The Legend of the Trunk – Part 1

When Robert E. Howard pulled the trigger on June 11, 1936, he left behind a mass of papers that, years later, helped fuel the “Howard Boom” of the 1970s and has provided fodder for countless publications, both professional and amateur, well into the current century. These previously unpublished stories, poems, fragments, letters, etc. were ushered into print by Glenn Lord, who spent much of the late 1950s and ’60s tracking down the remnants of Howard’s collection. We all know the debt that we owe to Glenn, but how many of us know the circuitous route that Howard’s papers took before ultimately ending up in his capable hands? Thanks to Glenn’s massive correspondence collection, his own writings published in the Esoteric Order of Dagon amateur press association, and L. Sprague de Camp’s interviews housed at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, we can piece together the wanderings of Howard’s papers, the contents of the historic Trunk.

The de Camp interviews are filled with references to Howard’s trunk. Novalyne Price Ellis told de Camp that Howard “had a trunk filled with things.” Norris Chambers remembered “a great big old trunk” that “was completely full of manuscripts, letters and stuff.” According to Kate Merryman, one of the ladies helping out in the Howard house during Hester Howard’s last days, Robert Howard generally kept his room tidy, but the day of his suicide there “were more papers on the floor than he usually had. He spent quite a bit of time in his room the night before.” Following the deaths of Robert and Hester, Doctor Howard had Merryman help him sort through the mess.

According to de Camp’s interview notes, Merryman “came upon a handwritten sheet, which she read and saw it was a will leaving all [Robert’s] property to Lindsey Tyson. She said: ‘Look at this, Doctor!’ He took it, read it, and said: ‘Don’t say anything to anybody about this.’ This was the last she or anyone ever saw of it.” But Cross Plains is a small town, and, as de Camp found out, Tyson learned of the will shortly after its destruction. In his interview notes, de Camp says that Tyson “said, a few days after the suicide, a lawyer stopped him on the street and told him that Robert had willed everything to him. But that the doctor had destroyed the will. Tyson was disturbed and upset and didn’t even ask for details. He did not want to profit from his friend’s loss anyway.” While it is hard to imagine what would have happened to Howard’s papers if Tyson had ended up with them, it could hardly have been worse than what did eventually occur. Whether the destruction of the will was small town gossip or historical fact makes no difference at this late date—Doctor Howard retained possession of his son’s papers. In his July 11, 1936 letter to E. Hoffmann Price, Dr. Howard says that “I have at home now a large fire proof steel trunk which I purchased immediately after [Robert’s] death, placing his carbon[s] of different stories as also his rejected and returned stories, and his poems.”

In the weeks that followed, Norris Chambers helped organize those papers; he also typed letters for Doctor Howard, notifying Robert’s correspondents of his death. On July 29, 1936, Isaac Howard asked family friend Reverend B. G. Richburg for more help with his son’s papers:

Can you spend Monday, Tuesday, and perhaps Wednesday in my home reading and helping me arrange Robert E. Howard’s poems of which there are one hundred twenty eight and about thirty two unpublished stories? Agents and publishers are clamoring for this work. I have it pretty well catalogued. They are asking weekly that I submit it.

It is not known if Richburg was able to help, but not long after the above letter was mailed, Dr. Howard sent Robert’s papers to agent Otis Kline to see what was worthy of publication. On September 17, 1936 he wrote Kline: “I note that you completed the checking of the material in the trunk, and enclosing a list of the stories and poems you have retained.” The Kline lists survive, and, based on their content (see The Collected Letters of Isaac M. Howard), the agency retained the cream of the unpublished crop and reams of poetry. We’ll hear more about the Kline Agency’s stewardship of these materials.

Doctor Howard also made arrangements for Howard Payne College to receive Robert’s library of books; the news was published in both the Brownwood Bulletin and Cross Plains Review. On June 29, 1936, in a letter to H. P. Lovecraft, Doctor Howard hints at an expansion of the school’s Memorial Collection: “The Howard Payne College of Brownwood has asked for letters from correspondents. If it is agreeable with you, I will furnish them with some of your correspondence to him as he has some in his files and they are interested in letters.”

Lovecraft’s “In Memoriam” (Fantasy Magazine, September 1936) announces the collection: “Mr. Howard’s library has been presented to Howard Payne College, where it will form the nucleus of the Robert E. Howard Memorial Collection of books, manuscripts, and letters.” Not mentioned here were Howard’s magazines; these, too, went to Howard Payne, but by December, Doctor Howard was having a change of heart. In his December 19, 1936 letter to Lovecraft, he complains that readers “are wearing the backs off of his magazines.” In his February 19, 1937 letter to Otis Kline, Doctor Howard says, “I went to Howard Payne this week, and I brought all of Robert’s filed copies of Weird Tales that I had given to Howard Payne. I put them in a place of safety, and they are now in my possession.” Whatever papers were part of the collection remained, for a time.

Following the death of H. P. Lovecraft, Arkham House co-founder August Derleth wrote to Dr. Howard (April 21, 1937):

Donald Wandrei and I are putting together three volumes of Lovecraft’s work for early publication, and that the third of these is to be a volume of Selected Letters. I know from both HPL’s letters and from Bob’s letters that Lovecraft wrote at length to Bob, and that you must still have some of these letters from Lovecraft. We should like very much to see these for copying, after which we will of course return them to you promptly.

The doctor responded on April 27:

I have, I presume, most of the letters [Lovecraft] wrote to Robert during his lifetime. There are volumes of them. He, of course, has all of Robert’s letters on file. In as much as I contemplate having a book of Robert’s life done, I will have to depend on someone perhaps who never saw Robert, or at least had not a very extended personal acquaintance with him, to write the major part of the book. I am thinking his letters to Mr. Lovecraft would furnish an excellent basis from which one might write a very good book. I will only be too glad to exchange files with Mrs. Gamwell [Lovecraft’s aunt], in case she would do so, in order that I may use Robert’s letters in the book of Robert’s life we now have in mind.

On May 15, 1937, Dr. Howard tells Otis Kline that “H. P. Lovecraft’s letters from Robert E. Howard, I have ascertained are with Mr. Barlow in Kansas City. He will send them to me. These letters will help furnish a basis from which to make a book of his life.” And on May 22, 1937, the doctor tells August Derleth, “Today I am sending to you H. P. Lovecraft’s letters to Robert E. Howard. They will go by express. There might be more, but in case I should find them I would send them. But unless there should be some in the Robert Howard Memorial Collection at Howard Payne College, I guess this is all there is.” Shortly after this, the good doctor reclaimed whatever of his son’s papers remained at the school, leaving only the collection of his books, more than 300 titles. Today, only 68 books remain in the collection.

In a February 18, 1977 letter to de Camp, Lindsey Tyson said, “After Bob’s death, Dr. Howard took the trunk full of manuscripts over to Howard Payne University at Brownwood. After they had been there for some time, he picked them up [. . .]”

By June 12, 1937, Doctor Howard was becoming impatient with Barlow’s delay: “Since Mrs. Gamwell has given her consent for me to have the letters written by my son to H. P. Lovecraft, and at same requesting that I send August Derleth H. P. Lovecraft’s letters which I have done. May I not urge you to send my son’s letters to me at once. I am asking that you do this even though it may inconvenience you to do so. We have been trying to secure these letters for weeks and I feel that since so important a matter that you should do me the kindness to get them to me at once.”

Unfortunately, it seems that no other letters from Doctor Howard survive from this period. We know that Robert’s letters to Lovecraft did, in fact, end up with Doctor Howard; Lovecraft’s letters to Howard, well, that’s a story for a future post. I’ll end this time with the state of affairs at the end of 1937: Doctor Howard was in possession of his son’s papers; he had, according to Merryman, purchased a new, larger trunk to hold them all. The Kline Agency had the typescripts of what was considered the best of this material. It is possible that some of Howard’s papers were lost or destroyed while they were housed at Howard Payne, but the doctor’s retrieval of those papers saved the greater portion, and through his wrangling with Derleth and Barlow, he insured that Robert’s letters to Lovecraft returned to Cross Plains. Things were looking good.

[Go to Part 2]