The following is an excerpt from Michael Moorcock’s essay for Robert E. Howard Changed My Life, an upcoming book from the Rogue Blades Foundation.
Robert E. Howard wrote directly in a tradition going back to the first great American hero Natty Bumppo and the first great American novelist, Fenimore Cooper, who shared the same puritanical suspicion of ‘civilization’ and authority with Conan and most of Howard’s other heroes. Based firmly on the legend of Daniel Boone, already fictionalized in broadsheets and shilling shockers published everywhere in America and Europe, the Romantic American was soon established as a popular figure of fiction and folklore. Indeed, on occasions the American ‘noble savage’ often sold better in what would be considered over-civilized European nations than he did in his native land (where the reality might have been at closer proximity to readers in Saint Louis and Memphis than to those in London or Moscow). This explained the massive bestsellers featuring ‘free spirits’ often found in the Gothic novels which were frequently selling at the same time! Romance of this kind would often be pilloried by more sophisticated authors of the day but not by the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, Alexandre Dumas or Karl May (whose Old Shatterhand continued his career, like the others, in films well into the 20th century).
After Mowgli, Tarzan, of course, was probably the most famous popular noble savage to sniff warily at the over-fed minions of a greedy and uncaring civilization and indeed, until he was rather poorly translated into a variety of romance languages in particular, Conan was not widely well-known in Europe outside Britain (where Howard’s A Gent from Bear Creek had been published in 1937) until the 1970s via his Marvel Comics incarnations. In fact, he became better known in the UK than he was in the US, thanks to a young man in London named Tom Boardman, a popular figure at English fantastica conventions during the 1950s and ’60s, who had begun his career in his father’s firm at a very young age. His father liked publishing Westerns and Western comics in a very recognizable style, including a yearly hardback Buffalo Bill Annual with one distinctive artist doing all the drawing and writing all the scripts. He published through the Woolworth chain of stores a sepia reprint version of full-color comics from the Fawcett publishing chain. These fantasy comics revealed a niche in the market. He began to put out Captain Marvel, Ibis, Bulletman and a whole range of ‘science heroes,’ superheroes, and wizards. As a schoolboy I bought his publications wherever I could find them.
With the success, particularly, of Captain Marvel and the Marvel family, Boardman senior was easily persuaded by his son Tom to put out a series of science fiction and fantasy hardbacks in the UK, one of which was Conan the Conqueror, at that time the only Howard title to be published in a U.S. mass market/commercially-published hardcover edition anywhere in the world! As with The Gormenghast Trilogy and The Lord of the Rings, being published at roughly the same time, most literary critics didn’t know what to make of Conan stories. They thought them set in some sort of post-nuclear Earth. This was before the huge campus-led enthusiasm for J.R.R. Tolkien’s faux-epic which, like Conan, was brought to the mass public by one American editor who, like L. Sprague de Camp, is not altogether well-regarded by some readers. I have always admired him.
Perhaps the easiest kind of snob to be is the Arts Snob. Their snobbery can rely on no actuality, only on opinion and fashion. There is no such thing as a ‘pulp writer’ but there are writers who have been stigmatized by the literary world for publishing in pulp magazines and these include Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Raymond Chandler, Kurt Vonnegut, Dashiell Hammett and many others, most identified for their individual style. It took Americans years to recognize the talent of some of their own writers already admired in Europe. Perhaps Nobel Laureate William Faulkner is the best known!
Donald A. Wollheim of Ace Books spent most of his career in the pulps or editing sensational collections like his wonderful Avon Fantasy Readers. He had great taste. He was an incredibly keen fan of adventure fantasy, from Edgar Rice Burroughs on. He was the first publisher to offer the world a paperback edition of a Howard novel: Conan the Conqueror as one half of a 1953 Ace Double (two short novels published back to back) with Howard’s great admirer Leigh Brackett’s The Sword of Rhiannon.
It has to be said that Wollheim also discovered that Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars was out of copyright in the U.S. and that The Lord of the Rings was never copyrighted there and so, unable to purchase the rights from super-snobbish Allen and Unwin in the UK, he simply went ahead and put them out in the garish editions Tolkien and his publishers most dreaded! This attracted the attention of American college campuses and the rest is history.
Michael Moorcock is an English novelist, journalist, editor and musician who lives in Austin, Texas and Paris, France. He has received numerous awards and prizes for his fiction and music both in and out of the fantasy genre. Michael is best known in the US for his Elric stories and other fantasy tales.
Ty Johnston is vice president of the Rogue Blades Foundation, a non-profit organization focused upon bringing heroic literature to all readers. A former newspaper editor, he is the author of several fantasy trilogies and individual novels.