The Legend of the Trunk – Part 2

As we saw last time, by mid-1937 the material from Robert E. Howard’s trunk that was thought to be worthy of publication had been pulled by agent Otis Kline; the rest of the material, a majority of the content, was safe and sound at the home of Dr. I. M. Howard in Cross Plains. And while some of that material may have been lost when it was part of the Memorial Collection at Howard Payne, the doctor had arranged for the return of his son’s letters to H. P. Lovecraft, so the amount of Howard material in the Trunk actually grew. This would not continue to be the case.

There are no mentions of the Howard material in the surviving correspondence that I have seen from mid-1937 through 1938. The trail of the Trunk picks up again in 1939, when Groo Beck of the Druid Press requested the poetry of Robert E. Howard from the Kline Agency. Robert Barlow was a partner in the Druid Press and had wanted to publish a collection of Howard’s verse for some time. Kline wrote back on November 1, 1939, saying that he would send the originals and for Beck to return them after he’d copied those poems that he wanted. This was a lot of material. Following Howard’s death, the Kline Agency had inspected the materials in the Trunk and kept more than 200 titled or untitled poems, but even more incredible are the notations on their list of “Robert E. Howard’s Poems” with items like “mixed poetry – mostly untitled – 150 sheets”!

While the poetry deal was cooking, Kline and Dr. Howard were discussing the possibility of reprinting some of Robert Howard’s stories. In a January 20, 1940, handwritten letter to Kline (unpublished), Dr.  Howard says, “If you were dealing this stuff again, would it be necessary for you to have his original mms? If so, they’re here in his steel trunk should you need them.” (At least I think that’s what he says; Dr. Howard’s penmanship and punctuation are terrible.)

On February 15, 1940, the Druid Press finally had an answer for Kline about the poetry:

[Howard] seems to have written rapidly and a little carelessly—one would have to in order to write so much! We have examined every piece in the collection, no trifling assignment, and have put some scattered pages in order incidentally, restored a couple of titles from other sources, and evaluated (for our purposes) the mass. It seems to us that about a hundred pages of this material is distinctive and publishable (external factors aside.) The intensity of some plainly-phrased lines; the dream-like, surrealist imagery of others makes for actual poetry, however formless the preponderance may be. “The Adventurer’s Mistress,” “An Opium Dream,” and “Astarte’s Idol” are among those which pleased us especially. At your suggestion, we have taken transcripts (on microfilm) of those we would like to see in a book.

At some point after this, Doctor Howard must have asked to have the poetry typescripts returned to him, for when he moved from Cross Plains to Ranger in 1943, he or those helping him appear to have burned as trash a large portion of Howard’s verse. Thank goodness for the Druid Press microfilm; in Kline’s October 15, 1943 letter to the doctor, he notes what “a tragedy” it will be “if all of Robert’s unpublished poems are lost,” but with the help of E. Hoffmann Price, Kline hopes to get into contact with the Druid Press, one of whom, Barlow, “had gone to Mexico City” and get at least some of the poetry back.

An October 25, 1943 letter from Doctor Howard to E. Hoffmann Price, written shortly after the doctor realized that he had lost the poems mentioned above, shows that Howard was realizing his mortality and wishing to preserve what he had left of his son: “Mr. Price every mms. of every story Robert ever wrote is in separate strong paper envelopes. There is a lot of them until well near the end of his life. They [Weird Tales] swiped all of his rights, but just what rights they have and what they have not I have never been able to find out. I realize that my time is short. At best, I am considering turning these over to do with full power to keep, sell, or dispose of as you may see fit” (REH Foundation Newsletter Vol. 5, No. 4). Saddened that his remaining family has “paid very little attention” to him, and understanding that they wouldn’t know what to do with his son’s literary effects, he tells Price the following:

I have it written in my will for my executor to take charge and keep these manuscripts because I am afraid for my nieces to come into possession of them for reasons before stated. I am sure if Robert could speak he would say just what I have. So if this would suit you, I will rewrite the will with this provision in it and when at my death these manuscripts will be turned over to you. It might take years to do anything at all with them if ever. But the will will give them to you entirely.

It appears that Price declined the offer, for in his November 5, 1943 letter, Doctor Howard says, “As to Robert’s manuscripts, I still think that I shall make provision for you to have them, because you are a writer yourself and you understand the work of these manuscripts” (Collected Letters of Isaac M. Howard). His November 10, 1943 letter reiterates his intention of adding a clause to his will, and on December 28, 1943, he tells Price:

Here is what I have in mind, provided it would suit you: place all these papers, mms, in a good new trunk and ship them to you, then write it into my will that at my death they become yours or the other way around. I will place these all in a good trunk and keep them and instruct the executor of my will to turn them over to you.

Dr. Howard begins to send things to Price, writing on February 27, 1944, “I sent, under separate cover, first class mail, some odds and ends.” What these were, we don’t know. We also don’t know if the good doctor was sending little “odds and ends” to anyone else. His nephew, Wallace Howard, ended up with a stack of postcards sent to Robert E. Howard from H. P. Lovecraft, but whether he received them before or after the doctor’s death, I don’t know.

Sometime before August 18, 1944, E. Hoffmann Price managed to acquire the Druid Press microfilm of Howard poems. On that day, Dr. Howard wrote and thanked him. On September 8, he sent another batch of “odds and ends.” On November 12, Dr. Howard died; there is no mention of E. Hoffmann Price in his will.

[Go to Part 3]