In the Home of Robert E. Howard

I flew into Dallas/Fort Worth Airport early Monday afternoon on a work trip. As I arrived fairly early in the day, with no work scheduled until Tuesday, I had made arrangements ahead of time to drive out to Cross Plains and visit the Robert E. Howard Museum there. For those who don’t know already, Robert E. Howard is the man who created the character Conan the Barbarian, a favorite of mine since I was young. He wrote much, much more than just Conan, though, which many people don’t realize. He was one of the giants of the Pulp Era of the late 20s and 30s, cranking out stories for the magazines of the day up until his death by suicide at the age of 30. The museum is actually a restoration of the house he lived in with his mother and father from 1919 until 1936.

After a couple hours of driving, I was finally able to get off the main highway.

Roads like this are so much more interesting than 4-lane interstates.

I passed the Cross Plains high school, Home of the Bison!

I’m sorry, but that’s kind of a sorry looking bison if you ask me.

My first stop was the library, which is right on the main street through town. I thought I took a couple pictures of Main Street, but I must be mistaken. It hasn’t changed much from Howard’s time. The library is what you would expect from a small town, but I’m thrilled they actually have one. These days, when tanks, missiles and no-bid contracts are more important to this country than education and public concerns, libraries seem to be a dying breed.

They sell photocopies of Howard’s actual manuscripts there, but I didn’t have time to look into that, as I was running a little behind schedule and the library was due to close. Instead I got directions to the Howard house, and in minutes I was there. This is what the front looks like from the street.

The driveway took me around back to park. Here’s a shot from the rear.

There I met a fine woman named Arlene, with whom I’d corresponded to arrange my visit. She was waiting there for me, and was my guide through the house. She is with an organization called Project Pride, which purchased the house in 1989 to preserve it as a memorial to an era as well as its history with the Howard family. It’s not a particularly large house, and they have done their best to preserve it in the state it is believed to have been when the Howards lived there. These photos from inside the house show a before and after of the house from when they bought it and after they restored it.

click to make bigger!

They don’t have many personal effects that actually belonged to the Howards’, but they do have some. In most cases, they have furnished the place with period pieces to represent what a house of the 20s and 30s would possibly look like. This is the dining room (which was unusual in itself, as most homes of that era did not have a separate dining room):

And this is the living room.

In the living room, there were several paintings on the walls that did actually belong to the Howards (as well as a case with some of Robert’s father’s books). They also were likely to have had a radio as in the following picture, as Robert was an avid radio listener. Arlene told me that he was instrumental in bringing radio to Cross Plains.

Robert’s father also upgraded the house to have plumbing and a bathroom, which was quite a luxury for those times.

This next picture is a bust of Cleopatra that Robert bought on a trip to New Orleans with his father. He was 14 at the time.

This next picture are photographs of his mother and father.

Robert’s father was a doctor. Early in Robert’s life, the family had moved around quite a bit, all over Texas, before settling in Cross Plains. His mother was sickly, suffering from tuberculosis, and Robert was much involved in caring for her. The house had only one bedroom (and only one closet in the entire house!), and that was his mother’s. The room had a window that looked into Howard’s room, which would be a little . . . weird.

When the family moved in, there was no separate room for Robert, so they walled in an outside porch and turned that into Robert’s room. The room is tiny.

The bed is little more than a cot. Robert grew to be a large man, tall and broad; about my size, though I’m sure I’m a little bigger since I have had regular access to Tower Pizza. This next one is me standing in the middle of the room, and with my arms outstretched I could touch both walls.

They don’t have the actual typewriter and desk that Robert used, though they know where both are — the collector who has them is not willing to donate them. However, the ones here are pretty much identical to Robert’s. These next couple pictures I feel speak for themselves.

In his letters, Robert talks about sitting up late into the night, hammering away at his typewriter, shouting aloud the words he’s writing, swept up in the heady elation of creativity. With the windows open against the stifling heat, the neighbor woman would hear him and holler for him to shut up because “I’m trying to sleep!” Robert’s mother would shout back, “You shut up, my son is working!”

The only thing in this room that actually belonged to Robert is this ink well, which was given to him by a Cross Plains citizen who had brought it back from Jerusalem for him.

These aren’t Robert’s books, but the represent editions from the time, as well as titles he mentioned in his letters as being books he read and enjoyed.

Elsewhere in the house they have a lot of photocopies of various documents, canceled checks, manuscripts, etc. They display the copies, with the originals kept in a vault at the bank in town. This particular one is an essay Robert wrote while in school.

The teacher has a note on the side margin that is very interesting; it says: “Robert, I believe that some day you will be one of our major writers. Develop your talent.”

There are many photographs throughout the house. Robert was a boxing fanatic, and actually fought amateur bouts himself.

There are also many photos of what Cross Plains was like in that era. It was actually a booming oil town for a short time.

This last photo is one of my favorites. The picket fence you see was actually destroyed by a storm that blew through town in the years after Project Pride bought the house. After they rebuilt the fence, they used the old pickets to make picture frames, and sold this picture framed with them. Of course they’re no longer available.

Robert E. Howard’s story is a sad one. The last hours of his life are documented as well as anyhere via Wikipedia:

In June 1936, as Hester Howard slipped into her final coma, her son maintained a death vigil with his father and friends of the family, getting little sleep, drinking huge amounts of coffee, and growing more despondent. On the morning of June 11, 1936, told by a nurse that his mother would never again regain consciousness, he walked out to his car in the driveway, took the pistol from the glove box, and shot himself in the head. His father and another doctor rushed out, but the wound was too grievous for anything to be done. Howard lived for another eight hours, dying at 4pm; his mother died the following day. The story occupied the entire of that week’s edition of the Cross Plains Review along with publication of Howard’s “A Man-Eating Leopard.” On June 14, 1936 in a double funeral, the sermon was held at Cross Plains First Baptist Church and they were both buried in Greenleaf Cemetery in Brownwood, Texas.

Why would a guy, whose career was just beginning to take off, kill himself so young? Some blame an Oedipus Complex. Others blame clinical depression, or just an overwhelming amount of stress related to everything that was going on in his life at the time (including his love life, as documented in the movie Whole Wide World). Some just think he was loony. We’ll never know of course. It makes me sad to think what else he might have written if he’d stuck it out.

My only disappointment is that I didn’t have the extra couple hours it would have taken to visit his grave site. Maybe next time. I’m thankful that a small group of people have done so much to make sure this piece of an important writer’s life is not just shoved aside and forgotten. It was quite an experience for me to stand in that room, walking the floor boards he’d walked, and know that I was in the very space where all those stories I’ve loved for more years than he even lived were born right there.

RIP, Robert.

11 thoughts on “In the Home of Robert E. Howard”

  1. >Absolutely incredible post, Chris! I know that people will be referring to this for a long, long time. I'll put up a link to it as well later today.The house certainly was small, but then considering the times, was probably average.If only he knew what has happened to his work since then.Again, great job.

  2. >Thanks, Laurie! I wanted to tell you that they actually had Cowboys, Mountain Men and Grizzly Bears for sale in the bookstore at the Missoula airport, and I had just seen in mentioned the night before on YOUR blog. So I bought it. Haven't started it yet, though.I found myself wondering what REH would think of all the great boxers he missed. A lot of the Howard purists are angry about the movies, action figures, etc. that have come along based on his characters, thinking that that is not how he would have wanted his work viewed. Hard to say if I agree or not. For me, I take my writing as seriously as anyone . . . but I'd sure like to see it on the big screen, etc.!

  3. >This is a great post, Chris. It's really cool you got to visit the home of one of your literary heroes. I love all your photos of every item of interest!

  4. >Thanks, Rebecca. It's nice to know people read this stuff! I know you have the same appreciation I do for diving into historical sites and things like that.

  5. >Very cool, Chris, nice report and thanks for the photographs. I don't think I'd ever seen this before, though Howard is a favorite of mine. Sometimes I also wonder, if he had not killed himself, what he would have gone on to write. My fear is that he would have changed his interests over time and might have written one or two major novels. That's fine, but then all his "old pulp stuff" might well have been forgotten, lost.I also have wondered, what would he have done about WW II? At 38 he would have been old to have joined up, but would he have tried to be a war correspondent? I think perhaps so. It would make a fun "what if" story.

  6. >What would Howard have written if he'd lived has been the subject of many, many discussions among fans over the years. I was part of a panel on the subject a few years ago at Howard Days. I think it's very possible that he would have become a regular contributor to ARGOSY, since Jack Byrne had recently become the editor there and Byrne bought a lot of stories from Howard for ACTION STORIES and FIGHT STORIES. Some fans think that he would have written Conan stories for ARGOSY or come up with a different fantasy character, but in his letters at the time Howard talked about how much he wanted to write Western fiction, so I think there's a chance he would have become a popular Western novelist. or if he stayed in the pulps until they began to die out in the Fifties, he could have moved over to paperbacks and done big historical novels, or even into hardback like authors such as Samuel Shellabarger, Thomas B. Costain, and Frank Yerby. Some fans think that since Howard's fiction is so visual, he might have become a Hollywood screenwriter. I find that less likely, since I have a hard time imagining him getting along with all the Hollywood bigwigs and having them tinker endlessly with his work, but who knows? It's all a fascinating subject for discussion.

  7. >Richard, I was wondering the same about WWII as I was driving away. Like James said, all of those "What Ifs?" make for fascinating speculation.I'm eager to make it back. Would love to be there for Howard Days some time.

  8. >Hi Chris,This was a fantastic post, Chris. I learned quite a bit and it helped me choose the next book I'm going to read–a fine REH collection my brother gave me for Christmas. I would very much like to visit REH's home one day, and I'm sure I could convince my brother to join me.Also, it's so fun that you found my book, "Cowboys, Mountain Men & Grizzly Bears," in the Missoula airport. Hope you dig it.Cheers,Matt

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