I’m heading back from a glorious week in New Jersey today to return to my beloved South Carolina. It was serendipitous, then, that I read this piece from the Abbeville Institute, “Conan the Southerner?”
I recently stumbled upon the Abbeville Institute while doing some research on John Randolph of Roanoke for my History of Conservative Thought course. It’s an institute dedicated to Southern history, and to presenting a more nuanced interpretation of the antebellum South. Their blog features some dense, interesting bits of Southern history (I’m reading through a long-ish essay on “The South Carolina Federalists” that has taught me a great deal more about my State’s history in the period of the Early Republic), and champions constitutionalism, limited government, and a traditional way of life.
The Conan piece is an excellent—and fun—analysis of the Conan the Barbarian series of low-fantasy pulp novels, focusing on Conan creator Robert E. Howard and his Jacksonian roots in Texas. The post’s author, Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Joel T. Leggett, argues that Howard’s Conan is a modern example of American mythology, one with distinctively Southern roots.
The essay is also useful as it offers a clear definition of Jacksonian principles, via historian Walter Russell Meade. As we continue to attempt to define “populism” in the midst of Trumpian nationalism, I always relish a concise definition of the principles of the godfather of American populism, Andrew Jackson.
Meade, per Leggett, defines these principles as “self-reliance, equality, individualism, financial adventurism, and courage.” Leggett then proceeds to demonstrate how the character of Conan embodies these qualities, and that Howard was chiefly concerned with promoting individual liberty.
That part of the essay is, for me, the most useful and enjoyable. The qualities are certainly deeply American—and deeply Southern. The “equality” is not the banal egalitarianism of our present age, which seeks to level off everything and everyone into conformist blandness, but the old equality of opportunity, in which every man can forge his destiny.
Tied with that is the notion of “financial adventurism.” Leggett notes that Meade argued that “Jacksonians view money and wealth as a means to finance a lifestyle of self-definition. The value of wealth is to enable you to be you, to live life to its fullest.” This notion of financing “a lifestyle of self-definition” accords with my own long-term financial goals. It also seems to be the direction that “free” speech is headed: to exercise this right truly, one must have financial independence from social justice scolds.
And this, for Leggett, seems to be the core of Conan’s Southern Jacksonianism: a desire for individual liberty, for a man to be able to live his life on his own terms. Howard might have wrapped that ideal in a burly barbarian warrior-king who rose to rule a kingdom due to his own prowess, but it’s one every American should aspire towards. In this way, Leggett makes a compelling case for Conan the Barbarian as a valuable piece of American mythology.