I have now sent my agent the final revision to my book proposal for my book about James Dean, flying saucers, and midcentury panics. My agent seems confident that publishers will be interested, and it is out of my hands now. I imagine this is the point when I urge Apollo and the Muses to intervene. “Happy is he whom the Muses love: sweet flows speech from his lips. Hail, children of Zeus! Give honor to my song!”
In working on my book, I ran into a question I am not able to readily answer, and of all things it involves a connection between James Dean and the Lovecraft-inflected adventure fiction of Robert E. Howard. That this happened is only to be expected. I can’t escape Lovecraftian ancient mysteries no matter how far from them I try to run.
The issue in question involves something Dean said in one of the love letters he wrote to Barbara Glenn in the summer of 1953. “Love letters” might be laying it on a bit thick. Mostly, he wrote about himself and occasionally how he missed having her talk about him, too. He was the kind of fellow who would try to prompt her to tell him about the “handsome guys” he was sure she was hooking up with, or who would write her a long prose-poem about how sad he felt visiting a strip club while she was away. You know, standard stuff you tell your girlfriend.
Anyway, in one of these letters he decides, as one does, to meditate on the illusory nature of material reality. “Lamas and scientists may fume and quander,” he wrote. “Everything is not illusion. You are my proof.”
Now this turns out to be an interesting line. One of Dean’s biographers, who dismissed his writing as “feeble and pathetic,” marked it up with “sic” and a question mark and very clearly thought that Dean was writing about South American llamas and not Tibetan holy men and thought the whole thing nonsense. He also assumed Dean was semi-literate and had mangled some other word into “quander.” “Quander” is a fine English word, albeit an obscure one, in use since at least the eighteenth century. Dean used it not just with grammatical correctness but also in the correct connotative sense. My perverse sense of humor finds it amusing that the judgmental types are actually the ignorant ones, but then again, I have a good vocabulary, so I wasn’t ever confused. I don’t know where Dean got the word, but if my own random Victorian accretions are any indication (oh, how many times people bitched at me for using “lest”), it’s probably the remnants of some old book read long before.
However, the more interesting thing is that the sentiment seems very clearly to be taken from Robert E. Howard’s 1934 story “Queen of the Black Coast,” a Conan the Cimmerian story featuring primeval mysteries, ancient astronauts, prehistoric ruins, etc. In that story, Howard has Conan describe his philosophy of life: “Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.” Dean’s phrasing and syntax are so similar that it is difficult to imagine they are unrelated. Nevertheless, the vocabulary shows that he wasn’t directly copying. It reads like a paraphrase from memory. Dean purposely inverted Howard’s sentiment to make a romantic statement out of pretending to deny his own oft-stated belief that the physical world was a dream or an illusion and a better world lay beyond it. (The biographers, making no connections and ignoring context, imagine this was just a random attempt to sound poetic.)
But this creates a challenge. How did he pick up the Howard line? If this were an isolated incident, I might dismiss it. It’s part of a pattern. For example, when he tried giving a promotional interview for a Broadway play to a radio reporter, he instead talked about Aztec human sacrifices and the space between free will and foreordination—as, of course one does—and used language borrowed from Superman comics or the old intro to the Superman radio show. (He didn’t own a TV, so I doubt it was the Superman TV show.) He was constantly referencing lines from books, plays, and movies.
That said, there seem to be four possibilities:
Unless there is some buried information somewhere inaccessible to me, I don’t think this is a question that has a good answer. It’s just a weird, strange sidelight. One of Dean’s old teachers spoke of him reading pulp fiction stories about space aliens and pyramids, so I should have expected as much. Someday, perhaps, I’ll write a book without Old Ones and Nephilim lurking around the edges.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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