Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Robert E. Howard: 75 Years of Silence - Part 2

Robert E. Howard Museum - Cross Plains, Texas
[PART 1] [PART 3]

Each year, in the second weekend of June, Project Pride, the Robert E. Howard United Press Association, and the Robert E. Howard Foundation host a 2 day event to celebrate the life of Robert E. Howard at the Howard House Museum. This year was particularly special as it marked the 75th year of Robert E. Howard’s passing. More than 200 people attended this year’s event, hailing from 19 different states and three different countries worldwide. One individual came from as far as Russia to participate in the gala. Occurring in Cross Plains, Texas during the same weekend every year is the Barbarian Festival. While Alisha and I weren’t able to attend either event this year, we were thrilled at the opportunity to gain a private tour of the Robert E. Howard Museum.

The clock was swiftly approaching 1PM when we left the Howard family gravesite. A quick pit stop at DQ for refreshments in Cross Plains – the must go to watering hole of any Texas small town – and we were off. The Robert E. Howard Museum was easy to find, just ½ mile up the road from DQ on the main drag through town (Highway 36). Noted as being the first place ever listed in the National Register of Historical Places in Callahan Country, the Howard House was beautifully restored by the many volunteers of Project Pride. It was a small white house, complete with a white picket fence – once the American dream. It was the house where Howard grew up and produced the vast majority of his writings until the day he died.

Back view of the REH Museum
When we pulled up to the driveway, it felt like we were stepping back in time; a time when life was simpler. When people talked to and knew their neighbors well; a time when a trip to the local drug store for a soda pop was a rare treat; a time when people would actually take the time to hand write and mail letters and post cards to each other; a time when people used sidewalks and would wave ‘hi’ to each other as they passed by. It was also a time without air conditioning, a modern upgrade the great people of Project Pride added during the restoration process, and one we were grateful to have during the summer Texas heat.

Our very kind and knowledgeable guide, Anne Rone
As we approached the back porch, we half expected to be greeted with a pitcher of lemonade or ice tea. Instead, we were greeted with something even better – a warm smile and friendly handshake from caretaker Anne Rone. Anne, like many of the other caretakers, volunteers her time to give tours of the Howard Museum. She was kind enough to take time out of her Saturday afternoon to open up the Howard House for us for a private tour of the place. She even arrived ahead of time to make sure the house was nice and cool (that was much appreciated).

After signing the guestbook, Anne directed us to our first destination – the bedroom of Howards’s mother, Hester Howard. I say her bedroom, as opposed to Howard’s parent’s room for a few reasons. First, his mother was sickly, battling tuberculoses, so it’s not likely that Dr. Howard would have spent much time sleeping in the same bed as his wife. The original layout of the house included a “Sleeping Porch,” which, we were told Dr. Howard used quite regularly. In addition, from what I understand, the couple didn’t get along too well at times. So much so, that at one time Hester moved out of the house and boarded with Robert while he finished high school in nearby Brownwood.

Dr. I. M. Howard's trunk and the window leading into Robert's tiny room. 

I was surprised that the bedroom was so large in comparison to the rest of the house. It was neatly decorated with period pieces of furniture, and even contained a few original items once owned by the Howard family. Two particular items caught my eye immediately – a large trunk originally owned by Dr. Howard, and the window it sat under. Before the Howard’s bought the property, the window opened up to the backyard. Soon afterwards they built on a small room for Robert to sleep in. Robert would keep an eye on his sickly mother through the window while he tapped away on his typewriter. Likewise, Hester loved to listen her son read aloud his stories. It is said that Robert always read his stories aloud as he typed them to help bring them to life. Anne told us that the family that once lived next door (the house now destroyed and gone after the 1994 tornado that swept through town) often complained about hearing Robert typing and acting out his stories until the wee hours of the morning.

Robert E. Howard's Living Room

Our next stop was the living room. This room was beautifully decorated with period furniture and art as well. It was quite inviting, and reminiscent of something you would expect to see in a Clark Gabel or Audrey Hepburn movie back in those days. I could easily imagine Dr. Howard sitting in that room, enjoying a good book with the windows propped open during the warm summer months. The corner of the room contained a bookcase that held a number of books that were once owned by Dr. Howard and still contained his signature bookplate in them.  Another item of note was a large bust of Cleopatra that Robert purchased on a family trip when he was a young teenager. A sign that even at a young age, Robert E. Howard was a fan of history, and possibly more telling, that he wasn’t your typical teenager.

A note from Robert's English teacher.
Adjoined to the living room was the dining room. Outside of Robert’s own bedroom, this was my favorite room in the museum. There, on display, were many fascinating pieces of Robert E. Howard history. The dining table held many binders that contained photocopies of varied information; hand written stories he wrote in school, lists of articles that were published and how much he got paid for each, canceled checks from payments received for his writings, all amongst them. One document that I found particularly interesting was a photocopy of a paper he had written in school when he was 15 years old. On the side margin his English teacher wrote a prophetic message to him:

“Robert, I believe that someday you will be one of our major writers. Develop your talent.”

Postcard from H. P. Lovecraft
H. P. Lovecraft fans will be interested to know that Robert and Lovecraft were pen pals and friends. They would often write each other and banter on about various topics of writing, politics, and modern civilization vs. barbarianism. On display in the dining room is a framed original post card sent from H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard from Quebec, Canada in 1930. It reads:

“This place surpasses all my expectations – a veritable dream of archaic city walls, crenellated cliffs, silent spires, narrow, zig-zag, precipitous streets, and the leisurely civilization of an elder world.”

1 of 9 known copies
As awesome as that was, arguably the most prized possession of the Robert E. Howard Museum was a copy of Robert’s only published book, “A Gent from Bear Creek.” The book is a collection of Western short stories that originally appeared in pulp magazine “Action Tales” with a few additions to tie them together to make a complete storyline. It’s a rare book, with only nine known to exist. This particular copy was just hours away from being destroyed before a book collector by the name of Ian Snelling found it in the “toss” pile at a charity thrift store in South Africa. After careful consideration, Ian in turn sold the book to filmmaker and author Leo Grin for a mere $3700, a fraction of its true value. Leo then donated the book to Project Pride for display in the museum. For a Robert E. Howard fan, being able to see this exceedingly rare book in person was an unexpected treat.

Check back soon. I’ll be sharing the rest of my experience at the Robert E. Howard Museum, where I get a chance to sit in his bedroom where Robert composed his greatest works.

You can read [PART 1] and [PART 3] here.

Michael A. Walker
Defying Procrastination 

Have you ever visited the Robert E. Howard Museum? How about the Barbarian Festival? What famous author’s houses have you been to?
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