Her Letters To Robert E. Howard: Novalyne Price

Dear Bob,

Although you leave nothing for me to say, being a woman, I’ll say something anyway.

Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone 233

Novalyne Price was born to Homer and Etna Reed Price in Brownwood, Texas in 1908. Her parents’ marriage did not last through her childhood; in 1919 Etna remarried to Albert C. Sears, though this marriage would also end in divorce in the 1930s. She was two grades behind Robert E. Howard at Brownwood High, who finished high school at Brownwood because the school at Cross Plains stopped at 10th grade. She took classes at the local Daniel Baker College while still in high school, and finally graduated high school and entered as a full-time student in 1925 with a focus on Oratory and Literature.

It appears that working her way through college required her to alternate semesters, so she did not matriculate with her second diploma until Spring 1933—in the middle of the Great Depression. There were few options for educated women when it came to work; teaching was a respectable professional, but underfunded schools often paid teachers in scrip rather than cash…and had strict expectations:

“There will be no drinking, smoking, dancing, Sunday picture shows, or playing bridge by any member of this faculty.” […]

“You should not plan to go home every weekend either,” Mr. Williams went on. “You will be expected to stay here where your work is and attend church here. I want to make it clear that there will be no drinking by any member of this faculty.” He cleared his throat. “Furthermore, we want to keep the children from smoking if we can. No smoking on the school grounds or in the buildings. If they see you smoke, they will want to smoke, too. And this applies to the lady faculty members; we more or less accept the fact that men smoke, even if we don’t quite approve of it, but lady faculty members are not to smoke anytime, anywhere.” […]

“It has come to my attention that some teachers play bridge so late at night they cannot do their work the next day. You are not to play bridge, not even in your rooms at your boarding places.”

One Who Walked Alone 36

Nevertheless, Novalyne Price began her career as an educator in January 1934 in a small town outside of Abilene, Texas…but the next year she took a position at Cross Plains, closer to Brownwood where her mother and grandmother kept a farm…and where, perhaps not coincidentally, Robert E. Howard lived.

Novalyne had been aware of Bob Howard through their mutual friends in Brownwood; she had dated Howard’s good friend Tevis Clyde Smith, and he had introduced the two in 1932. Like Robert E. Howard, she was interested in becoming a writer. Now that they were both in Cross Plains, the two renewed their acquaintance…and began what would be a tumultuous on-again, off-again romance. The two dated, argued, exchanged gifts, flirted, met each other’s families, went on long drives in the country, debated, criticized each other’s fiction, quarreled and made up and quarreled again…a story chronicled in her memoir One Who Walked Alone, later made into the motion picture The Whole Wide World.

For the 1934-1935 and 1935-1936 school years, Novalyne Price lived in a boarding house within easy walking distance of the Howard home. Despite this, the two carried on their relationship in part by correspondence. While Howard was on no set schedule, he occasionally made trips for days at a time out of town, and they would keep in touch by letter; so too, Novalyne Price had to work full-time, and unpaid overtime as she worked to coach some of the school’s extracurricular activities, which left little time during the week for visits so Bob would mail her notes and letters. Ten of these letters from Bob to Novalyne survive, reproduced in Price’s memoir and subsequently in collections of Howard’s letters.

The first letter was sent 27 September 1934:

Dear Novalyne,

How about going to the show in Brownwood Sunday afternoon? I’ll be over about 1:30 p.m. Let me know by return mail.

Your friend,
Bob

One Who Walked Alone 68

Teachers in Cross Plains were not supposed to go out to picture shows on Sundays. Nor was Robert E. Howard the normal sort of fellow to date: his profession as a writer set him apart in what was still predominantly a farming and tradesman’s community, a little crossroads town that had grown up overnight due to an oil boom and was still very conservative…and Bob Howard had developed a reputation as someone eccentric. Weird.

If I date Bob, some people will tease me. Others will think I’m crazy or peculiar. So what?

You pay a price for everything in this life. You have to decide for yourself whether the price is reasonable or too high. […]

I went to my room, sat down at the typewriter and wrote three lines to Bob to tell him I’d be glad to go to Brownwood to see a show and that one-thirty would be fine. I took the letter out of the typewriter, got up, and told Ethel I was going to the post office to mail it. She thought she ought to go with me, but I insisted on going alone.

Outside, the stars were dim and far away. A soft wind touched my face. I ran most of the way to the post office.

One Who Walked Alone 69-70

The impression from Novalyne’s memoir is that there were more such notes, because sometime around October 1934 she writes:

The only letter in my box was from Bob. I didn’t have time to read it, but I glanced at it and burst out laughing right there in the post office. He didn’t write “Dear Novalyne” as he usually did. Instead he began: “My Cherished Little Bunch of Onion Tops.”

The letter was nearly two pages, typed, single spaced, and I knew it was going to be mostly about the story I’d gotten back which he had taken home to read.

One Who Walked Alone 106

Novalyne’s early stories aren’t known to survive but appear to have been mostly realistic stories aimed at the confessional or romance pulps, dealing with subjects like a woman with an illegitimate child. With her busy schedule at school, grading papers, and with extracurricular projects, Novalyne had little time for writing or revising her fiction to meet editorial standards…yet she was eager to see what a professional could tell her to improve her writing.

First, he explained that men made a terrible mistake when they called their best girls thier rose or violet or names like that, because a man ought to call his girl something that was near his heart. What, he asked, was nearer a man’s heart than his stomach? Therefore he considered it to be an indication of his deep felt love and esteem to call me his cherished little bunch of onion tops, and, judging from past experience, both of us had the highest regard for onions.

The rest of the letter was about my story—”Vixens CLimb Trees.” He said that he’d gotten the best laugh he’d had in a long time, for he understood perfectly the girl’s discomfiture riding a rough, ornery cayuse like the one I had described in the story.

Something he really liked, he said, was the background for the story. It was just there.

One Who Walked Alone 106

Howard offered to write to his agent Otis Adelbert Kline to look at the story, which he apparently did as later on Price writes about receiving an answer from Kline. This was, though she may not have known it, more than a friendly gesture on his part: like many agents, Kline could demand reading fees for work. Presumably, he didn’t charge Novalyne Price as a favor to Howard, who was on his way to becoming a good client.

Writing was like eating onions; the more you did, the better you liked it. Some day, soon, he was sure I’d find an appreciative editor. But the secret, he said, was to write, write, write.

That was discouraging. How could I write and write? I am behind with my paper grading and Enid is on my back constantly. But working with individual students after school, then going back at night to rehearse plays, how could I write more and more. These diaries and journals, of which he is so skeptical, take about all the time I have to give. Here it is after twelve o’clock, and I’m tired. All I want to do is go to bed and forget everything.

One Who Walked Alone 107

There were several disconnects like that between Novalyne and Bob. He had already made the leap and committed himself to be a full-time writer, and could write twelve hours a day if he had to. His advice was no doubt honest, as it had been what he himself had done: learn by doing. Yet Novalyne had a career already and struggled with her schedule as it was. She couldn’t afford to write like Bob did.

Bob Howard did encourage her, and busy as she was he also doted on her in his own fashion. Presumably, during the week she was often too busy to go out for a drive, see a picture, or even have a fizz at the soda fountain; probably they couldn’t spend hours on the phone either. Yet there was always the post office.

The only bright spot in the whole week has been the cutre little notes or letters I’ve gotten from him every day. All of them ebgin with “My very dear little Bunch of Radishes,” or “My very dear Beans, Cornbread and Onions,” or “My dear Sausage and Big, Brown, Fluffy Bisquits [sic].” He’s still on the kick that a man ought to call his girl names that are close to his heart—his stomach.

In one letter, Bob talked about how much it was raining and that neither man nor animal could keep his feet dry. But all this proved, he said, that he’d walk through floods for me. Then, in the postscript, he said he’d be over Saturday afternoon if it didn’t rain. That was the letter in which he called me sliced red beets with butter over them. […]

I wrote Bob, and he wrote me another goofy note to tell me he’d be over tonight, and we’d ride around and he’d shoot his mouth off. I had told him in th eletter that I loved to walk in the rain, and he said maybe I’d just as soon walk.

One Who Walked Alone 110

His “goofy note” came in an unsealed envelope; Novalyne chided him on this, which led to a small argument:

He was emphatic. “I did not forget to seal that letter. I never forget to seal a letter. That’s the damndest thing I ever heard of. Those bastards in the post office opened that letter and read it.”

My nerves were on edge, but I managed not to sound too irritable. “Oh, Bob, you know better than that. It’s against the law to open a letter and read it.”

“What makes you think people in the Cross Plains post office know what the law says?” he raged.

I laughed without mirth. “Just be sure you seal the next letter you write me.”

One Who Walked Alone 110

And on in that vein. Bob was sensitive to slights, real and perceived; Novalyne was sensitive to appearances. Small misunderstandings have a way, in Novalyne’s memoirs, to turn into more serious and sometimes ongoing arguments. Of course, in this case after their date, Bob went home, wrote her a letter, posted it, and then spent the rest of the night writing. Novalyne got the letter the next day…in an unsealed envelope. It began:

Dear Novalyne and Members of the Cross Plains Post Office Staff

One Who Walked Alone 118

The next letter we have the actual text for is a short note, c. December 1934, which included a poem from a fan (“Echo of the Ebon Isles” by Emil Petaja), and two of Howard’s own poems, “To A Woman” and “One Who Comes At Eventide” which had been published in Modern American Poetry 1933.

Though fahtoms deep you sink me in the mould,
Locked in with thick-lapped lead and bolted wood,
Yet rest not easy in your lover’s arms;
Let him beware to stand where I have stood.

I shall not fail to burst my ebon case,
And thrust aside the clods with fingers red:
Your blood shall turn to ice to see my face
Look from the shadows on your midnight bed.

To face the dead, he, too, shall wake in vain,
My fingers at his throat, your scream his knell;
He will not see me tear you from your bed,
And drag you by your golden hair to Hell.

Robert E. Howard, “To A Woman” (1933)

Not perhaps the most romantic poem to share, but she had asked for it. Their relationship continued in that vein, and perhaps there were weeks when they wrote more than they saw each other because in March 1935 Bob had to take his mother to Temple, Tx. to receive medical treatment. Hester Howard’s illness, probably tuberculosis, was one of long duration and which allowed periods of outward good health; medical care was expensive, and Bob’s doting on a mother that Novalyne couldn’t see physically ailing was another point of misunderstanding.

Bob is coming home. I had a card from him, saying that his mother was getting better, and he was bringing her home. I wanted to write him a letter, telling him how my students did, but he probably will be home before the letter could get to him.

One Who Walked Alone 182

On the way home from a County Meet (22 March 1935) where her students performed, Novalyne Price collapsed and was taken to the hospital at Brownwood (30-31 March 1935). The nature of the illness is unclear; Novalyne’s memoir indicates she was eating little and sleeping little, and had gone down to eighty-five pounds, but never reveals what precisely the diagnosis was (One Who Walked Alone 187). Dr. Dougherty, who treated Novalyne, recommended as part of her treatment she leave Texas for a time—recommending graduate studies out-of-state, which suggestion Novalyne Price would eventually take him up on.

Once back in Cross Plains, Novalyne and Bob’s relationship continued with its ups and downs. As the 1934-1935 semester wound down, a stack of papers that included many of Bob’s letters to her was mistaken for trash and burned. The timing was almost symbolic; in a downturn in her relationship with Bob, Novalyne had begun to date his friend Truett Vinson, without telling Bob. The fact came out while Bob and Truett had driven out to New Mexico (19-24 June 1935); Bob had punctuated the trip with two postcards to Novalyne.

I wrote to Bob in Cross Plains a very short note, telling him that I had gotten his cards and enjoyed them, except for the snake swallowing the rabbit […] The note I wrote was friendly, nothing more nor less.

One Who Walked Alone 229
A common tourist postcard

This was followed by a longer letter from Bob, dated 4 July 1935, that seemed to hint that he knew Novalyne had been hanging out with Truett. She debated how or if to answer him.

I wasn’t quite sure how to answer the letter or even whether I should answer. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to write him and be very sweet and cut him as he had cut at Truett and me. It began to irritate me […] One other thought bothered me. No matter how irriated I became with Bob, I had enjoyed being with him, and I thought Cross Plains without him might be pretty dull.

Finally, I wrote him a short letter, and I tried to be as casual as I could possibly be. I even told him I was looking forward to seeing him again. His answer to that made me so mad I couldn’t see straight.

One Who Walked Alone 230

Robert E. Howard’s letter of 9 July 1935 to Novalyne Price while she was staying with her mother and grandmother in Brownwood is aggrieved: he sees himself as the butt of a cruel joke from two people he had seen as friends, but had concealed that they were going together from him for their own amusement. Novalyne, for her part, could not fathom this attitude: she had all but told him she was dating Truett. The “all but” is probably the heart of the break here, no doubt Bob was honestly hurt at the perceived betrayal, and Novalyne in not wanting to hurt him by telling him outright had worsened the miscommunication. Whatever the case, she did not take it well.

I had to read that letter twice to believe it. I was furious. […] My first impulse was to tear the letter up and go throw it in his face. I sat down at the typewriter and wrote him a letter, telling him to go to hel and take his mother with him! I told him that no other woman in the world but me would have put up with him, and that the only reason I did was because I could appreciate a person who had talent and a profession which he worked at hard enough to make the kind of success he had made. I told him I never wanted to see or speka to him again.

After I wrote it, I read it to Mother and Mammy. […]

“What do you think, Mother?” I asked.

“You’ve said it now,” she said quietly. “Tear it up.”

One Who Walked Alone 231-232

She did, eventually. Then, when she had calmed down a bit, Novalyne Price sat down to write Bob another letter, dated 12 July 1935. It begins:

Dear Bob,

Although you leave nothing for me to say, being a woman, I’ll say something anyway. You said that you didn’t care whom I went with. I know that, Bob. During the time that I went with you, I realized perfectly how you felt about women. Women chain a man down. You always wanted to be free and independent. Such an idea as being chained to a woman was obnoxious to you. Self-preservation was the first law which you recognize. Strange as it may seem, I, too, demand my freedom; self-preservation is also a law of my life. I’ll do anything which gives me pleasure and consider myself under no obligation to tell my friends my personal business.

One Who Walked Alone 233

There was more, about her relationship with Truett Vinson and Tevis Clyde Smith. For all their dates, Novalyne and Bob had never, apparently, defined their relationship. Though they obviously cared for one another, neither had been ready to commit to one another, at least not at the same time. Novalyne’s tone is still hurt, but perhaps not as angry as her first letter. She mailed it.

When I went to the mailbox this morning, I found an envelope with Bob’s name on it. I frowned. It really didn’t seem to me that my letter had had time to get to Cross Plains, yet here was a letter back from Bob, or else, I thought, as I walked slowly toward the house, this one had been written before he got mine. […]

Surprise! It was not a letter from Bob! It was my letter, the one I wrote last Friday! My letter was in the envelope; he had sent it back to me! There was not a single word or line from Bob…just my letter!

One Who Walked Alone 235

Readers today may argue whether or not Robert E. Howard and Novalyne Price were ever in love, but they certainly knew how to piss each other off. Because of Bob’s gesture, this is the only letter from Novalyne Price to Robert E. Howard that survives.

While they may have wounded each other with things said and left unsaid, this was not the end of Novalyne and Bob’s relationship. Her memoirs for the 1935-1936 school year at Cross Plains are less detailed; a bit of the bloom had come off the rose, and Bob Howard had made some long trips as he ferried his mother to hospitals and healthcare facilities in Marlin and San Angelo, Tx., and so he was sometimes away from Cross Plains for days or weeks at a time. But they had managed to forgive each other a little, if not forget. That was part of their dynamic. Novalyne doesn’t write much of their correspondence during this period, but in an entry dated 13 February 1936 she wrote:

“The way to interest a writer, I said to my roommate, “is to ask him about his writing. After you find out what he’s doing and selling, you ask him to help you with your writing.” […]

“So you’re going to ask him about his writing?” she laughed.

“The letter is written and mailed. I asked him where and how much he was selling these days. Then I asked if he had any suggestions about markets I might sell to.”

He answered so promptly Mary Beth put her hand to her mouth and began munching away—to show me I had him eating out of my hand.

One Who Walked Alone 261-262

Bob replied in a good-sized letter dated 14 February 1936; noting the date he added near the end:

This being Valentine Day, I suppose I should make the conventional request for you to go and join the army. That may sound a bit wobbly, but look: Valentine comes from the same word from which “gallant” is derived; a gallant may be a suitor, but is also a cavalier; a cavalier is a knight; a knight is a cavalryman; a cavalryman is a soldier. To ask one to be one’s Valentine is equivalent to asking him, or her, to be a soldier. And one can’t be a soldier without joining the army. So, a request to become a Valentine is approximately a demand to go and join the army.

One Who Walked Alone 264

Yet beneath the surface, all the same issues that had driven them apart before remained. Hester Howard’s health continued to decline, Novalyne continued to harp on Bob about his appearance—she made a particular point of impugning his mustache—and there were other little misunderstandings that often cropped up into disagreements. For all their mutual admiration, Novalyne had no understanding of the seriousness of Hester’s illness or how her decline weighed on Bob; nor did Bob seem to understand why when he was feeling so blue she would pick on him about his mustache of all things.

In late February Bob once again took his mother to Marlin, Tx. for further medical treatment. It meant standing up Novalyne for a date…and he wrote her a letter to apologize for it and explain why, but quickly broke down into a torrent of words over their last date (“My God, arguing over a mustache when my whole life is crumbling to powder under my hands!”), until at the end he summed up with “[…] all I ever wanted was to be allowed to enjoy your company, and I always did, when you gave me any kind of chance. Your friend, Bob” (One Who Walked Alone 274).

I read the letter twice. Then I went into the bathroom, sat down and cried with anger and frustration. He did a beautiful job of blaming me for being foolish and mean when his life was breaking up around him! I admit I handled the situation badly! Should I write to tell him I loved Truett and that it nauseated me to death to hear him say about his mother: “I changed her gown and bed three times last night.” I think that’s his dad’s job. Not Bob’s.

One Who Walked Alone 274

At this point, it’s worth recalling that we really have only Novalyne’s memoir to describe her relationship with Robert E. Howard. Bob wrote almost nothing about his relationship with her: why would he mention such things to H. P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, or Clark Ashton Smith? They were peers at Weird Tales, but not intimates of that sort. Many of the incidental details of Novalyne’s memoir can be verified in other details of Howard’s letters, like the fact that in January 1936 Hester Howard suffered from terrible night sweats that required changing her gown and bedding.

Novalyne’s honesty in her memoir is presenting it “warts and all”—she does not come across as the sympathetic party, being honest about her own mistakes and feelings at the time, including her lack of understanding and empathy for what the Howards were going through.

The day after he mailed that letter ot me from Marlin, he wrote me a card, a fairly cheerful card, saying his mother seemed to be doing well, and he, too, was feeling better. I didn’t answer. I wasn’t ready to say anything else to him. I had already written him a letter, trying to excuse myself for the silly things I’d said. In some ways I chickened out and said I was unhappy.

One Who Walked Alone 275

Bob’s reply is dated 5 March. A certain strain of fatalism runs through it, beginning with the first paragraph:

Dear Novalyne;

I just not read the letter you wrote me Monday, February 24th. None of my mail has been forward to me at Marlin and this letter was with the rest I got out of the post office this morning. I’m sorry I didn’t get it before I left. If I had, I wouldn’t have written you in what must have seemed like such a bitter strain, though I did not mean it that way. I can’t blame you for not answering the card I wrote you from Marlin. It’s hard, in the last analysis, to blame anyone for anything. We are all caught in a mesh of circumstances we cannot break.

One Who Walked Alone 276

The Cross Plains school year ended 22 May 1936; these were their last days together, as Novalyne had already applied for and been accepted at Louisiana State University for graduate school over the summer, though she would be back in Cross Plains for the 1936-1937 school year. In packing her things to leave, she returned one of the books Bob had given her as a gift…and he wrote what turned out to be his final letter to her, dated 27 May 1936:

Dear Novalyne,

You needn’t have bothered about returning the book. I intended for you to keep it, if you wanted it. I hope you enjoy your vacation, and that you’ll find Louisiana all you hope it to be. I’m sure the courses of study you’re taking will be interesting and helpful. With the best wishes for your health, prosperity and success, I am, as I always was,

Your Friend,
Bob

One Who Walked Alone 297

Two weeks before this, Howard had written to H. P. Lovecraft that he had “renewed an old love affair and broken it off again” (A Means to Freedom 2.953). On receiving the letter, Novalyne Price wrote:

Tomorrow, I promised myself, when I finish packing for LSU, I’ll write Bob a friendly letter—one that will make things all right between us again.

One Who Walked Alone 297

She never wrote that letter. Robert E. Howard would commit suicide on 11 July 1936, while Novalyne Price was at Louisiana State University; she would not return to Cross Plains until time for the 1936-1937 school term.

The correspondence of Novalyne Price and Robert E. Howard shows us how limited our understanding of relationships can be, not just because we have only an incomplete correspondence—ten letters and postcards from Bob to Novalyne, and one letter from Novalyne to Bob—but because so much of their relationship existed outside of that correspondence. While Robert E. Howard only ever interacted with C. L. Moore and H. P. Lovecraft through the mail, Novalyne and Bob would have interacted mostly face-to-face, talking, laughing, arguing, kissing, and enjoying a quiet moonrise as the case may be. For them, the letters were a buttress to their relationship, mostly during times when they couldn’t enjoy such facetime because of Novalyne’s busy schedule or because they were separated by distance (Novalyne going home to Brownwood during the school breaks, Bob’s trips around Texas and into New Mexico and Mexico).

We don’t have Robert E. Howard’s perspective on the relationship, but in comparison to his letters to friends and peers, his letters to Novalyne seem more intimate and unguarded; it was not unusual for Howard to shift his tone to display humor or pathos and self-recrimination, but the letters to Novalyne do seem to have a quality of pouring his heart out, at least as much as he can. Novalyne’s sole letter, and description of her other letters, show both honesty and her fierce independence. It was not a relationship where either Novalyne or Bob was solely at fault, both had flaws that prevented them from coming together…and punctuated, at last, with a single unanswerable letter.

It’s a feeling that I think everybody who knows a friend or family member who commits suicide feels. The feeling of guilt has this to do with it—you say, “If I hadn’t said thus-and-so, if I’d been more sympathetic, if I hadn’t sent that book back to Bob, if I’d gone by that morning, if I’d answered his letter”—all these things that you say. It doesn’t matter that maybe your reasoning mind can tell you “Oh, well, this would not have done it”—you still think it.

Novalyne Price Ellis, Day of the Stranger: Furhter Memories of Robert E. Howard 20

For more information on Novalyne Price Ellis and her relationship with Robert E. Howard, please see:


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

2 thoughts on “Her Letters To Robert E. Howard: Novalyne Price

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