Where Howard Discovered the Picts

Howard based Bran Mak Morn and the Picts on the historical Picts he discovered in a New Orleans library. The Howards lived in New Orleans for a short time in 1919 when Dr. Howard was enrolled in medical classes at Tulane University. Howard recounts his discovery in a January, 1932 letter to H. P. Lovecraft:

Then when I was about twelve I spent a short time in New Orleans and found in a Canal Street library, a book detailing the pageant of British history, from prehistoric times up to — I believe — the Norman conquest. It was written for school-boys and told in an interesting and romantic style, probably with many historical inaccuracies. But there I first learned of the small dark people which first settled Britain, and they were referred to as Picts. I had always felt a strange interest in the term and the people, and now I felt a driving absorption regarding them. The writer painted the aborigines in no more admirable light than had other historians whose works I had read. His Picts were made to be sly, furtive, unwarlike, and altogether inferior to the races which followed — which was doubtless true. And yet I felt a strong sympathy for this people, and then and there adopted them as a medium of connection with ancient times. I made them a strong, warlike race of barbarians, gave them an honorable history of past glories, and created for them a great king — one Bran Mak Morn. I must admit my imagination was rather weak when it came to naming this character, who seemed to leap full grown into my mind. Many kings in the Pictish chronicles have Gaelic names, yet in order to be consistent with my fictionized version of the Pictish race, their great king should have a name more in keeping with their non-Aryan antiquity. But I named him Bran, for another favorite historical character of mine — the Gaul Brennus, who sacked Rome. The Mak Morn comes from the famous Irish hero, Gol Mac Morn. I changed the spelling of the Mac, to give it a non-Gaelic appearance, since the Gaelic alphabet contains no “k”, “c” being always given the “k” sound. So while Bran Mac Morn is Gaelic for “The Raven, Son of Morn”, Bran Mak Morn has no Gaelic significance, but has a meaning of its own, purely Pictish and ancient, with roots in the dim mazes of antiquity; the similarity in sound to the Gaelic term is simply a coincidence!

But what I intended to say was, I am not yet able to understand my preference for these so-called Picts. Bran Mak Morn has not changed in the years; he is exactly as he leaped full-grown into my mind — a pantherish man of medium height, with inscrutable black eyes, black hair and dark skin. This was not my own type; I was blond and rather above medium size than below. Most of my friends were of the same mold. Pronounced brunet types such as this were mainly represented by Mexicans and Indians, whom I disliked. Yet, in reading of the Picts, I mentally took their side against the invading Celts and Teutons, whom I knew to be my type and indeed, my ancestors. My interest, especially in my early boyhood, in these strange Neolithic people was so keen, that I was not content with my Nordic appearance, and had I grown into the sort of man, which in childhood I wished to become, I would have been short, stocky, with thick, gnarled limbs, beady black eyes, a low retreating forehead, heavy jaw, and straight, coarse black hair — my conception of a typical Pict. I cannot trace this whim to an admiration for some person of that type — it was a growth from my interest in the Mediterranean race which first settled Britain. Books dealing on Scottish history were easier for me to obtain than those dealing with Irish history, so in my childhood I knew infinitely more about Scottish history and legendry than Irish. I had a distinct Scottish patriotism, and liked nothing better than reading about the Scotch and English wars. I enacted these wars in my games and galloped full tilt through the mesquite on a bare-backed racing mare, hewing right and left with a Mexican machete and slicing off cactus pears which I pretended were the heads of English knights. But in reading of clashes between the Scotch and the Picts, I always felt my sympathies shift strangely. But enough of this; it isn’t my intention to bore you.

Being a voracious reader, Howard must have felt he had found a gold mine exploring the largest library he had seen at that point in his young life. And finding the Picts in that historical book (probably The Romance of Early British Life, From the Earliest Times to the Coming of the Danes, by G.F. Scott Elliott, London, Seeley & Co. Ltd, 1909) was just icing on the cake.

I was curious about this New Orleans library where a young Howard spent some time while his father attended medical classes nearby. A search of the 1919 property records for Canal Street only lists one library at 2940 Canal Street, so I thought it must be the one Howard visited. I also suspected it was a Carnegie Library since nearly 1,700 were built across the country during this time frame. Sure enough, a main library and five branches were funded in 1902 by the Carnegie Foundation. However, the Canal Street branch was not completed until 1911. I contacted a researcher at the New Orleans Public Library with hopes of finding some photos of the library during its heyday; however she was unable to locate any.

The Canal Street library closed in 1958, later reopening as a business college, it was used as a jobs training program for Spanish-speaking immigrants, and then it became a beauty school until 2005 when Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing floods severely damaged the building. But, as you can see from the accompanying photos, the old gal is still standing, though now painted a Windex blue.

One other item of interest, and something Howard would have liked, is a mural on a wall inside the library that was painted by a young artist in 1941 as part of the crovwpA program. The artist’s name was Edward Schoenberger. The mural’s theme is “The History of the Written Word,” which starts out depicting the cavemen and their drawings and progresses to the then present (1941) newspaper printing techniques.

Schoenberger designed the historic tableau in the stiff, cartoonish style that was popular for public art in the Mid-Century. In addition to the cavemen, Egyptians, monks, calligraphers and old Gutenberg himself are depicted on the mural. Schoenberger did not apply paint directly to the library wall. He used a 50-foot fabric sheet affixed to a layer of plaster, producing what was said to be the largest continuous artist’s canvas in the world at the time.

He was an artist with a sense of humor – he wrote an inscription on one of the monks’ books at the center of the mural, too small to be visible from the library floor: “If you can read this, you are too damn close . . .” He also added a few personal flourishes — the faces of the monks are based on friends and members of his family, including himself and his first wife.

Sometime after the library changed hands, the 16-foot ceiling of the reading room was lowered six feet in the type of renovation typical of the 1960s era. This caused the only the top third of the “History of the Written Word,” to become visible in what was now an attic and resulted in the lower portion being covered with plaster and paint, totally obscuring the bottom portion of mural. In addition to the damage done by the construction of the false ceiling, graffiti taggers had done their dirty work defacing the mural and added duct work, plumbing, and electrical equipment punctured the surface of the mural.

By the time his mural was damaged and truncated, Schoenberger’s career had taken him on an artistic tour of the United States. According to an obituary from a Wausau, Wisconsin funeral home website, the artist had painted military-themed murals while serving in the Air Force at Kelly Field Texas during World War II; attended classes at the Art Students League in New York; and finally moved to Wausau where he became director of the Marathon County Historical Museum. Schoenberger passed away in October 2007 at the age of 92.

In September of 2008, a chiropractor named Sylvi Beaumont, bought the three-story Italianate structure with the intention of converting it into a yoga school. She chose the building because it was close to downtown and a nearby streetcar line. The doctor soon discovered the buried antique mural and, despite its poor condition, she considered it a bonus, making its restoration part of her renovation plans.

After considering several costly options, Dr. Beaumont turned to Jeanne Louise Chauffe, an artist who specializes in period painting and faux finishes. Ms. Chauffe had previously worked for Beaumont and agreed to take on the task.

Ms. Chauffe restored the “History of the Written Word” mural in the hot stillness of the un-air conditioned, un-ventilated building. She spent the six months carefully flaking the plaster from the canvas weave, doing her best not to disturb Schoenberger’s brushwork beneath. She patched the gaping holes and cracks with metal mesh and plaster. As she prepared to repaint lost and blemished areas of the painting, she applied a barrier of dissolvable varnish, so that future generations could separate her work from Schoenberger’s. When she finished, the building was still a barren, gutted hulk, awaiting the permits needed to begin the renovation, but Schoenberger’s mural shone in its original glory. The story of the restored mural detailed in this video.

So if you are ever in New Orleans, stop by the building (now the Swan River Yoga Shala) at 2940 Canal Street where Howard discovered the Picts and take a look at the “History of the Written Word” mural. Of course, you should also take a few minutes to visualize what the library was like in its glory days and imagine a young Two-Gun Bob roaming the aisles, looking for secrets to the past while daydreaming of ages undreamed of.