[Harold Lamb was, in my opinion, one of the top writers of historical adventure fiction. His stories appeared in Adventure, Argosy, All-Story, Colliers, Short Stories and the Saturday Evening Post. He was a renowned historian, and his stories had excellent plotting, keen attention to historical detail and tight, surprising plots.
In addition to writing great fiction, he also wrote biographies of historical figures like Alexander, Babur, Charlemagne, Cyrus the Great, Genghis Khan, Hannibal, Suleyman the Magnificent. He wrote histories of the Crusades, Constantinople, the Mongols and Russia. These are unconventional histories, with very well written stories with great characters.
With his background, it was inevitable that he worked on many Hollywood historical movies, some by Cecil B. De Mille, including The Crusades.
He was an influence on Robert E. Howard, who admired his writing, and tried to contribute to Adventure. The best news about Harold Lamb’s historical fiction is that it is in print today (in both paper and ebook form), unlike most other early adventure fiction from Adventure.
Thanks to Howard Andrew Jones, almost all of Lamb’s historical fiction has been collected into 8 thick volumes from Bison press. You can find links to buy them from Amazon at the end of this article. Biography of Harold Lamb with photos after the jump.]
Harold Albert Lamb was born on September 1, 1892 in Alpine, New Jersey, the son of Eliza Rollinson and Frederick Lamb. His father was a mural painter and designer of stained glass, his grandfather was an artist and founder of Lamb Studios.
As a child, he had impaired hearing, sight and speech and grew up a shy child, preferring to stay away from crowds. He used to exercise to build up his body, but preferred spending his time in his grandfather’s library, reading the epics of the past – Don Quixote, the Nibelungs and many others. He did not enjoy going to his school (Friend’s Seminary in New York City).
He grew up to be 6 ft 1 in tall, weighing around 160 pounds, with “prematurely gray hair”. He joined Columbia University in 1914, attending courses from John Erskine and Carl Van Doren. He spent much of his time in the library, which was “richer in content than my grandfather’s”, where he first encountered the chronicles of people in Asia. He was part of the soccer and tennis teams, joined Pi Delta Psi and flunked in general history. He claims he only got his degree (in 1916) because he was awarded the H. C. Bunner medal, otherwise he would have been expelled for not attending classes. He was an editor on the Columbia literary magazine, Columbia Monthly. He was writing at this time, too, typesetting stories and printing them on a hand press.
During this time, his father’s health broke down, and he had to work while attending college. Writing was what he wanted to do, and he started as a “make-up man on a motor weekly that was presently sold”, and went on to do financial statistics for the New York Times. Simultaneously, he started selling his stories.
In May 1917, he joined the army as a private in the Seventh New York regiment (K Company), later the 107th Infantry, but did not see any fighting. In June 1917, he married Ruth Lemont Barbour. This was the year that he wrote his first stories for Adventure, with three stories appearing from October 1917 onwards.
He once described why he wrote about Asian history and people: “It all came out of an intense irritation over the fact that all history seemed to draw a north-south line across Europe, through Berlin and Venice, say. Everything was supposed to have happened west of that line, nothing to the east. Ridiculous, of course.“
At the same time, he moved to California for his father’s health. This was a time of great productivity for Lamb, he had 58 appearances in Adventure till 1927. He also had stories in Argosy, All-Story and Short Stories from 1917 to 1924. 1927 was the year he wrote his first non-fiction book, a history of Genghis Khan. He considered that he had failed with the book, but readers and critics loved it. It was a big success, and probably helped him break into the “slicks”, which he did with articles in Asia magazine and Collier’s from 1928 onwards.
He spent the next two years shuttling between his camp in Fort Bragg, North Carolina and his home in California. The result was Tamerlane (1928), a book that Lamb liked better than Genghis Khan, a book that he described as having a reality that Genghis Khan lacks. The book’s first issue sold out 8 days before publication.
He won a Guggenheim fellowship in Medieval history the next year, and went on to write more histories and biographies, including a two volume set on the Crusades (The Flame of Islam and Iron Men and Saints). This led to him becoming an adviser on Hollywood historical epics, a popular movie genre then. IMDB lists him as a writer on The Buccaneer, The Golden Horde, Samson and Delilah, The Plainsman and The Crusades.
Financial freedom enabled him to travel extensively in India, Persia (Iran), Russia and Europe. He was often mistaken for an Englishman. He tells of the time a passenger on a ship entering the port of Alexandria struck up a conversation with him and asked if he had read a new book called ‘Genghis Khan’. Lamb said he had and asked who wrote it. ”A London professor I know very well”, replied the stranger. Lamb didn’t correct him.
He was meticulous in ensuring historical accuracy in his writing. “Everything,” he said, “must be weighed carefully, all sources of information conscientiously tested to make allowances for mental bias on the part of historians, as well as great diversity of time and place.” Lamb confessed that the seemingly impossible was a powerful lure, and that he felt especially in the writing of Tamerlane as though he were “peopling a dark stage“. He described his method of writing as: “I spend months in going through, in imagination, the scenes of a book until all details are clear and the end is as certain as the beginning. Then I try to put it all down in words, and do not stop when a beginning is made. I shirk revising, which is an ordeal. So a book like Genghis Khan is reminiscence rather than research. The searching was done long since, and the book is the story that remains in the memory.“
He enjoyed his life as a historian and writer. “Life is good, after all, when a man can go where he wants to and write about what he likes best and know that other men find pleasure in his work.” He passed away on April 9, 1962 after a brief illness.
Coming up: An article by Arthur S. Hoffman on Harold Lamb.