 1960s. There was an ad in the second issue of International Science Fiction magazine that split the SF community into supporters of the Vietnam War and those that opposed the war. De Camp (and plenty of others) signed the pro-war side and Isaac Asimov (and plenty of others) signed the anti-war side.
After the 1970 Kent State shootings, where 4 unarmed students were shot dead by members of the Ohio National Guard, Neil Young wrote the classic “Ohio.” De Camp wrote a terrible letter to the Philadelphia Sunday Bulletin titled “Always be Polite to a Man with a Gun.”
It would be easy for me to strongly dislike de Camp over these issues. I have pretty strong feelings about politics. Yet, I remain a de Camp fan. I can’t really knock the whole man’s work because I disagree with him on some specific issues.
In the collection Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Lifetime of Letters Asimov had this to say about their disagreements: “[de Camp’s] rationality is without peer. We do not always agree on the issues of the day, and our temperaments are sufficiently different for us to look at the world, sometimes in different ways. But even when he disagrees with me, he does so honestly, logically, and calmly. Nor has he ever taken umbrage with me for disagreeing with him.”
2. The Gifted Child Grows Up
Lewis Terman, a researcher and highly influential pioneer in educational psychology, (he created the Stanford-Binet IQ test) got it into his head to study about 1,500 high IQ children. He monitored them from youth to old age. De Camp was one of the gifted children.
De Camp explains in Time and Chance: “In 1922, when I was at Hollywood High School, Doctor Terman gave intelligence tests to 160,000 California school children. From the results, he and his staff chose 1,500 high scorers. During the ensuing decades, they followed these subjects and their careers to see how far the tests could predict a subject’s success in school and in later life.”
A good book on Lewis Terman is Terman’s Kids by Joel N. Shurkin. De Camp is mentioned briefly. The book concentrates mostly on Terman and how his research was often flawed by his interference in the children’s lives. One of the most lucrative successful of “Terman’s Kids” was Jess Oppenheimer, the creator of the I Love Lucy television show.
De Camp, again from Time and Chance, tells of one of his follow up meetings with Terman: “Citing my own personality problems, I asked Terman if I should have myself psychoanalyzed. He answered, “No. For one thing I don’t think you need it.”
This was around 1949. De Camp was a successful writer, happily married, a proud father, and he had a circle of colleagues with whom with he shared professional and personal experiences. No doubt, Terman was correct, de Camp had a pretty good life.
But de Camp mentioning personality problems raises an eyebrow. One of de Camp’s best short stories is “Judgment Day.” (I wrote an article about this story a few years ago comparing it to REH’s “The Supreme Moment.”) De Camp stated it was one of the most autobiographical stories he ever wrote.
The main character in the story is Wade Ormont. Wade, as a child, was skinny, stubborn, and precociously intellectual. At school he was bullied and held lifelong grudges against his tormentors. Wade takes notes of people talking (similar in the way it is said de Camp took notes of conversations to find humor.) Wade grows up to be a scientist and discovers a simple way to start a nuclear reaction. Publishing his paper on the subject will almost certainly allow some goofball to destroy the world. He publishes the paper.
The story is similar to REH’s “The Supreme Moment.” With increasing study it becomes clearer that de Camp and REH were quite a bit alike in certain ways. An obvious example is the way de Camp sympathized with REH’s views on bullying, and always spoke highly of REH’s exercise regime turning himself into a man of mostly solid muscle. I understand why de Camp was attracted to REH and especially Conan.
Lewis Terman published The Gifted Child Grows Up in 1947. This is two years before the previously mentioned visit. The book does not identify any of the subjects by name. I believe, but can’t be 100% sure that de Camp is discussed on page 102 as subject M234:
“M234, who is at the upper level of category 2 [some maladjustment], has had considerable success in his chosen field. His college record was excellent, and he has held fairly good positions. However, his personal adjustment has always been unsatisfactory. He grew up avoiding sports and the usual recreational pursuits of boys, and devoted much time to reading, with the result that he developed an introverted, withdrawn personality, which made social contacts difficult. In his relationship with others he is on the defensive and sometimes gives the impression of being hostile or unfriendly. Endowed with a certain cleverness and wit, he has used it to the point of rudeness in compensating for his sense of inferiority. These feelings of inadequacy extended to matters of sex. He sought psychiatric help for this problem and a few years later was married. Professional success and a happy marriage have done much to help, but there appears to be sufficient basic weakness in his personality adjustment to make his rating 2. He was not called for military service because of his important scientific work in a war industry.”
Again, I can’t be 100% sure, but it sounds like de Camp or at least Wade Ormont to me. If it is not about de Camp, then it at least shows the type of intense psychological scrutiny the “Terman Kids” were subjected to.
There is no doubt in my mind that de Camp’s experience of being under Terman’s observation made him susceptible to observing others with the same scrutiny. Like it or not, de Camp called things as he saw them. As Asimov said, “even when he disagrees with me, he does so honestly, logically, and calmly.”
3. We Hate Him for His Success
don’t like the metaphor “beating a dead horse” because I like horses. But I
like revisiting the same issues over and over again hoping to get different
results. (This is, of course, a classic definition of insanity.)
So call me insane. Or at least a category 2.
On and off for the last several years I’ve had back and forth discussion with fellow REH fans about de Camp’s role in promoting REH. Arguably, most of the psychoanalyzing started not with de Camp but with E. Hoffman Price in his introduction to Skullface and others. As I understand it, most take the view that de Camp and others did REH a disservice by calling REH maladjusted, overly dependent on his mother, and leading with the suicide in most articles, books, bio, etc. Glenn Lord also mentioned REH’s devotion to his mother and reprinted the suicide couplet on the back page of every issue of The Howard Collector.
My view is that is wasn’t much of a disservice since the Lancer Conan books sold in the millions and created the REH boom that earned the heirs, and all others associated with REH a bunch of money.
I suppose most fans would argue that at the height of this monetary success (with de Camp running the well-oiled Conan machine) REH’s actual literary rep was not overly good. And those critics of REH would cite de Camp’s (and others) analysis of REH being maladjusted, overly dependent on his mother, etc. in their criticisms. True enough, but the critics were criticizing REH’s literature. The biographical stuff is incidental, perhaps, in their minds, supporting their argument of the unworthiness of the literature, but still incidental in what was mainly a criticism of the literature.
De Camp, of course, loved the literature, and wanted readers to love the literature as well. Plainly, if readers loved the literature, de Camp made money. So there is no way in Hell, that de Camp meant for his psychological comments on REH to discourage readers from buying and loving the product.
In the late 1970’s, hardcore SF types always criticized de Camp for devoting so much time to Conan. Robert E. Howard was of no interest to most Science Fiction fans. Science fiction, at this time, was selling better than fantasy, and science fiction was the more respected art form. De Camp was constantly defending Conan, REH, and Sword and Sorcery.
Isaac Asimov, even being the genius he was, over generalized about Sword and Sorcery as much as any SF fan and reviewer. Asimov wrote in an editorial in his self-named magazine: “The double standard is very evident in sword-and-sorcery, in which the sword-hero (brawn) is pitted against the sorcery-villain (brain), with brawn winning every time. The convention is, furthermore, that brawn is always on the side of goodness and niceness (a proposition which, in real life, is very dubious).”
The bulk of the negative critics called the stories ultra violent adolescent fantasies not worthy of their success long before de Camp entered the picture. De Camp’s defense of Sword & Sorcery was a fannish defense against the prevailing literary view that held all pulp fiction as sub-standard.
De Camp defending heroic fantasy as mere entertainment was de Camp trying for a strong defense of the genre. It was clearly not meant as a putdown. De Camp was sticking his neck out, defending his favorite form of literature.
It is only in recent decades, thanks to the incredible success of Star Wars and Stephen King, that critics are now giving genre fiction a fair shot. You don’t ignore a billion-dollar industry. You jump on the bandwagon.
A year or so ago, a few blogs/websites/etc. attacked REH, mostly making stuff up from whole cloth. Mark Finn issued a manifesto announcing REH fans’ decision to protect REH from blatant falsehoods. It isn’t a terrible idea. (I’m a shield wall for de Camp!) The harkening back to the past and mentioning L. Sprague de Camp seems incongruous to a forward perspective though. It prompted another blogger, Ben Peek (not a fan of REH) to post a response that a “Shield Wall and Finn’s excellent hate of L. Sprague de Camp really just add to that craziness, and help keep it going […].”
REH is more or less ensconced as a great fantasy writer who created durable and
classic characters. Still pretty
much the fantasy characters though. Stephen King called the other stuff
unremarkable or abysmal. De Camp spoke of it favorably.
Nowadays, all of the de Camp-edited Conan stories are available in their original form. Most of his changes to the stories published in Weird Tales were very slight. Sometimes it was just a comma or two. He also changed spelling inconsistencies like replacing Cush with Kush in different stories, or perceived internal inconsistencies like Tarantia instead of Tamar in “The Scarlet Citadel.” He also changed some racially divisive wording in “The Hour of the Dragon.” The non-published stories had slightly more changes. Like changing “long neck” to “long reach” in “The God in the Bowl.” “The Black Stranger” was the most severely edited.
Yet still one can read comments on the Internet that state de Camp rewrote all the stories, edited the guts out of them, etc. Obviously incorrect, but heaven help you if you try to correct these canards so often repeated as dogma.
Camp, of course, was not the only author to rewrite or edit REH or to include
REH stories interspersed in a series.
Almuric was most likely edited
by someone, Glenn Lord, Lin Carter, Ramsey Campbell, Richard Lupoff, August
Derleth and others I’m forgetting all edited/rewrote/added to REH at one time
or another. The Cormac Mac Art
series by Andrew J. Offutt interspersed REH stories as volume 4 of the series. All of de Camp’s
“tricks” were imitated by others, just with less success.
De Camp is often described as greedy. Well, greedy, is almost a backhanded way of admitting the truth that he turned the character into a monetary success. You can’t be greedy unless there is something of value to be greedy over. So I think those that use that appellation, realize that de Camp helped make the character a success.
It seems that the most vocal majority of REH fans hate de Camp for their perceived adulteration of REH’s work. Which is far worse in their mind, than in reality. That is at the root of the bashing. All the other stuff they pile on is ad hominem attack, to support and justify a demonization they have already made in their own minds. It's not exactly that they hate him for helping make the character a success (not something they're likely to admit in any case) but for his successful adulteration of the work, and for his monetary success in doing so. That, in their eyes, is adding insult to injury. Impugning his motivation as solely monetary rather than as originally and primarily a shared love of Howard's work is their attempt to strike back and lash out against this "insult." Which, I think, makes the case that what they are doing is not on the order of people disagreeing honestly, logically, and calmly, but that of zealots going to any lengths for their cause.
It's evident that de Camp never fully understood the nature or extent of his detractors' hatred. He tried to get his mind around it in his autobiography without much success. He did fictionalize a similar situation in one of his Reginald Rivers stories, "The Honeymoon Dragon." An editor of a trade journal on time travel (an obvious stand-in for a SF fan editing a fanzine) developed an inexplicable hatred of Rivers, powerful enough to drive him to attempt to murder Rivers and his wife. Rivers (standing in for de Camp) basically put it down to the basic irrationality of man, but, interestingly, also speculated somewhat along the lines that his opponent, who could only dream of leading an adventurous life in other eras like Rivers, envied him that life. In real world terms, it's the envy of the fans for the writer.
De Camp nurtured REH to lucrative success, did the research (still being used by new scholars) to support his biography of REH, and was the prime spokesman and promoter of REH for decades. During his lifetime he was mostly rewarded and, in the main, praised for doing so. Honest critics such as Michael Moorcock, in Conan the Phenomenon, repeated this truth just recently.
So here we are, 11 years after de Camp’s passing and 40 years after the creation of REHupa, and his role is still discussed, nowadays most often attacked and misrepresented, on an almost daily basis at any REH website or blog. So in a lot of ways, those that hate de Camp, hate him for his success. This is, of course, as insane as my expecting different results with this same experiment.