The de Camp Controversy Part 5

One of the most infuriating aspects of L. Sprague de Camp to some people is de Camp’s indulgence in posthumous psychoanalysis. An examination of de Camp’s writing on Robert E. Howard uncovers a habit going back almost to de Camp’s discovery of Howard.

De Camp’s introduction to King Conan (Gnome Press 1953) includes the tale of de Camp going over to Oscar J. Friend’s apartment and meeting Harold Preece: “Preece told me how frustrating Howard had found life in Cross Plains, Texas; how he could never get very far away because he supported his parents by his writing and because his mother had kept him too closely tied to her apron-strings. This excessively close relationship proved fatal to Howard. Preece echoed my own thoughts: ‘If he’d only gotten away. If he’d only gone out with girls the way the other boys did’.” De Camp also included the line: “And, without doubt, Howard was a psychological case-study. Howard suffered from delusions of persecution, and his end constituted a classic case of Oedipus complex.” De Camp included this line in The Science Fiction Handbook in 1953 also. So right off, de Camp is figuratively peeing in the swimming pool.

In 1963 with Swords & Sorcery, the first of the sword and sorcery fiction anthologies include the line “Although a big, powerful man like his heroes, he suffered delusions of persecution and killed himself in an excess of emotion over his aged mother’s death.” He did the same thing with the introduction to the H. P. Lovecraft story (“The Doom That Came to Sarnath.): “He dwelt with two aged aunts, seldom ventured abroad save at night, and indulged in many obsessions and affectations.” The other dead writer, Lord Dunsany, on the other hand is described as “the kind of lord than many people would like to be if they had the chance. He was 6’4″ tall, and a sportsman, soldier, traveler, and a man of letters, with a grand gift of poetic speech.”

The Spell of Seven in 1965 repeats the formula as Mark Finn has pointed out in a previous post. It is here the infamous “Maladjusted to the point of psychosis” line is trotted out. That line was reused in 1967 with Conan (Lancer, 1967). I am in the medical field and a comment of this nature is called “editorializing.” If you were to say this about someone living, you would probably get sued. My Legal Encyclopedia and Dictionary describes libel as: “Any malicious defamation expressed in printing or writing and intended to blacken the memory of one who is dead or the reputation of one who is living and expose him to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule is a libel.” A good attorney could probably make a case of libel in this instance.

Conan also included the oft repeated line by de Camp: “His personality was introverted, unconventional, moody, and hot-tempered given to emotional extremes and violent likes and dislikes.”

An essay entitled “Conan’s Ghost” (The Conan Grimoire, Mirage Press, 1968) recycles introverted personality line and also an inadvertently funny line from Alan Nourse, M.D.: “That sleep-walking alone indicates a profoundly neurotic personality,” “probably hysteric and hyper-suggestible. It’s obvious that here was a fellow who wasn’t wired up just right in the matter of sex.”

“The Miscast Barbarian” (Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers, Arkham House, 1976) is a splicing of “Memories of R.E.H” (Amra, Vol II, #38) and “Skald in the Post Oaks” (Fantastic, Oct. 1972) and recycles previous comments. De Camp paraphrases himself: “It seems obvious that the dominating factor in Howard’s life was his devotion to his mother, which answers to the textbook descriptions of the Oedipus complex.” With incredible hubris de Camp then denies doing what he just did:  “We must bear in mind, however, that posthumous psychoanalysis is at best a jejune form of speculation.” Let us not forget the line– “It is plain he was not a well-balanced human being.”

Dark Valley Destiny (Bluejay Books 1983) does not show anything in the way of growth of understanding of Robert E. Howard by L. Sprague de Camp. You don’t get the “maladjusted to the point of psychosis” line but plenty of lines similar in tone. Here is a montage: “Robert’s many lapses into phantasy in order to liquidate discomfort….Together these elements nurtured the violent phantasies of a youthful writer who never learned to cope with reality….Much more real to Robert Howard were the demons and goblins from the depths of hell, the strange and evil creatures from other worlds, and the hate-filled, unregenerate humanity…“the larcenous oil men, the prostitutes, and the witches who passed as fellow mortals along the streets of Cross Plains….Conversely, girls were not likely to be fascinated by Robert. His repute as the town eccentric, his unconventional views, and his spells of misanthropy and moroseness made him unattractive to the local girls…. Her son’s pathological dependence on her.”

L. Sprague de Camp was an engineer by education, not a psychologist, not a psychiatrist. The big question is why did he engage continuously in dressing up his writing with faux psychology? Some have attributed sinister motives. Examing de Camp’s writings on other authors, there is a pattern. If the writer was alive, you got a pass. If you were dead, the psychoanalysis would creep in. The more de Camp wrote on a subject, the more psychoanalysis. He engaged in it with the Lovecraft biography. S. T. Joshi wrote in his H.P. Lovecraft: A Life (Necronomicon Press, 1996: “Whenever de Camp encounters some facet of Lovecraft’s personality that he cannot understand or does not share, he immediately undertakes a kind of half-baked posthumous psychoanalysis. Hence refers to Lovecraft’s sensitivity to place as ‘topomania’–as if no one could be attached to the physical tokens of his birthplace without being considered neurotic…He was out of his depth: and this makes his schoolmasterly chiding of Lovecraft all the more galling…these value judgements were arrived at through inadequate understanding and false perspective.” You could take out Lovecraft’s name in that passage and insert Howard’s and be correct.

De Camp does it to Henry Kuttner in “Conan’s Compeers”: “A mature writer, however, assimilates these influences, so that his writings no longer betrays imitation. Kuttner never reached this stage. This fact, together with his lavish use of pen names, suggests a deeply-rooted lack of self-confidence.” After Lin Carter died, de Camp started the comments about Lin Carter saying he never grew up.  In the early nineties, de Camp was even asking the opinion of a psychologist when describing some de Camp non-admirers in REHupa. He then published the doctor’s opinion in one of his letters of one of the mailings.

I think at the end of the day, de Camp used the psychological mumbo-jumbo to give a patina of authority to his opinions. For whatever reason, he could not just give his opinion and leave it at that, he had to dress it up with pseudo-scientific sounding language as a defense mechanism. I would never think of trying to diagnose a condition of someone dead based on subjective comments given to me by other people. Interestingly, Karl Edward Wagner was a Medical Doctor who did his residency in psychiatry. If anyone could have waded into this area, it was him. His forewords and afterwords for the Berkley Conan books have not a word of psycho-babble.

I was looking over the John D. Clarke, P. Schuyler Miller, and Lin Carter introductions to Gnome Press and Lancer Conan books. There are none of the judgments rendered found in the de Camp introductions. Lin Carter, effusive idiot that he was, was giddy in his appreciation of Howard.

In going over his writings on Robert E. Howard the person, de Camp does not come off as a person capable of much sympathy for others. I deal all the time with family members who are caretakers of failing elderly parents. I have seen the exhaustion and frustration in dealing with a situation that is only going to get worse. Often caretakers have depression after the death of the parent. All that work ultimately does not alter the final outcome, it just makes the passing easier. Robert E. Howard was a caretaker.  Whereas L. Sprague de Camp sees an Oedipus complex and being tied to his mother’s apron strings, I see somebody with a sense of responsibility to take care of a chronically ill parent while at the same time working to bring in money to support the family. That is a hard thing to keep up for years. I have seen it wreck the health of people. It probably never entered de Camp’s mind to talk to people who work in hospice to get an idea of dealing with terminal illness. He was more interested in psychological spot comments to back up his judgments. There is a consistency in print by de Camp from 1953-1983. It was once said of the Bourbons of France that they forgot nothing and refused to learn anything, the situation is similar here.

I happened to notice when looking over the list of people that de Camp thanks in the introduction to Dark Valley Destiny for help included Richard Lupoff. In Lupoff’s The Great American Paperback, he wrote one of the most offensive spot comments on Robert E. Howard I have ever read using the psychotic crazy man description. Those are the results when de Camp’s judgements seep out into popular culture.