Howard and the Fourth of July

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July 4, 1935. Howard, drunk and depressed at his home in Cross Plains, sits at his typewriter and begins to compose two letters. One, to his on-again/off-again girlfriend Novalyne Price, seethes with barely disguised bitterness and scorn over his recent discovery that she has been dating one of his best and oldest friends, Truett Vinson, behind his back. The letter begins:

I take my typewriter in hand to write you a letter on this grand and suspicious — I mean auspicious occasion — when the zoom of the horse race and the rodeo is heard in the land, punctuated by the flap of waving flags, the rumble of patriotic speeches, and the howls of patriots getting their scalps burnt off by premature fire crackers.

Howard went on to drop numerous hints about his knowledge of her transgressions, which precipitated the beginning of the end of their falling out and which is recounted in Novalyne’s book One Who Walked Alone.

On the same day, he wrote a fairly lengthy letter to August Derleth, which among other things featured a wide-ranging discussion of the grand holiday, Texas-style. Howard wrote:

I seem to ramble, but ignore it. It is merely a result of being too full of beer. Burgundy wine and a peculiarly potent blackberry brandy liqueur I discovered in Socorro, New Mexico. This is the galorious fourth, dear to patriotic hearts from the sunny slopes of Maine to the muscle-bound coasts of San Diego, and I must do my patriotic duty…They’ll probably have a small rodeo here at the annual picnic, with the attendant casualties. Last year it was a cowboy from Oklahoma who called himself Jack o’ Diamonds.

He then goes on to describe a long and typically grisly series of folkloric deaths that have occurred at various Cross Plains events over the years. By the end one pictures an event like the modern-day Howard Days in a shambles, with Dennis McHaney gutted and crying out his death song over here, Rusty Burke marinating in a pool of his own entrails over there, and the rest of us already being tossed into new plots at the Cross Plains Cemetery dug expressly for the occasion. Howard wraps up by remarking:

Now that’s but a poor thought on the fourth of July. But the liquor has stirred up old memories and set the ghosts of the dead walking in my mind. Old names that are already meaningless as the wind that blows through the trees at midnight. But it’s a poor thought on a day of jubilee and firecrackers. I’m drunker than I thought I was.

If Howard was kidding about being tipsy when writing those letters, he kept up the charade months later, when on November 1, 1935 he wrote Derleth again and apologized for his behavior:

I seem to remember being full of booze the last time I wrote you — in fact your answering letter confirms it. I was probably verbose and repetitious; hope I didn’t bore you too much. I have an infernal habit of writing letters when I get to a certain point of intoxication. Which is rare; I seldom get even mildly soused more than two or three times a year.

Concerning Howard’s tale of the death of “Jack o’ Diamonds” and the other examples of Fourth of July picnic mayhem, it’s a mistake to believe that they are representative only of Howard’s frightful imagination, one that created enemies out of ether and feuds out of fantasy. Howard’s stories and Texan anecdotes are often hyper-real, brilliantly distilled to highlight his chosen themes: hate, vengeance, and the innate barbarity of Man. And yet there are copious amounts of Truth to be mined in even his most outrageous and hard-to-believe tales.

To Lovecraft’s varied denunciations of Howard’s view of the world as a hopelessly violent, dangerous admixture of outlaws and innocents, Howard once retorted with several newspaper clippings, each accompanied by a typed notation by REH. One was titled “Memorial Day Costs 41 Lives,” and among the listing of death and mayhem perpetrated around the country that day are the following two items:

Two were killed in Texas, a deputy stabbed and five others shot, and in Rhode Island, a farm hand, later killed by police, shot a state officer to death.

Rhode Island, of course, was the home of Lovecraft himself, a place the horror maven made it a point to assure Howard was well-policed and utterly free from the barbaric natures and criminal outrages of Howard’s own Lone Star State. Howard’s sardonic comment, typed in the margin of the article clipping sent to Lovecraft, states, “Looks like your state was right up alongside mine on that particular day.”

The other clipping has a large headline proclaiming “FIVE OTHERS STRUCK DOWN BY BULLETS,” with a subheading of “Deputy Sheriff Is Stabbed When Feud, Dormant 26 Years, Breaks Forth Anew. Shots Narrowly Miss Group of Children Gathered About Speaker’s Stand.” The article begins thusly:


Two men were killed, a deputy sheriff stabbed and five others struck by bullets in a gun and knife fight at a political meeting here today which reopened a feud dormant for 26 years.

It sounds to all intents and purposes like something out of a Breck Elkins story, “Pistol Politics” perhaps:

“Gentlemen!” squawked Gooseneck — and then ducked as they both went for their guns.

They cleared leather at the same time. When the smoke oozed away Gooseneck crawled out from under the roulette table and cussed fervently.

“Two more reliable voters gone to glory!” he raged. “Breckinridge, whyn’t you stop ’em?”

“‘Twarn’t none of my business,” says I, reching for another drink, because a stray bullet had knocked my glass outa my hand.

Howard’s view of the Fourth of July dovetailed nicely with his views on Texas, southerners, and life in general: rowdy, loud, passionate, many times silly and unpredictable, but in the end sacred in some unfathomable way. On July 3, 1933, Howard asked Derleth:

How are you going to celebrate the gul-orious Fourth, which is tomorrow? Of late years that occasion has been observed a right smart in the Southwest. When I first remember, the Fourth of July was just another day. Too hot to shoot fire-crackers; at least we considered it so then. We saved our fireworks for Christmas, and I recall with a slight shudder the homemade fireworks my pal and I used to experiment with: dynamite caps, blasting powder, and six shooters.

We can assume that the pal in question wasn’t Tevis Clyde Smith, who lived in Brownwood and who Howard failed to meet up with for the Fourth in 1925. On July 7 of that year Howard sent a letter to Smith that read in part:

How was the fourth! I tried my dangdest to get a way over there but the amount of work there is. Lots of times I’ve worked until nine o’clock at night, principally on oil reports, and am a way behind them, now.

As the years went on, it became clear that the Fourth was a microcosmic view of Howard’s life, in that each holiday showed him missing out on real-life at the expense of staying home, working, and feeding the inner life of his mind. Again and again we see Howard lamenting the passing of the holiday without him doing some activity he had planned. In June 1929 he wrote Tevis Clyde Smith that

I’m going to make a desperate effort to go to Matamoros the 4th of July. A whole flock of first-string heavyweights are going to perform there, with a bunch of Texas sluggers for preliminary heats. Gad, what I’d give to have a ringside seat in the old bullring when Stribling crosses mitts with Risko!

As he never mentions it again in his correspondence, it’s likely he never made it. And in that same letter to Derleth on July 4, 1935, the one that found Howard drunk and despondent at Novalyne’s betrayal and at another Fourth of July spent at home, away from friends and picnics and “real life,” Howard tells Augie

I wanted to go to the annual rodeo of Stamford, but not enough to drive a hundred and fifty miles in this heat and my present state of finances. Will Rogers was there, and I understand there was — or is — a distinguished bevy of bronc busters, calf-ropers and bull-throwers — particularly the latter. I’ll maybe get to go next year — and probably won’t.

As it happened, by July 4 of the following year Howard would be dead, felled by the last gasp of the same Texan obsession with violence and danger that he continually highlighted in his letters. As scholars and fans, we can sometimes be too quick to scoff at Howard’s flights of hyperbole and tale-spinning, dismissing the bulk of it as the imaginative rural legends spun by a master of the form. In the meantime, everywhere you go in Texas you see examples of the very things he wrote of. The ruins of Forts and scenes of ghastly slaughter, arrowheads in the grass, bulletholes through historic markers, and boneyards filled with men who died violently. Howard himself is buried in the same cemetery as one of outlaw John Wesley Hardin’s most famous victims, sheriff Charley Webb, an incident Howard himself wrote about to Lovecraft with great verve. When years later Hardin himself was gunned down in cold blood in El Paso, it was said that things in Texas had progressed to the point where nobody had to saddle up a horse to notify his friends and next of kin, they simply picked up the telephone.

But I suppose such a grisly tale is a damn poor thought on the Fourth of July.