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.
11/12/2020 01:01:26 am
I'm not quoting a single thing from up there.
11/12/2020 06:25:48 am
It's rather pointless to speculate, but don't forget old copies of Weird Tales were always floating around, lying about in people's attics, discovered passed about among the 30s-40s versions of nerdy teens, even in Indiana. Growing up in the early 60s I stumbled on old pulps in thrift shops, garage sales, and used bookstores, 10-25 cents each.
11/12/2020 07:58:17 am
Certainly possible. As a kid, he had found a big box of old books and magazines and read them all. Its contents, however, are lost to time.
11/12/2020 10:18:56 am
Your muse has got you by the short and curlies.
11/12/2020 06:41:43 pm
Hardly. I apply the same scrutiny to every incident in my book. That's why I know which Chicago Tribune articles Joe McCarthy's speechwriter used for McCarthy's famous speech that launched the Red Scare, for example. However, much of this information is not amusing enough to warrant discussing in a blog post.
I just wondered how the science is called which produces such books as this. It is not literary studies. More about film making. And biographical. But more than this. Rather about the spirit of the times, so .... a kind of historiography. Contemporary history. But a special one. Around cultural icons. Contemporary cultural icono-historiography?
11/12/2020 06:42:16 pm
It's called "narrative nonfiction" in current publishing terminology.
Narrative nonfiction makes absolute sense. A non-fictional narration tells by its nature a story which is history, so historiography is implicitly a part of it, though it is not necessarily the "big" history.
11/12/2020 01:56:23 pm
Way to write a provocative headline, Mr. Colavito!
11/12/2020 04:51:45 pm
For my money: Not close enough to be a direct, conscious quoting. I'd think it's just that he read it at some point (as a lad, probably) and the concept and part of the phrasing just stuck with him.
11/12/2020 06:49:53 pm
Well, two things can be true at once. Dead finished his freshman year of college at the top of his class, so he clearly was smart. But he was also very sensitive about being perceived as dumb and tended to use inflated language to try to sound better educated. At times, it's painful to read interviews where he was trying too hard. The words and the grammar are technically correct, but it's quite obvious he is drawing on phrasing he had only read in books.
11/12/2020 07:05:15 pm
I wonder if the source might not be from a Kull story or one of REH's poems. The Kull stories tended to be much more concerned with the nature of reality, and I think REH dealt with these ideas in some of his poems. At least some of REH's Kull stories and poems were published in his lifetime or shortly after his death, so Dean could have run across them in an old Weird Tales magazine or some such. I poked around a little bit, but couldn't find anything on point, but I'm just a casual fan of REH, not a scholar of his work.
11/12/2020 09:48:15 pm
"4. The last possibility is that he picked up the Avon reader at one of the used book stores he frequented in New York. It seems strange to buy a five-year-old old periodical, though I guess 126-page digests were treated more like paperback books than magazines."
11/15/2020 09:37:06 pm
A common source is also possible. Howard's mother also read him poetry constantly. And he and his father shared an interest in the writings of William Walker Atkinson (AKA Swami, Yogi, Master Therion) and other New Thought, New Age and Theosophical works. But then like me he had a photographic memory so God knows where he and Dean may have independently stumbled on a common source for the phrasing.
11/20/2020 09:19:02 pm
It's been my experience that people who say they have a photographic memory ... don't.
11/17/2020 01:53:59 am
"But then like me he had a photographic memory..."
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.