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If a man is known by the company that he keeps then Robert E. Howard was an eclectic fellow. Of two of his correspondents with the initials H. P. one was a very xenophobic conservative (at least in his youth), the other a radical integrationist. We all know about H. P. Lovecraft but interest in Harold Preece, the other H. P., has grown.
There have been some excellent articles on Preece published here on the Two Gun Raconteur blog and there is very little I can add biographically. Perhaps some comment on his writing career will be of interest.
Harold Preece is not known to have self-identified as “black” like Rachel Dolezal but for a 1930s era Texan he came pretty close. In A History of Affirmative Action (University Press of Mississippi, 2001) Harold Preece is mentioned:
In August 1935, an unusually titled article appeared in Opportunity, the monthly journal of the National Urban League. It was written, the journal’s editor noted, by a Southern white man named Harold Preece, and was called “Confessions of an Ex-Nordic: The Depression Not an Unmixed Evil.”
Preece’s article described his change from early prejudice to anti-racism due to the financial hardships of the depression. Preece wrote:
I waited in line with other men – white and black who spent their days frantically wandering to obtain the same tawdry necessities. Forgetful of Jim Crow we discussed the appalling debacle and shared crumbs of cheap tobacco. […] To me, white and black no longer exist. There are only oppressors and oppressed.
Besides Opportunity, Preece wrote for The Crisis, New Masses, and some other communist linked publications. He also wrote for non-communist magazines like The Nation and The American Spectator. In The American Spectator Preece published two interesting articles where he more or less apologizes for Clyde Barrow and Pretty Boy Floyd. In the August 1934 issue Preece wrote of Clyde Barrow:
Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were the poisoned by-products of a vicious and diseased social system. The example of their callousness was set by men whom we politely designate as “successful”, and who have this in common with the most moronic cut-purse: they live without working.
Preece writes about Floyd in the January 1935 issue:
Pretty Boy Floyd was the last of the classic road agents. He was intrepid, daring; he robbed the rich and gave to the poor […] Mr. Floyd perfected the art of thievery to an unprecedented magnitude; and the peccadilloes of a first-rate artist are always preferable to the rabbit-like decorum of mankind at large.
In a letter to H. P. Lovecraft, REH also expresses a bit of sympathy for Pretty Boy Floyd:
Pretty Boy is still at large, and getting the blame for every crime committed in Oklahoma. The cops say he is a rat. I’d call him a wolf. The cops are all afraid of him, judging from the way they’re not catching him; if he’s a rat, what does that make them?
In another letter REH writes HPL, that a friend of his, (probably Preece): “was quite enthusiastic about Floyd. From what he said public sympathy must be a good deal with the outlaw.”
Expressing less sympathy but commenting on the excessiveness of their deaths, REH writes to HPL on Bonnie and Clyde and notes that:
Bullets from machine rifles, ripping through him, riddled her, plastered the interior of the car with blood, brains, and bits of Barrow’s skull. 167 slugs were poured into the automobile of the outlaws.
One of Preece’s more controversial stands was a review of Zora Neale Hurston’s Of Mules and Men published in Crisis, December 1936:
When an author describes her race in such servile terms as ‘Mules and Men’ critical members of the race must necessarily evaluate the author as a literary climber.
This kind of controversy, whether popular humorous depictions of blacks, benefit or malign, has long been a part of black culture criticism. Good arguments can be made for both views. It is just a little surprising that Preece, a Southern White Man, takes a radical stance similar to Spike Lee’s in his film Bamboozled.
In the 1940s Preece was very active in the black press, writing for publications like The Negro Worker, the previously mentioned Opportunity, and The Informer. Preece corresponded with Roy Wilkins and W. E. B. Dubois as a fighter for civil rights. He continued his support for civil rights in New Masses as well. The October 16, 1945 issue has an article about the Ku Klux Klan.
Preece, although writing for Communist Party publications might very well have never been a member of the party. A more famous writer, Howard Fast, also wrote for communist papers before ever joining. One did not have to a member to have submitted articles to their publications.
Fast, of course, along with others went to jail for their membership in the Communist Party, and for refusing to name names of others in the party. (Shades of Conan, in “The Queen of the Black Coast.”) Fast recounts his decisions in his autobiographical book, Being Red. It is well worth reading. Fast spent 3 months in jail and his writing career (despite a previous string of best sellers) had effectively ended until he self published Spartacus. Spartacus is an absolutely superb novel and was a success despite the blacklisting. The success of this book and the later film has been said to have broken the “blacklist.” Of course, not every writer was as successful as Howard Fast, so if Harold Preece denied membership in the party to protect his livelihood I don’t think anyone can blame him.
Most likely, like Fast, Preece, if ever a true communist, broke with communism after Khrushchev denounced Stalin. The American Communist Party dwindled to almost nothing after these revelations. Fast resigned from the party and left his position on the communist newspaper. Fast writes:
All things come to an end. Being a part of this brave and decent newspaper had been an important act of my life. Now, on June 13, 1956, a couple of days after the appearance of the secret speech, I wrote my last column for The Daily Worker.
In any event, Preece switched gears to western writing and had several articles published in Real West, Zane Grey’s Western Magazine, and other venues. He wrote non-fiction western history books as well. Three of his books are easily available through on-line sources: Lone Star Man: The Life of Ira Aten, The Dalton Gang, and Living Pioneers. These books all feature very positive views and sympathy with Native Americans that was a bit out of the ordinary for the time. Preece was still fighting the good fight against prejudice.
He remained a believer in social justice until the end of his life.
Read Gary’s follow-up post here.