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‘I Chucked the Grind’
Emancipation and The Campus at Midnight by Robert E. Howard
Reading from page 102-3 of A Word from the Outer Dark
20 lines over 3 verses
As the son of a doctor and for a space a clerk in an oil town in East Texas, in the same region that spawned at least two of the most famous depression-era outlaws, Howard met men who worked with their hands and seemed to have envied them, even beating a post with a sledge hammer at home to condition himself. He only seemed to work—as a writer—for freedom, freedom from melancholy, the freedom of an automobile, freedom from the petty tyrants of the workplace. Like many men of our post-modern era with the brains to succeed in the work place, Howard seems to have regarded a hen house work environment as a fate worse than death even as he yearned for physical expression.
I know men who succeeded in higher education and/or a workplace and have retreated to spiritually sustainable lower-paying work. I also know one man, who, at a young age like Howard, who never grew old, sought the work glorified by Howard in this poem in a bid to stay beyond the grasp of the petty tyrannies of the everyday civil bray:
“The couplers lock and the air-brakes grate—
And I’, headed West on a Red Ball freight…”
This fantasy poem is of being a truck driver, with the destination West, the place in the American consciousness that had been sought by Her escaped and discarded and emancipated slaves of European extraction since 1609. The passage below begins with Howard’s disdain for the line of work that his biographer and posthumous collaborator L. Sprague de Camp insisted he should have gone into rather than writing, being a CPA! The man who gained wealth and fame on his literary back in his biography, Dark Valley Destiny, bemoaned the fact that Howard had not sold out and become a desk-bound cipher! Howard felt his needling coattail rider in his youth…
“No more figures to check and add,
Till my eyes go blind and my brain goes mad.
No more bosses to hem and say:
‘We have been forced to reduce your pay.
‘Just be thankful you’ve got the job.’
No more cringing to some fat slob
Who holds my fate in his grubby hand—
I’m marked no more with the wage-slave’s brand!”
Here Howard has taken his hatred of his brand of toil and heroized the truck driver who was a contractor, and sometimes still is. Such men, he claimed, served as a basis for his most famous creation, Conan the barbarian, who not coincidentally did virtually all of his extensive fictional soldiering as a mercenary.
I encourage the reader to find the last verse of the validation song that the Old-Young Poet wrote nearly a century ago in an age that echoes now with the same call to wages, on page 102 of A Word from the Outer Dark.
On the facing page, a single verse poem of 8 lines sketches a college campus in an atmospheric light that Howard would later employ to set a horrific setting from a female character’s perspective in such stories as Iron Shadows in the Moon, The Vale of Lost Women and The Black Stranger. It seems no accident that Howard glorified blue collar contract work in extensive verse, in such poems as Roundelay of the Roughneck, and reserved for the rarified habitations of his writing colleagues and inheritors brief doom-lit palettes of suffused beauty, such as the first three lines of:
“The Campus at Midnight
“Starlight gleams through the windows,
Night dew jewels the grass,
Winds creep through the sky-limned branches…”
While others of his abilities learned a desk trade, Howard raged or whispered into his typed page against the machine that hypnotized his peers with its gleam. Physically and mentally predisposed for literary academics, Howard proved spiritually incompatible with the aspirations of the civilization he would reject every time he sat before his typewriter, and forlornly in that final act of the lost writer.
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Add Comment
ShepSeptember 15, 2020 2:57 PM UTC

Gold.
responds:September 15, 2020 7:09 PM UTC

Thanks, Shep. Howard is becoming more pertinent as time wears on.