Robert Ervin Howard was an acclaimed American author, who wrote many short stories in a wide variety of genres. He was born in Peaster, Texas on January 2, 1906 to a travelling country doctor, Issac Howard, and his wife, Hester. Due to the nature of his father’s job, Howard lived in several towns during a period of oil booms. The author developed a love for stories and poetry at an early age, and his writing was influenced by those that he read, the scenarios he witnessed and the people he grew up around.
Howard’s parents’ relationship began to decline, when he was a child, and he observed them fighting often. His mother’s gentle nature had caused her to contract tuberculosis earlier in life, after nursing sick relatives. She was his primary influence in the appreciation of literature, and read stories and poetry to him daily. After he began attending school, Howard’s love of reading grew, even though he found the educational system stifling. His run-ins with bullies, as well as his resentment of authority, contributed greatly to this.
Texas was a relatively lawless state in the early 20th century and, as the son of a doctor, Howard was frequently exposed to the effects of violence. There were many gunfights, lynching, Indian raids and feuds, which all contributed to the plots behind many of the stories that he would go on to write.
Childhood and Teenage Years
Howard displayed a natural talent for writing, and was encouraged to do so by his mother and teachers. By the age of nine he began composing stories, which were mostly tales of violent historical fiction. Many people believed he was eidetic, because he would recite long poems for his friends from memory after reading them once or twice.
In 1919, the family settled in Cross Plains, Central Texas, where his father bought and extensively renovated a house. In February 1920, the town became part of the oil boom and Howard resented the changes that this brought. There was overcrowding, the roads disintegrated, and the crime rate surged to match the rise in population. Howard wrote about his dislike of oil booms in a letter to the editor of Weird Tales in 1931, stating ‘I’ll say one thing about an oil boom; it will teach a kid that Life’s a pretty rotten thing as quick as anything I can think of.’
At the age of 15, Howard began reading pulp magazines which spurred him to begin creating a variety of series characters. He began submitting his stories to Argosy and Adventure, and received a trail of rejections. Without a mentor, the author began self-educating about what publishers were looking for, and tailoring his tales to match.
A year later, Hester accompanied her son to a boarding house in a nearby city, Brownwood, to finish his senior year of high school. This move allowed him to meet more people who were also interested in literature. He began writing amateur papers with two friends, Tevis Clyde Smith and Truett Vinson, and exchanging long letters about poetry and philosophy with them. The boys encouraged each other’s writing endeavours, and Vinson introduced Howard to The Tattler, Brownwood High’s newspaper. The first of the author’s stories to ever be printed were included in the December 1922 issue, Golden Hope Christmas and West is West, and won gold and silver prizes respectively.
After he graduated in May 1923, Howard and his mother moved back to Cross Plains. He began obsessively following a rigorous exercise routine which involved cutting down oak trees and chopping them into firewood, lifting weights, punching a bag and various forms of springing exercises. This allowed him to become more muscular and imposing, and facilitated him boxing more frequently.
Professional Writing Career
After working in several odd jobs around Cross Plains, Howard returned to Brownwood in 1924 to do a course in stenography at Howard Payne College. During this period, after years of steady rejection, his first story was accepted by a struggling pulp magazine, Weird Tales. This caused Howard to drop out of college at the end of the semester and return home. Shortly after, he received news that another one of his stories was to be published by the same magazine.
After moving back home, Howard began writing his first novel. This was a semi-autobiographical book fashioned after Martin Eden, by Jack London. Even though it was finished by 1928, the novel wasn’t published until several years after the author’s death. It wasn’t very popular with readers, but has been a learning tool for those interested in Howard’s life story.
Even though Weird Tales began accepting many of his stories, they paid upon publication and, to supplement his income, Howard began working as an oil reporter. This led to his employment in another series of jobs, with each one lasting for a brief period. He was also writing lots of poems at the time but stopped after 1930 and began concentrating on short stories, for higher paying markets. As his emotional instability increased, from working long hours, Howard began participating in boxing matches. This, coupled with his writing, became an important outlet for his anger and frustration.
Robert E. Howard – The Final Days
By 1936, most of Howard’s fiction writing was devoted to westerns. His novel, A Gent from Bear Creek, was due to be published that year, and it appeared as if the author was finally leaving the pulp magazine scene behind and becoming a more established writer. His life outside of his writing, however, was becoming increasingly difficult. Most of his friends had gotten married, and/or moved away, Weird Tales had fallen behind on their payments and, after suffering from tuberculosis for many years, his mother was dying.
In June 1936, Hester slipped into a coma. Howard, along with his father and family friends, remained at her bedside without sleeping for extended periods. On the morning of June 11th, one of his mother’s nurses confirmed that she would remain comatose until her death. Howard walked out to his car, took a pistol out of the glove compartment and shot himself in the head. Despite efforts from his father, and another doctor, to save his life, the author died 8 hours later. His mother, Hester, passed away the following day.
After his death, it became apparent that Howard had planned his suicide. Throughout his mother’s declining health, he had hinted to his father about killing himself, he had also given his agent instructions about what to do if he died, borrowed a gun from a friend and bought a burial plot for the entire family. The author’s mental health was questionable, as it is believed that he suffered from depression for much of his life. On June 14, 1936, a double funeral was held for Robert and Hester Howard, after which they were both buried in Greenleaf Cemetery in Brownwood, Texas.