When I first picked up a copy of The Dark Barbarian back in 1984 I was, of course, impressed with the quality of the essays, but to me the best part of that anthology was Steve Eng’s section dealing with the books owned by Robert E. Howard. The Eng list undoubtedly sent many Howard fans and scholars into second-hand bookstores, and I imagine many a vanished writer got dusted off and resurrected into a second literary life.
But for me it really wasn’t until I reached the computer age that I was able to join the library-book hunt, and since I enjoy boxing, I naturally gravitated to the pugilistic literature owned by REH, and that led me to a certain H. C. Witwer, represented on Howard’s shelves by two books, The Leather Pushers and Fighting Back.
Harry Charles Witwer was one of the leading sports writers in Howard’s time and was pretty popular around 1920-1925, making, and apparently spending money, like he’d have it forever. One of my Witwer items is a typed, signed letter from 1921, and it’s very interesting.
H. C. writes that when he was in New York he was “rushing to movie studios to watch [his] pictures being made” and was constantly being photographed and interviewed. Even his wife was in on the publicity, being “interviewed silly” by women authors for different magazines. He also mentions that The Leather Pushers is being made into a movie, and of course, he has a “royalty interest in that, too.” Evidently around this same time he sold the “rights to a five-reeler” and earned $7,500 on that deal. I’m not knowledgeable about what that would be worth in the dollars of today, but a new Ford in 1920 came in at around two hundred and sixty bucks, so it is a fair piece of change, certainly more than what Robert E. Howard would be making when he started his writing career. Witwer, according to this letter now a resident of Los Angeles, writes that when he arrived in California he “bought a beautiful two-story, 10 room house with double garage, big lawn front and back, fruit trees, etc, on October 3 and moved in with $3,000 worth of furniture on Oct 10.”
But all was not idyllic in the Witwer world, as he evidently had quite a problem with the bottle. At the beginning of his letter he admits that he has fallen off the wagon and went off on a binge that “lasted about two weeks” and this drinking bout cost—get ready—“about $2,000.” Wow! That has to be worth at least 4,000 to 10,000 dollars in the currency of today, and where was a guy like this in my drinking days? Seriously, after this mammoth drinking spree he adds that he “wound up as usual under the care of the medicos.”
Born in 1890, Witwer died young, passing from the scene in 1929 due to liver failure, and of course I can’t help but think his drinking had to have had something to do with his death. One cool little tidbit about Fighting Blood, another Witwer novel made into a movie, is that “Kid” McCoy, a boxing favorite of Howard’s, was one of the actors in the film.
So where is Witwer now? Pretty much unknown, and that’s sad, always is sad when a competent writer is forgotten. After all these years the majority of his fans have died, and there just wasn’t enough interest in Witwer to excite new, younger readers who could interject some fresh blood into a once very popular author.
And that brings me back to Howard, who, thanks to very staunch support among his fans, is still going strong and will soon pass the hundred-year mark of continually being read, still having an audience who are excited when a new book rolls out, even if the book just contains stories they already have. That’s fans, and Howard has lots of ‘em. So just remember all you Howard lovers out there, if you stop reading REH all the blog posts I could write, or anyone could write, will mean nothing, because you won’t be there to care. When the death of fandom creeps upon a writer the once raucous scene turns very silent, as in the case with Witwer and his departed following. When readers become scarce, the literary world grows so quiet that the sound of the chirping of crickets becomes not only deafening, but also a bit terrifying.