By Nicole Emmelhainz-Carney
Background and Methodology
Like many before me, I have found Howard’s letters to be an unbelievably useful source for primary data collection and analysis. For the brief analysis that follows, I used The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, 1923-1929, edited by Rob Roehm. I gave a presentation of this research at Howard Days 2019 for the Glenn Lord Symposium. Ben Friberg’s video of the presentation (as well as my co-presenter’s presentations) are on YouTube.
I’m applying a methodological approach called “distant reading” for this research. Distant reading is a process developed through the Digital Humanities (a fairly newer interdisciplinary academic field that combines technological approaches to tradition Humanities research) that allows for large amounts of text to be analyzed through different lenses. As opposed to a “close reading,” where in the researcher would typically limit their primary data to just one text (or one part of a text), distant reading allows for researchers to observe patterns across many texts and much larger datasets. Distant reading provides the possibility, then, to generate better understandings of a writer’s work over time: where attention lies more in the text (determined by numbers and usage) and what that focus may mean for the whole of the writings.
There are many openly-accessible software platforms that allow anyone to conduct distant readings; I used Voyant (https://voyant-tools.org/) for this project. Voyant has a fairly low learning curve and allows its users to easily visual data through a variety of means, include general information about the text (such as total words), word clouds, and trends within the dataset.
Howard as a Young Writer: General Observations
While I don’t have the space in this blog post to go into the many interesting observations made through a distant reading of Howard’s early letters, what I can say is that, generally, Howard’s letters demonstrate that he was incredibly thoughtful about his writing and his process for writing, and that Howard was also an astute observer of the markets and audiences he wrote for. He thought often about the type of writing he was producing and wanted to produce. This was evident from throughout his correspondences with Tevis Clyde Smith and Harold Preece in the first volume of his collected letters. He was also highly critical of himself as a writer. This passage, from letter #033 to Smith, demonstrates Howard’s struggles and his response to those struggles:
I’m a failure. Ha ha ha ha ha ha! Rich ain’t it? All day I’ve worked tried to write poetry. I’ve worked. I’ve worked. Changing, revising, aw hell! My stuff is so infernally barren, so damnably small. I read the poems of some great author and while they uplift me, they assure me of my failure. Hell, hell, hell. My soul’s a flame of divine fire, damn me damn me damn me, I can’t give it a human, worldly voice.
While this collection doesn’t include his correspondents’ letters, it’s clear from the tone and writing style that Howard employs that he saw these letters as an opportunity to enact the idea of “writing as a conversation.” Howard experienced problems with his writing, or had questions, and posed and explored these problems and questions in his letters to his friends. While I’m uncertain as to how Preece and Smith responded, I believe that the act of writing the letters allowed Howard to explore his concerns in a way where his imagined audience (what Preece and Smith may respond) was enough to let Howard process his troubles, learn from them, and grow as a writer. Analyzing the first volume of letters in Voyant, and limiting the text to exclude common words such as articles, prepositions, and pronouns, I generated the following word cloud:
Barring some overlap because of different variations of these words (for example, the capitalized version of “write” appears separately from the lowercase version of the word), in his early letters, Howard’s focus in his letters often gravitated towards issues of writing. With his first professional publication appearing in Weird Tales during this time, it’s not surprising that as he ‘conversed’ with his friends in these letters, he was still learning how to be a writer.
In the interest of space and time, I’d like to wrap up this short analysis by saying that rather than a pulp “hack” writer, Howard was, from the beginning, a careful, reflective writer who sought out advice and help from trusted friends. Like we see happening in the coming years with the development of a discourse community within the Weird Tales writers he corresponded with, Howard in his early writing years was very much centered in a writing community of peers. Without these, he may not have developed into the writer he’s now known for being.
Blogger bio: Nicole Emmelhainz-Carney is an Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Composition at Christopher Newport University, where she also serves as the Writing Program Administrator and Writing Center Director. A poet and scholar, her research interests include collaboration and writing practices among writers. She has published and presented on Robert E. Howard frequently, and serves as co-editor for The Dark Man: Journal of Robert E. Howard and Pulp Studies.
The Pavilion Blog is the companion blog of The Dark Man: Journal of Robert E. Howard and Pulp Studies. It features brief, conversational reflections related to Robert E. Howard at around 500-600 words. Interested in contributing? E-mail the editors at email@example.com