Dec 9 – ’26
My dear little boy:
This is such nasty weather I do hope you keep your feet dry and warm. I am afraid you will expose yourself and take the flu. Please wear your overcoat, or at least your suit with coat and vest. I warned you.Hester Howard to Robert E. Howard, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 6
Hester Jane Ervin was born 11 July 1870 in Hill County, Texas, the eighth child of “Colonel” George W. Ervin and his wife Sara Jane. The family eventually settled in Lewisville, where Hester began attending school, where she learned to read and write, and found a special love for poetry:
She loved poetry. Written poetry by sheets and reams, almost books of it, was stored in her memory so that from Robert’s babyhood he had heard its recital. Day by [day,] heard poetry from his mother. She was a lover of the beautiful.Dr. I. M. Howard to E. Hoffmann Price, 21 Jun 1944, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 205
The Erwin family moved as circumstances changed. From Lewisville to Lampasas, TX, and from there to Exeter, MO. Hester Howard’s profession was probably that of a family caretaker, helping to care for her older relatives and her younger stepsiblings; she is known to have traveled to visit relatives in Texas. Marriage, however, remained elusive…until 12 Jan 1904, when she was 33 years old, Hester married a traveling physician, Dr. Isaac M. Howard. (Renegades & Rogues 7-10)
The Howards’ marriage was marked by frequent moves, and private difficulties. They appear to have had trouble conceiving, and even made steps toward fostering Wallace Howard, the youngest child of Dr. Howard’s brother David. The adoption was only called off when Hester became pregnant. She gave birth to Robert Ervin Howard on 22 Jan 1906, when she was 36 years old. A second pregnancy c. 1908 ended in a miscarriage, and Robert would be her only child. (Renegades & Rogues 16-17, 19)
In October 1919, the Howards finally settled down in the small town of Cross Plains, TX; which would be Hester Howard’s home for the rest of her life, aside from a brief stay in Brownwood while Robert was finishing his high school education, and trips to various hospitals and the like. Hester Howard’s death certificate lists the cause of death as tuberculosis, and it is known that for several years she had suffered at least intermittent and increasingly bad health. It isn’t clear when the disease began to manifest, but by the time Howard began corresponding with H. P. Lovecraft in the 1930s the spells of ill-health were no doubt pronounced; Dr. Howard stated in one letter dated 11 Jul 1936 that “Mrs. Howard had been in failing health for five years” (The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 76), and around that time Robert mentions a:
[…] small health resort about thirty miles east of Waco where I spent a week.Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Jun 1931, A Means to Freedom 1.166
This would have been the Torbett Sanitarium at Marlin, TX, which was run by friends of the Howards and where Hester would receive occasional treatment—almost 160 miles from Cross Plains. The illness would progress, and caring for his mother, paying for her treatment, and getting her back and forth from various hospitals would take a toll on the Howard family.
Only two letters survive from Hester Howard to Robert E. Howard survive, the first dated 9 Dec 1926, the second 4 Jan 1927. At that time, Robert E. Howard was in Brownwood, TX, attending the Howard Payne Academy with the aim for a certificate in bookkeeping, all the while working on his writing. His career in the pulps was just beginning—but it was almost cut short:
There are some cases of measles in Brownwood, and if you begin to feel bad, ache or feverish or anything, go to Dr. Fowler, Bailey or Snyder, or any of these men, & let them go over you to see what your trouble is. Try to be sensible about yourself & keep fit.Hester Howard to Robert E. Howard, 4 Jan 1927, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 7
The measles outbreak turned into an epidemic, including the boarding house where Robert was staying. According to his friend Lindsey Tyson, the almost-19-year-old Robert did the exact opposite of heeding his mother’s advice:
While we were there an epidemic of measles got started, the Powells we were living with had a baby girl who got the disease. The Howards heard about the epidemic and came to take Bob home as he had never had the measles. Bob said this time I damn [sic] sure will have this stuff, he did not want to go. He went into the bathroom that the little girl had been useing [sic] picked up a glass that the child had probably been useing, [sic] drank out of it, rubbed a towel over his face that he thought she had probably been using.Quoted in Renegades & Rogues 86
Unsurprisingly, Robert E. Howard got measles.
Hester Howard’s two surviving letters to her son show all the concerns a mother might have for a son who was effectively living away from home for the first time. They ask about his health, give his bank account information, share bits of local news and gossip, sending a bit of money for Christmas 1926 so Robert could buy books—and there would have been more letters from home, probably a steady stream of them week after week during the fall, winter, and spring semesters:
Well, I will write again first of next week if I can’t come.Hester Howard to Robert E. Howard, 9 Dec 1926, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 6
Well, i believe that is all for this time. Please change your shirts every 2 or 3 days, also your handkerchiefs & sox. Please keep clean, and bring Lindsey [Tyson] & one of the other boys home with you on the 21st next. Don’t know, but we might get to come for you. Can’t tell yet, but will write again. Be sure & write to Mother with love–Hester Howard to Robert E. Howard, 4 Jan 1927, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 8
How many more letters flowed between mother and son? While Robert E. Howard went on periodic trips throughout his adult life, as far south as the Mexican border and as far west as New Mexico, he rarely stayed in any town or city outside of Cross Plains for long unless he was there to take care of his mother. It is not hard to imagine him sending a postcard or letter from his trips to brighten her day, but he hardly seems to have stayed in one place away from home long enough for any sort of correspondence outside of the extended Brownwood sojourn.
Today, the Howard house in Cross Plains is a museum, and visitors can walk through the rooms and imagine Hester Howard sitting at the table to write out a letter to her son. There would be chores to do around the house; food to cook and animals to look after, washing and knitting or sewing to be done, the newspaper to read, perhaps friends and neighbors to visit with…and Bob’s room, right next to her own, with its piles of books and magazines, waiting for her boy to come home. She would jot down her thoughts, her hopes and concerns, for the young man who was her only son, hoping and praying he would be okay…and waiting, perhaps, on his own letters home to let her know how he progressed in his studies, what movies he had seen, or what King Kull was getting up to in Valusia.
These are not the literary letters that Robert E. Howard might have received from C. L. Moore, or the teasing love-letters from Novalyne Price, but the utterly prosaic letters of a woman who had come very far in life to settle in a small West Texas town, and wanted to make sure her son changed his socks so his feet wouldn’t stink. Far and away from how we might think of Robert E. Howard, who liked to fill his letters to H. P. Lovecraft with blood and thunder…but a part of him that should not be overlooked: the man, not the legend, and the mother who kept him in clean shirts and socks.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).