Ebony and Crystal: REH, CAS, and Fraternal Good Wishes Essay
Ebony and Crystal: Poems in Verse and Prose (1922, The Auburn Journal) was Clark Ashton Smith’s third volume of poetry, following The Star-Treader and Other Poems (1912, Robertson) and Odes and Sonnets (1918, The Book Club of California). Smith had conceived the volume as early as 1916, and by late 1920 had a manuscript which he shopped around to Alfred A. Knopf, Boni & Liveright, and Houghton Mifflin, all of whom turned it down. (SU 148, 167, 186-189) Finally, in 1922 the Auburn Journal was willing to publish the book—“aside from half-a-dozen of the more ‘daring’ erotics”—on credit. (SU 209)
George Sterling helped, providing a preface for the book, going over the proofs, soliciting reviews in newspapers, as well as writing a review of the book which appeared in the San Francisco Bulletin. (SU 11) Problems with the binders delayed the timely publication of the book, which was published in December 1922 in an edition of 500 numbered copies, not counting unbound copies, etc.; Smith says in a letter to Sterling that 550 copies were printed in total, which probably includes unbound copies for review, at a cost to Smith of “about a dollar per copy.” Smith sought to retail them for $2 a copy, from which booksellers would take a commission. (SU 217-218) By May 1923, Smith wrote to Sterling that “The entire bill was $556, of which I still owe $180.”; this suggests that at least 200 copies must have sold, possibly more depending on the bookseller’s commision. To pay off the remainder of the debt, Smith began writing a column for the Auburn Journal. (SU 231) By 1926, Smith still had a hundred copies of Ebony & Crystal in stock; in a letter to H. P. Lovecraft in 1936, Smith admitted that the stock was “not yet exhausted.” (SU 272, SLCAS 278)
In August 1922, several months before Ebony and Crystal was published, Smith gained a new correspondent. H. P. Lovecraft and Smith shared a mutual friend in Samuel Loveman, to whom E&C is dedicated, and at Loveman’s suggestion Lovecraft began writing to Smith. (LNY 19) Through Lovecraft, Smith and his work began to be exposed to a wider circle—Lovecraft published a review of E&C in the amateur periodical L’Alouette (Jan 1924), and promoted the book to friends and correspondents—including Robert E. Howard, who Lovecraft had starting exchanging letters with in 1930. In a letter dated 24 July 1933, Lovecraft wrote to Robert E. Howard:
By the way—I enclose a circular of Clark Ashton Smith’s new brochure of weird stories, all of which are splendid. I advise you to pick up this item—and also the book of poems at its reduced price. (MF 2.619)
The “brochure” was The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies (June 1933), a collection of weird fiction privately printed for Smith by the Auburn Journal. Smith advertised the sale of of The Double Shadow for 25? a piece, and the remainder of the copies of Ebony and Crystal marked down to $1 each; besides the announcements circulated by Lovecraft, the advertisements ran in The Auburn Journal, The Fantasy Fan, Science Fiction Digest, Fantasy Magazine, and (for The Double Shadow only) Weird Tales. (ED 205)
As it happened, Lovecraft was slightly behind on events. In the first surviving letter from Robert E. Howard to Clark Ashton Smith, postmarked 15 March 1933, Howard thanks Smith for a copy of The Double Shadow, and adds:
I am enclosing a check for Ebony and Crystal and would feel most honored if you would write your autograph on the fly page. (CL 3.42)
Smith obliged, on the title page of Howard’s copy of the book, which was printed without fly-leaves, Smith inscribed the date, 4 July 1933, and the simple message:
For Robert E. Howard,
These litanies to Astarte and Hecate and Dagon and Demogorgon.
With fraternal good wishes,
Clark Ashton Smith
There is a slight discrepancy between the publishing date of The Double Shadow (June 1933), the date of Smith’s inscription (4 July), and Howard’s reception of it and order for Ebony & Crystal (postmarked 15 March); on the face of it, the likelihood is that the envelope’s postmark doesn’t correspond with the letter. Howard for his part was enthusiastic, as recorded in his reply to Smith, dated 22 July 1933:
I can hardly find words to express the pleasure — I might even say ecstasy — with which I have read, and re-read your magnificent Ebony and Crystal. Every line in it is a gem. I could dip into the pages and pick at random, anywhere in the book, images of clarity and depth unsurpassed. I haven’t the words to express what I feel, my vocabulary being disgustingly small. But so many of your images stir feeling of such unusual depth and intensity, and bring back half forgotten instincts and emotions with such crystal clearness. (CL 3.96)
The 152 page book contains 94 poems and 20 prose-pastels; despite the efforts to proof the book before publication, several of the extant books contain corrections in Smith’s own hand. Howard went on to expound on several of the contents:
For instance, the stanza containing the line: “The pines are ebony”. A memory springs up with startling clearness of a starlit glade wherein I stood, years ago and hundreds of miles distant, a glade bordered with pine trees that rose like a solid wall of blackness. “Ebony”. I have never encountered a darkness like that of a pine-forest at midnight. And again, “Winter Moonlight” and the line: “Carven of steel or fretted stone.” It limns a picture of last winter when I was struck with the weird and somber imagery of a tall mesquite tree etched against a snowy land and the dimly gleaming steel of a cloudy winter sky. (CL 3.96-97)
Refers to Impression (“The silver silence of the moon,” E&C 10); and Winter Moonlight (“The silence of the silver night,” E&C 71) respectively. Howard’s final praise was reserved for the centerpiece of the volume: The Hashish-Eater; or, the Apocalypse of Evil (“Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams,” E&C 49-64), a 582-line epic which would provide one of Smith’s most enduring epithets:
But I could go on indefinitely. I will not seek to express my appreciation of “The Hashish-Eater”. I lack the words. I have read it many times already; I hope to read it many more times. (CL 3.97)
The Texan closed out the letter with:
And in the meantime, my sincerest congratulations on Ebony and Crystal, and thanks for the intriguing inscription on the leaf. (CL 3.97)
Smith appreciated Howard’s comments, and his estimation of Howard’s own poetry seems to have raised his opinion of the Texan, as he wrote to August Derleth in a letter dated 29 August 1933:
H. seemed very appreciative of my book of poems, Ebony and Crystal, and evidently understood it as few people have done. (SLCAS 219)
Howard for his part confirmed in a letter to Lovecraft c. September 1933, writing that “Yes, I got both Smith’s brochure and his book of poems, as I told him.” (MF 2.634, CL 3.108)
Ebony and Crystal remained in Robert E. Howard’s library at the time of his death on 11 June 1936. Dr. Isaac M. Howard decided to donate the books in his son’s library, including E&C, to his son’s alma mater, Howard Payne College, as recounted in an article in the Brownwood Bulletin 29 June 1936, which reads in part:
The library consists of some 300 books, the great majority of which deal with history and biography. More than 50 volumes of current drama and current poetry are included in the collection.
Along with the books, the college acquired a complete file of all the magazines which carry the literary contributions of Robert E. Howard. Included in this file are short stories, novelettes, and book length novels and many poems.
The library is being prepared for cataloguing and circulation and is to be known as “The Robert E. Howard Memorial Collection.” (CLIMH 62)
The collection was also augmented by donations from Howard’s friends, including H. P. Lovecraft and R. H. Barlow. The college affixed the new acquisitions with a special bookplate, and then appears to have sent them into general circulation—as Steve Eng noted, “Such is standard library practice with any donation made in someone’s memory.” (TDB 183-184) The indifferent treatment upset Dr. Howard, who wrote to Farnsworth Wright on 19 December 1936 regarding the collection of his son’s pulp magazines:
These magazines were installed and I was particular enough to have Howard Payne College place his Library in a room part from all the rest of the Library in the College. I took the utmost pains to have this collection placed in such manner as to preserve it entirely.
I was in the Library one day this week. I find that they are wearing the backs off of his magazines. The net thing the leaves will be falling apart, and all that Robert Howard ever wrote will be lost to me if they remain there.
I have got to do one of two things if I preserve his magazines. (The books will stand rough usage.) The magazines will not. (CLIMH 143)
Dr. Howard removed the magazines from the library collection. In Dr. Charlotte Laughlin’s 1978 index what remained of the collection, she noted that one Cross Plains resident claimed “some articles had even been cut out of the magazines” (PQ 1.24), as well as providing another possible reason for the removal of the pulps:
The woman who was the librarian at Howard Payne in 1936, told the English teacher that she did not think that the pulp magazines had any place in the library of a Christian college. She was offended, like many people before or after her, by the scenes of violence and scantily clad women depicted on the covers. She said that she placed these magazines in the basement of the administration building, now known as Old Main. When Dr. Howard learned that they were in a damp basement, he boxed them up and took them home with him. (PQ 1.25)
The vicissitudes of library use led to attrition, so that the majority of the Howard donations lost their bookplate; some appear to never have had them. The original holograph accessions ledger which records Dr. Howard’s donation contains many errors, and over the decades many titles simply disappeared: lost, stolen, or discarded, so the full list of the original Howard Memorial collection will probably never be known. However, in the late 1970s the Howard Payne librarian Corrine Shields attempted to pull together what remained of the original collection, from which Dr. Charlotte Laughlin compiled “Robert E. Howard’s Library: An Annotated Checklist,” the first effort to catalogue both the original extent of the collection and what was left of it, published over the first four issues of the Paperback Quarterly. (PQ 1-4). This initial effort was followed by subsequent efforts by Glenn Lord, Steve Eng, Rusty Burke, Rob Roehm, and others to identify unknown works and locate lost volumes. The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies, for example, does not appear on Dr. Howard’s holograph accession list; perhaps he included it among the pulp magazines.
When Steve Eng collated the lists for the appendix on Howard’s library in The Dark Barbarian (1984), he noted that Ebony and Crystal was not a part of the College’s collection. Charlotte Laughlin in “Robert E. Howard’s Library: An Annotated Checklist” in Paperback Quarterly vol. 1 no. 4 (Winter 1978) notes that Howard’s inscribed copy of Ebony and Crystal was given to Glenn Lord, representative of the Howard Estate, by a former Howard Payne librarian.
Of the approx. 300 titles from Dr. Howard’s initial donation, 68 titles remain in the Robert E. Howard Memorial Collection. These were separated from the circulating collection in the Howard Payne University Library Treasure Room; they are now stored at the Robert E. Howard House and Museum in Cross Plains.
CL The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (3 vols. + Index and Addenda)
CLIMH The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard
E&C Ebony & Crystal
ED Emperor of Dreams: A Clark Ashton Smith Bibliography
LNY Letters from New York
MF A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (2. vols)
PQ Paperback Quarterly: A Journal for Paperback Collectors (vol. 1, no. 1-4)
SLCAS The Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith
SU The Shadow of the Unattained: The Letters of George Sterling and Clark Ashton Smith
TDB The Dark Barbarian
Read Ebony and Crystal here
Photo courtesy of Paul Herman