Early life of Robert E. Howard

Robert E. Howard at five years old, dressed as a cowboy.
Robert E. Howard circa 1911 at about five years old.

Robert Ervin Howard (January 22, 1906 – June 11, 1936) was an American author born in Peaster, Texas but who traveled between many different towns across Texas until he was thirteen, when his parents settled in the town of Cross Plains, Texas.

Childhood

Howard was born January 22, 1906 in Peaster, Texas, the only son of a traveling country physician, Dr. Isaac Mordecai Howard, and his wife, Hester Jane Ervin Howard.[1][2][nb 1][nb 2][nb 3] Both sides of the family had roots throughout the American South, with various ancestors owning plantations and fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War.[3]

Traveling

The author's early life was spent wandering through a variety of Texas cowtowns and boomtowns: Dark Valley (1906), Seminole (1908), Bronte (1909), Poteet (1910), Oran (1912), Wichita Falls (1913), Bagwell (1913), Cross Cut (1915), and Burkett (1917).[1][4][5]

The Howards arrived in Bagwell in early 1913 and Dr. Howard was granted a licence to practice medicine there on April 30, 1913.[6] Howard scholar Patrice Louinet wrote that the Howard family may have arrived in the town for Dr. Howard to take over from Dr. Willis Walter Stephens.[6] It was in Bagwell that Robert E. Howard first went to school. The school in Bagwell only began when a child was eight, so Howard entered it in 1914.[6] However, he was not to attend this school for long as the family left for Cross Cut in January 1915.[7]

Black and white photograph of a boy dressed in a native American costume.
Howard circa 1914 (aged eight) dressed as a Native American.

Other themes began to appear at this time which would later seep into his prose. Although he loved reading and learning, he found school to be confining and began to hate having anyone in authority over him.[8][9] Experiences watching and confronting bullies revealed the omnipresence of evil and enemies in the world, and taught him the value of physical strength and violence.[10] Being the son of the local doctor gave Howard frequent exposure to the effects of injury and violence, due to accidents on farms and oil fields combined with the massive increase in crime that came with the oil boom.[11] Firsthand tales of gunfights, lynchings, feuds, and Indian raids developed his distinctly Texan, hardboiled outlook on the world.[12]

Sports, especially boxing, became a passionate preoccupation.[13] At the time, boxing was the most popular sport in the country, with a cultural influence far in excess of what it is today. James J. Jeffries, Jack Johnson, Bob Fitzsimmons, and later Jack Dempsey were the names that inspired during those years, and he grew up a lover of all contests of violent, masculine struggle. Specifically, he focused in on a type of boxer called Iron Men at the time,[citation needed] tough battlers who had little skill but made up for it in the sheer ability to take punishment that would kill a lesser man. Inspired by these heroes, Howard lifted weights, practiced boxing and wrestling with friends[citation needed], and read everything he could find on the subject—most notably in magazines such as The Ring and Police Gazette.

Voracious reading, along with a natural talent for prose writing and the encouragement of teachers, created in Howard an interest in becoming a professional writer.[14][15] From the age of nine he began writing stories, mostly tales of historical fiction centering on Vikings, Arabs, battles, and bloodshed.[16][17] One by one he discovered the authors that would influence his later work: Jack London and his stories of reincarnation and past lives, most notably The Star Rover (1915); Rudyard Kipling's tales of subcontinent adventure and his chanting, shamanic verse; the classic mythological tales collected by Thomas Bulfinch. Howard was considered by friends to be eidetic, and astounded them with his ability to memorize lengthy reams of poetry with ease after one or two readings.[14][18][19] Elsie Burns, who was Howard's neighbor and the postmistress of Burkett, recalled an encounter with Howard and his dog Patch in 1915. As she recalled the event, he told her, "I'm Robert Howard, I'm sorry if we frightened you. Patches and I are out for a morning stroll. We like to come here where there are big rocks and caves so we can play make-believe. Some day I am going to be an author and write stories about pirates and maybe cannibals. Would you like to read them?"[17][20]

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