Ernest Hemingway and Robert E. Howard had a lot in common. Both were passionate outdoorsmen who relished food and drink and brawling. Though identified with different genres, both infused their fiction with athletic, vivid prose that still stirs the imaginations of appreciative readers. They have inspired countless writers, and decades after their deaths, their works are still in print.
Both of them boxed, and wrote spirited, brawny stories about boxers. And each also wrote inspirational tales about heroes who refused to surrender despite overwhelming odds.
And yet, both committed suicide.
I’ve read excellent accounts of the lives and careers of both authors, and still puzzle over their final acts.
No doubt both men were tormented, and found some release – or at least, temporary escape – from their suffering in their writing. In a letter to F. Scott, Fitzgerald, Hemingway confided:
“Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it—don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist—but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you.”
In his poem “Musings,” Howard identifies writing as a weapon against the horrors and torments of a hostile world:
The mighty poets write in blood and tears
And agony that, flame-like, bites and sears.
They reach their mad blind hands into the night,
To plumb abysses dead to human sight;
To drag from gulfs where lunacy lies curled,
Mad, monstrous nightmare shapes to blast the world.
The intrepid protagonists that both writers brought to life still inspire. Garcia, the washed-up matador in Hemingway’s “The Undefeated,” must battle not just a formidable bull, but a predatory promoter and a fickle, unforgiving crowd. Like Santiago in “The Old Man and the Sea,” Garcia may be beaten at the end, but refuses to give up. Howard’s Conan tales still thrill readers with dazzling, evocative scenes of courage and muscle battling intrigue and sorcery.
How could artists who penned such timeless accounts of heroic tenacity raise their guns to their own heads?
One possible explanation is suggested by H.P. Lovecraft’s tribute to Howard shortly after Howard’s suicide:
“Scarcely anybody else in the pulp field had quite the driving zest and spontaneity of R. E. H. He put himself into everything he wrote—even when he made outward concessions to pulp standards…”
The same could be said of Hemingway. Both infused their stories with their own life-force. Like the determined heroes they conceived, they held on to their agency, though in a final, hard choice. Both found themselves with no other option. Hemingway could no longer write, and he was racked by concussions and a broken body. Howard was convinced both his relationship with Novalyne Price and his writing career were over, and was physically and emotionally wrecked by the demands of attending to his mother.
We can easily imagine Hemingway and Howard as the boxer Paul Simon wrote about:
In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of every glove that laid him down
Or cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame
“I am leaving, I am leaving”
But the fighter still remains
Pummeled and in devastating pain, the boxer chooses to leave. But the fighter still remains. As Hemingway once put it, “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”