When I was a child, I read the Childhood of Famous Americans series published by the Bobbs-Merrill Company. I owned just one volume in the series, Patrick Henry: Boy Spokesman by Thomas Frank Barton (1960). It's here in front of me as I write. Bobbs-Merrill was based in Indianapolis; several of the authors and artists who contributed to the series were Hoosiers, including Augusta Stevenson, Guernsey Van Riper, Jr., Clotilde Embree Funk, and Jean Brown Wagoner, who was the grandmother of my classmate Mary. (Our local branch of the Indianapolis Public Library was named for Jean Wagoner's father, Hilton U. Brown.) I have always loved history and biography. The connection between the Childhood of Famous Americans series and my home city may have enforced those feelings, and the connection may have been a source of some small pride to me as a Hoosier and an Indianapolitan.
So I read the series, especially the books on soldiers, explorers, and our founding fathers. I also remember the biographies of Annie Oakley and Lou Gehrig. But even as a child, I wondered, "How did the authors know what the characters in their books did and said as children?" The answer didn't come to me until later. Maybe childhood ends in these small increments. In any case, I came to know the answer to my question: The authors didn't know, they made it up, their stories perhaps based in fact, but still mostly made up. That's one thing for a fictionalized biography for children. It's quite another for a supposedly scholarly work for adults. But that's what L. Spague de Camp and his co-authors did in Dark Valley Destiny, a limited-edition biography of Robert E. Howard published in 1983: They made it up.
I read de Camp's earlier biography of H.P. Lovecraft, and though we got a little too much of how de Camp would have lived Lovecraft's life, I found that earlier book informative. Dark Valley Destiny on the other hand is almost unreadable, at least for the first third of the book, which covers Howard's childhood, in other words, where information is scarce, and where the authors would not resist the temptation to make stuff up in an attempt to fill in the many blank years of Howard's life. Instead of telling the facts and letting the reader infer from them what he or she might, de Camp and company decided to engage in psychobabble, to wander off in discussions of history in which their subject's name is absent for page after page, and to draw conclusions on his life without supporting evidence or documentation. An example:
In Robert's bleak view of the world, the earth and its creatures are locked in an endless war of extermination among individuals, races, species, climates, and terrains. A man must either fight or flee, be master or slave. If the universe is a matter of blind accident, thought Howard, a mindless contraption in which man is trapped, then man's only major goal is to win freedom from it. (p. 120)
And not a single quote or note to support any of it. I'm reminded of an elementary lesson in composition: Don't tell it, show it.
De Camp and company are guilty of other sins and omissions, a chief one being that they don't tell about the reaction to Howard's suicide among his correspondent-friends, especially H. P. Lovecraft, and his many admiring readers. Another is that Howard's friend, Novalyne Price, simply wanders out of the story, never to return. The book picks up the pace after getting Howard through his childhood, but by then it's too late. It has become a lost cause. I bought it and will keep it, but it's a book only for the completist, I think. I'm sure there are better biographies of Robert E. Howard, and if not, one might easily be written.
Text and captions copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley