Above: Harold Preece (and Booth Mooney) at a Lone Scout Conference in August 1927. Photo from http://www.westtexasscoutinghistory.net/lonescouts_regional.html
Anyone who starts digging around in the life of Robert E. Howard quickly discovers Truett Vinson and Tevis Clyde Smith, two men who, like Howard himself, had literary ambitions. Dig just a little further, and Harold Preece will emerge.
Preece met Howard through Truett Vinson; Vinson and Preece probably met through the Lone Scouts, Preece being particularly active in that organization. He helped organize the May 9, 1926 Lone Scout Conference at San Marcos, Texas. Vinson introduced his friends to each other in Austin in the summer of 1927. Preece wrote of that meeting in “The Last Celt,” saying that “Bob took over the three-way conversation as I recall, but by some easy, natural right of knowledge. Truett, I suppose, was used to being his willing auditor. I found myself eagerly listening.”
Preece, too, had literary ambitions, and while not a “local boy” like Vinson and Smith—Preece moved around quite a bit in the late 1920s, from Texas to Kansas to Oklahoma, but was primarily located in San Antonio and Austin, with his sisters—Preece and Howard corresponded and were both contributors to The Junto. At the height of their friendship, the entire group met fairly frequently, plus or minus a member, in Cross Plains or Brownwood or Austin, but by the early 1930s, Preece was pretty much off the chart.
A November 1931 article in the Commonwealth College Fortnightly, from Mena, Arkansas, reports that a “Texan Watches Over Destiny of Carrots.” Who was that Texan? Harold Preece:
Harold Preece, Texas student, has taken the place of Alois Oppek as gardener. Mr. Oppek will be absent from the community for several months, but plans to return early in the spring. Preece has had some experience as a truck farmer in Texas.
The vital need of the garden at present is rain, Preece says. Lettuce and other fall vegetables have been planted, but have not sprouted because of the drouth.
In his circa April 1932 letter to Tevis Clyde Smith, Howard says that “several months ago” Preece wrote, saying that “he was attending Commonwealth University, working on the side, and writing a novel.” This is the last mention of Harold Preece in the surviving letters. And that might be a good thing. According to an article in the San Antonio Express, Preece was on the Department of Justice’s radar as early as the summer of 1935. Preece was stopped and questioned by the local police for “distributing handbills at 3 a.m. advertising an attempted speech by Homer Brooks of Houston, Communist candidate for governor.” Preece later denied being a Communiust, but that didn’t stop the DOJ from inquiring after him prior to Roosevelt’s visit to Austin.
The stain on his record was apparently not that bad. By February of 1937, he is assistant editor of a Works Progress Administration writers’ project in Austin. The project attempted to collect “Texas songs and legends” as part of the “American Guide.”
Political activity aside, in 1935 Preece began placing articles of frontier history in various Texas papers: Lockhart Post-Register, Hearne Democrat, etc. In the late ’40s and early ’50s, Preece was a regular contributor to Texas Rangers and Zane Grey’s Western Magazine. In 1952 he brought out Living Pioneers, a volume of folk-history for which he gathered the stories of fifteen old-timers who lived through the early days in Texas and neighboring areas. 1960 brought Lone Star Man, a biography of Ira Aten, “Last of the Old Texas Rangers.” In 1963, his The Dalton Gang was published.
At some point in the late 1950s, Preece became acquainted with Glenn Lord and the two began corresponding. This eventually led to Robert Howard’s letters to Preece and submissions to The Junto appearing in Lord’s The Howard Collector. He later penned “The Last Celt,” one of the few biographical pieces about Howard written by someone who actually knew him.
During the Howard Boom of the 1970s, Preece was commissioned by Jonathan Bacon, editor of Fantasy Crossroads, to write a full-scale biography of Howard. Bacon had also asked Tevis Clyde Smith to write a biography; sadly, neither was completed. However, Smith and Preece still have some biographical details to reveal.
The collection of Smith papers at the Cushing Memorial Library and Archives at Texas A&M contains a stack of letters from Preece. Dated from mid-1928 to 1931, they are chock full of Preece’s wanderings, ideas about religion and politics, movie reviews, and the people in his life—including Robert E. Howard. At right around 100 handwritten pages, there is a lot of material to go through, but I think I’ve found most of the good Howard-related comments. To wit:
Harold Preece to Clyde Smith
July 26, 1928:
I would be delighted to correspond with you. You seem like a friend of long standing, already, since I have heard so much of you from my intimate friends, Truett and Bob.
[. . .]
Did Bob tell you about the prize-fight we attended together in Ft. Worth? To me, the chief interest was in observing the reactions of the crowd, but I thought, several times, that Bob was going to leap into the ring, and challenge Tramel, himself. Anyhow, a swashbuckler like Bob doesn’t belong in this sordid age when descendants of Vikings sell ribbon for fifteen dollars a week. Bob is a welcome throwback to the gentlemen adventurers of old.
October 15, 1928:
“The Junto” came today, and its contents would have highly elated the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism. An article on “Religion” by H. P., “The Autobiography of an Atheist” by my sister, Lenore, and some choice comments by Bob.
[. . .]
Your satire, “Heigho’s Adventures Among The Redmen,” is amusing, but disjointed. You should have used more connectives. Too, the ending was not in good taste. No doubt but that you, Truett, and Bob, are “the three cleverest men in the world,” but why remind us of it?
Dec 16, 1928:
Your revelations concerning Bob’s affair surely were astounding. I thought that he would be the last one of the bunch to capitulate. I am shocked, to put it mildly.
I have written an impersonal tirade against women to Bob, as you requested. I can see myself, in future years, as the only bachelor of the noble fraternity of the Junto, envied by you fellows and despised by your wives, giving nickels to your children, and – but I had better stop.
[. . .]
Bob’s “To the Evangelists,” in the current number of the Junto, is one of his best poems in my opinion. It reminds me of Swinburne.
Nov 19, 1929:
I regret that I was not present upon the occasion when I was christened “Hink.” No doubt, I would have been baptized in beer. We should have had the christening upon the occasion of our visit to Cross Plains. However, I shall attempt to [do] justice to the illustrious original bearer of the name. After all, I might be a descendant of the roistering Gaelic gallant.
Dec 19, 1929:
The Cornish language is a dead tongue, tho. Faith! I’ll start a revolution and make it a Celtic republic, with Bob as Poet Laureate and yourself as Minister of the Exchequer.
[. . .]
Without your asking me, I mentioned to Bob the subject of his excessive drinking, pointing out that he was no longer writing brilliant poetry. That may account for the fact that I have not had a letter from him in some time.
Jan 18, 1930:
As for that premonition about your early death, forget it. It is merely your Calvinist heredity asserting itself. To the same source may be traced your fatalistic views. The great fault is that you, Truett, and, to a lesser extent, Bob, comprise a Mutual Admiration Society. You are a particularly zealous member of the society, as evidenced by your articles, extolling “the three,” in The Junto. All of you, particularly Truett and yourself, need to consider yourselves in the cold light of self-examination.
Feb 16, 1930:
A Farewell to Arms is crude from a standpoint of literature; for one thing, it contains entirely too much irrelevant detail. Because of its pornography, You and Bob would enjoy it.
[. . .]
You did help me a lot, last summer. Schultze, the heat, catarrh, and stomach trouble, all combined to make me sick of life. The only time that I was really happy was on that week-end trip to Bob’s. Bob’s beer is a potent factor for happiness.
Feb 27, 1930:
As Bob says, Kansas is the crummiest place this side of hell.
[. . .]
When the [social] revolution comes, you, Truett, and Bob, will probably espouse the capitalistic side. I have picked my side, long ago.
March 27, 1931:
I saw Bob twice during his stay in San Antonio, lunching once with his mother and him. I ran across him wearing a big shamrock, in front of the Alamo, St. Patrick’s Day. I was supposed to see him March 18, but became tied up and was unable to do so.
[. . .]
Bob told me that you were writing “A History of Brown County.” I should like to purchase a copy when the book is off the press.
That’s all, folks.