[By Rob Roehm. Originally posted July 3, 2011 on the REH Two-Gun Raconteur blog. This version updated and lightly edited.]
Part 1 is here.
Shortly after graduating from Brownwood High School in May 1923, Truett Vinson enrolled in the commercial school at Howard Payne College. In the past, there has been some confusion between Howard Payne’s Commercial School and its Academy. Before we continue, let’s see if we can clear that up.
As most of this blog’s readers probably know, to be eligible for college entry in Texas in the 1920s, students needed 11 years of schooling. The problem was that many schools at the time, especially “country” schools, only went as far as the 10th grade—Cross Plains High School, for example. So, many rural students needed a place to go to pick up that extra year. There were a couple of options available in nearby Brownwood: Robert Howard completed his 11th year at the public high school there and, a couple of years later, his friend Lindsey Tyson chose option #2, the Howard Payne Academy.
The Academy at HP offered a complete high school education, all four years (8th grade to 11th), with special attention paid to preparing students for the rigors of college coursework. It had its own principal (in 1924 it was A. Hicks, who also taught Science and Spanish), teachers, and facilities separate from the regular college campus. Students could take as many classes as they needed to complete the college requirements. The following excerpts from the Academy section of the June 1924 college catalogue should help clear things up:
Housed in the Academy building, but not limited to Academy students, was the Commercial School. Academy students were encouraged to take commercial courses to help them in college (typing, penmanship, etc.), but more in-depth coursework was available for anyone wishing to pursue a career in bookkeeping, stenography, banking, etc. This was the option Truett Vinson (and, later, Bob Howard) chose. See the following from the same catalogue:
Vinson attended the Commercial School from the fall of 1923 through the spring of 1924, taking instruction from J. E. Basham. While enrolled, he was a member of the college’s Brownwood High School Club with others from his BHS class, including C. S. Boyles and Claude and Travis Curtis, all of whom may be in the picture that heads this post. Vinson graduated on May 21, 1924, with a diploma for bookkeeping. Unlike his friend Bob Howard, Truett would use his.
At least by April 1925 Vinson was employed, possibly with the Walker-Smith company in Brownwood. In a letter to Clyde who was vacationing in the South, Vinson wrote, “Starting next Saturday, I get off at one o’clock instead of five.”
At least two Vinson letters from the above exchange survive. The first, dated April 15 , reveals Truett’s interest in the muckraking of Upton Sinclair—an interest that went on for many years—as well as his interest in the ladies: “a certain young lady by the name of Z— B—- still lives on Center Avenue!” (This must be Zana Brown, who was a freshman at BHS when Truett was a senior and lived at 800 Center Avenue.)
It appears that the whole crew (Vinson, Smith, Howard, and even Herbert Klatt) were under the spell of Sinclair. Vinson wrote the following in the April 15 letter:
Mr. Howard, the noted muck raker, has not countered, again, with a “Right Hook,” but I expect that when he does, we will think it is a right hook and left hook put together! You will probably note with interest that Robert is laying off so much of that “Easturn Bull” and is writing in true Sinclair style now. I am certainly glad to know it, and I believe he will make a good muck raker!
In a follow up letter on April 26, Vinson told Clyde the following:
When I take a trip to the wicked city, I too, am certainly going to see all there is to be seen in the way of legs! I suppose legs are my one weakness! They’ll probably put this inscription on my tombstone: “Here lies a fool. He was not a thief; he was not a murderer; he was not a libertine; BUT he had one weakness—-LEGS!”
I wrote another letter to U. Sinclair a few weeks ago, asking him for his opinion of Christ and what he thought of Papini’s “Life of Christ.” He answered by saying that he considered Papini’s book a pitiful production, and that he was sending me a copy of his book, “The Profits of Religion.” It arrived OK and I have finished reading it. He rather shocked me, as he took some “muckraking” cracks at nearly every religion in the world! He sure jumped on Billy Sunday, Gypsy Smith, Thomas Dixon, Dr. Lyman Abbot and Roman Catholicism! But I find that he is really more of a real Christian than most church members, and that he regards Jesus in a far more worthier way.
Besides girls and Upton Sinclair, the boys were all experimenting with amateur journalism. At the same time that Clyde Smith was producing The All-Around Magazine, Vinson had his own paper going. No issues of his The Toreador survive from 1923, but Robert Howard mentions subscribing to it in his October 5, 1923 letter to Smith. This is right around the time Howard was producing his own Golden Caliph. All of these publications appear to have ended before 1923 was over, but in 1925 The Toreador made a comeback with at least two issues (June 1925 and July 5, 1925); Bob Howard, too, revamped his publication into the aforementioned Right Hook. The boys’ correspondent, Herbert Klatt, contributed to both, and all of them exchanged letters fairly regularly.
The Cross Plains Review for Friday, May 22, 1925 reports that “Clyde Smith and Truett Vinson of Brownwood spent Saturday night and Sunday with Robert Howard.” Perhaps they were discussing their amateur papers.
In the April 26 letter mentioned above, Vinson gives us a peek at what was going on behind the scenes:
H. Klatt is now corresponding with Robert, and he tells me in his last letter that Robert advises him to read Talbot Mundy for some real thrills. Robert tells him that you and I don’t agree with him on the subject of T. Mundy, and so I write Klatt and tell him that we don’t.
Klatt appears to have been a level-headed young man. Putting such minor differences as described above aside, Klatt pitched his plan for the future to Clyde Smith in a May 27, 1925 letter:
Truett tells me about your trip to Cross Plains, its attendant incidental experiences. I wish I could have been with you in that talk on books and other things that lasted till 3 o’clock in the morning. It must have been interesting. [. . .] I have an idea: Since the four of us being more or lees “Men of letters” and so-called radicals, we should be able to form an interesting and mutually helpful company. The Fiery Fearless Four. We could have some letterheads with our heading printed. And then what about jointly publishing an official organ? By each contributing $2.00 per month we could make The Toreador an interesting little six or eight page paper. Truett could manage it, mail the subscription copies and divide the rest among us to keep or mail as samples. We could make it our very own channel of expression. What do you think about the plan in general? I have a lot more plans in connection with it.
On July 10, 1925, Robert E. Howard spent the night at Clyde Smith’s house in Brownwood. The next day, he was on the receiving end of a practical joke engineered by Smith, and apparently with Vinson’s assistance. The Brownwood boys knew that Howard was girl-shy, so it was arranged for Smith’s girlfriend, Echla Laxson, to come on to Howard while they rode around in the back seat of Smith’s car. Howard turned the tables on his friends, however, by returning Laxon’s advances, even going so far as to kiss the girl. According to Howard’s semi-autobiographical novel, Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, this caused a brief falling out between himself and the Brownwood boys.
In a circa September 1925 letter to Robert E. Howard, some of which was used in Post Oaks and Sand Roughs, Vinson continues the themes from his letters to Smith:
I have just been thinking about girls and marriage today! Funny subject isn’t it? I like girls and some day I’d like to get married to one of them—but, ye gods! Which one? I’ve never seen a girl yet that would make an ideal wife for me. Is it because I’m so plague taked different? Tell me! “I like girls but they don’t like me!”
And . . .
I note that Upton Sinclair is nominated for Governor of the noble state of California by the Socialist party. What do you think of it, anyway? Upton has a new book now—“Letters to Judd” is the title of it. I’ll send you a paper bound copy this week. Be sure to read it.
Lest people think that Vinson was a two-trick pony, it is important to note that he, and everyone mentioned above, was above all things a Reader. Practically all of his letters mention something he has read; this, plus the fact that he was a book dealer on the side, serve to portray him as a pretty well-rounded fellow, with a healthy interest in the opposite sex, and an equally healthy interest in the world around him. In the four letters mentioned in this and my previous post (all from Texas A&M’s Cushing Memorial Library and Archives), Vinson mentions having read the following titles: Desert of Wheat by Zane Grey, Tarzan the Terrible by Burroughs, Life of Christ by Papini (see excerpt from The Toreador below), The Profits of Religion by Sinclair, Autobiography of Benito Cellini, and Letters to Judd by Sinclair; he also mentions authors Talbot Mundy and Arthur B. Reeve, though no specific work is named. All this in just a little more than four typed pages.
With the summer of 1925 over, Smith enrolled at Daniel Baker College, Howard tried to make a living in Cross Plains, and Vinson continued at his job. Their amateur journals ceased publication, but a new one was coming.
Go to Part 3.