Contemporary popular culture is as jejune as contemporary politics: strangled by political correctness and by contempt for form and etiquette, it eats away like acid at what remains of courtesy and memory. But the past of popular culture – in literature and the movies – has much nourishment to offer. One of the most popular authors of the Twentieth Century, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875 – 1950), had a keen intuition about the health of the body politic and the positive relation of a vital culture to its founding traditions. The Author of Tarzan (1912) and its many sequels, the inventor of the extraterrestrial sword-and-sandals romance, ex-cavalryman, admirer of the Apache and the Sioux, anti-Communist, anti-Nazi, self-publishing millionaire entrepreneur, religious skeptic, “Big-Stick” patriot, Southern California real estate baron, sixty-year-old Pacific-Theater war correspondent, Burroughs has, with a few ups and downs, maintained an audience both from his authorial debut in 1912 to the present day, nearly sixty years after his death. Burroughs has a place in the culture wars, standing as he does for the opposite of almost everything advocated by the elites of the new liberal-totalitarian order. I offer, in what follows, a modest assessment of Burroughs’ work.
I recommend Burroughs, whose books saw translation in every European language, to parents of conservative temperament on the lookout for adolescent-appropriate reading matter to offer to their children, whether male or female it hardly matters. If you are Latvian or Bulgarian, you may read Tarzan in your native tongue. Please do…
I. A longtime teacher of Western Literature, Classics-in-Translation, and American Novel courses at the university level (in California, Michigan, and Upstate New York) and a professing paleoconservative, I am fiercely dedicated to high culture and the Great Books. I confess, however, to a sneaking fondness for some of the outstanding – even some of the less-than-outstanding – popular literature of the first half of the Twentieth Century. This is partly a matter of sentiment. Getting hooked on Edgar Rice Burroughs at twelve or thirteen contributed mightily to my own literacy by making me a habitual reader. (That would have happened in 1966 or 67.) When most Burroughs titles went out of copyright in the early 1960s, two paperback houses, Ace and Ballantine, competed in reissuing his sixty or so full-length adventure stories. Many of these tales ran in series – the Tarzan series, of course, but also a Mars series, a Venus series, and a Pellucidar series set in a strange world on the inner surface of the hollow terrestrial globe, lighted perpetually by a stationary central sun. The colorful action-based covers of those paperback editions figured largely in the attraction.
“ERB,” as fans learned to call Burroughs, also wrote a number of stand-alone novels, all either fantastic or adventurous. Burroughs exercised a fecund imagination, not least in creating his settings, which all boast a stable, detailed geography, a variety of differing cultures and societies, and exotic recurrent words from the appropriate fantastic languages.
Burroughs’ reputation has risen or fallen tidally over the long term. The last high tide came with the proliferation of paperbacks in the 1960s, followed by a long period of diminished interest, with a few reprints here and there. The last decade, however, has seen a minor revival, rather more bon ton in character than the previous one, with the University of Nebraska Press under its Bison Books imprint releasing key items of the Burroughs oeuvre as part of their “Frontiers of Imagination” series dedicated to early masterpieces of science fiction. These Bison editions come complete with more or less scholarly “front material” by various hands. The first three Mars, or rather Barsoom, novels have appeared in a single volume – A Princess of Mars (1912), The Gods of Mars (1912), and The Warlord of Mars (1913) – as have the first three Venus or Amtor novels (1930s to 40s), but separately, and the full range of the Pellucidar series (1914 through 1944), also separately; and along with these the Moon trilogy (1926) and the stand-alone Beyond Thirty (1916). Bison’s enterprise makes available a generous sampling of Burroughsian narrative from the man’s first publication, A Princess of Mars, to items of his final lustrum.
Peculiarly, many of the introductions or prefaces run to the apologetic. At least, they include unctuous apologies in awkward asides. And for what sins do the timid contemporary recommenders of Burroughs feel the need vicariously to atone? Harry Turtledove, introducing Pellucidar (1915), makes a concession – or maybe it is a confession – on behalf of an author for whom he feels no little admiration, and whose memory he wants, under timid qualification, to preserve: “Yes, Burroughs was racist. Yes, Burroughs was sexist.” And describing his own reaction when he first read the book in his adolescence, “Even a not too politically conscious teenager could see as much.” Phillip R. Burger, who supplies the “Afterword” to the same tale, aggressively trumps Turtledove, portraying Burroughs as a propagandist for American military action in the Philippines: “As Orientals were considered a cruel race, dealing with them cruelly was only right and proper. Down in Pellucidar Burroughs takes this American imperialist bent and removes some of its moral ambiguity.”
According to Burger, the “Mahars,” a race of sentient, winged, telepathic reptiles who enslave human beings in Burroughs’ inner world, serve as stand-ins for the Philippine rebels who fought against American governance in the aftermath of the Spanish War. (Does everyone follow that?) Burger must really stretch to make this identification, since the Mahars are in control of their own empire and the story concerns the revolt of the enslaved against them. Later in his essay, Burger fails entirely to catch the irony in a line that he quotes from the adventure. Burroughs has one of his Stone Age, inner-world characters say of modern weaponry that it will enable him and his fellow warriors to “kill more… in a single battle than was possible before during the course of a whole war,” and that one of the men from the outer world “calls this civilization… a very wonderful thing.” Given the date of Pellucidar, given the formulaic character of the remark, and given finally the naivety of the person who speaks it, the authorial intention would seem obvious – not to extol modern total-warfare, as Burger says, but to denounce it, and to satirize the ideology behind it.[i]
Another preface-writer, David Brin, who like Turtledove is an author of science fiction stories, detects “racism” in Beyond Thirty (1916), set in a devastated Europe three hundred years in the future. The world war having exhausted and wrecked European society, Europeans in their new Dark Age of primitive tribalism have suffered encroachment by the “Abyssinian Empire” and counter-encroachment by an expanding Chinese Empire. Burroughs represents the African elites as civilized; even the general soldiery is literate, which no European is. Of course, as was the actual Abyssinia of the early Twentieth Century, Burroughs’ future Abyssinia is a slave-keeping polity. The non-slave-holding Chinese represent a higher civilization than the Abyssinians. Burroughs’ Arizona-born hero comes to see in American-Chinese cooperation the best hope for salvaging Europe from its degeneracy. The Chinese of Beyond Thirty contradict the charge of anti-Asian bigotry laid against Burroughs by Burger, which in any case was quite weak.
Race provides a recurrent theme in Burroughs’ “Barsoomian” setting, but in no stereotyped way; the Barsoom novels have indeed partly the character of a racial utopia, with all colors represented, and represented moreover as internally various in their moral and intellectual dispositions. In the Mars stories, among the wickedest of villains are the doughy-white “Holy Therns,” priests of a false and sacrificial religion; among the most valiant of admirable people are the “Black Pirates.”
The preface-writers naturally find Burroughs rampantly condescending to women. They feel with near-unanimity the incumbency on them to apologize for the poster-like (as they see it) gorgeousness of the Burroughsian leading-ladies, like Dian the Beautiful in the Pellucidar stories, or the lovely, prodigiously talkative Oo-aa, from the late Savage Pellucidar, a knitting-together of four inner-world novellas written in the 1940s. Both Dian and Oo-aa are sturdy, resourceful, and intelligent, brave enough to shame a man, which they often do, and just as skilled with weapons as any male competitor. The apology, offered belatedly, without consultation, and as though on Burroughs’ behalf, seems hardly in contact with Burroughs’ story telling.
II. I detect in these prefatory complaints and apologies the figural stand-in for a deeper anxiety that goes unspoken partly out of fear that speaking it will, so to say, spill the beans about a severe limitation in the contemporary literary sensibility, even, or perhaps especially, where it concerns popular narrative. Burroughs did not quite invent, but he refined and codified a robust popular masculine narrative, which, while celebrating heroic character, also promulgated the values of literate knowledge and philosophic inquiry. Burroughsian narrative also provides the locus for a non-systematic but incisive critique of the standing culture, as it became increasingly emasculated, regulated, and anti-intellectual in the middle decades of the Twentieth Century. This same masculine narrative entails, finally, a conception of the feminine that elevates the woman to the same level as the man and that – in such characters as Dian of the Pellucidar novels or Dejah Thoris of the Barsoom novels – figures forth a female type who corresponds neither to desperate housewife, full-lipped prom-date, middle-level careerist office-manager, nor frowning ideological feminist-professor, but who exceeds all these by bounds in her realized humanity and in so doing suggests their insipidity.
In addition to apologizing for Burroughs in various ways, the preface-writers for the Bison editions also emphasize the “escapist” quality of Burroughsian fantasy. Without pushing the paradox too far, I would say that A Princess of Mars, Lost on Venus, Pellucidar, and Beyond Thirty respond healthily to the increasingly unreal character of life itself in the emerging, submissive consumer-society of the mid-Twentieth century and beyond.
Consider Burroughs’ own “Foreword” to Tanar of Pellucidar (1929). Like many “pulp” writers who took their cues from Nineteenth Century fiction – from Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle or Rider Haggard – Burroughs often made use of the narrative “frame,” a prologue that explains how the author came to know of the events that he narrates. Often the gimmick in the Burroughsian “frame” is that the story Burroughs is about to tell, he is in fact going to retell from a manuscript given to him by the actual first-person narrator; or that he has worked up his notes from an interview with the party to whom the events of the story directly befell. Burroughs understood the exegetical paradoxes implied by narrative “frames.” He played with them deliberately, with Jorge-Luis-Borges-like deftness. He even split off from himself a kind of narrator-persona named Burroughs who poses as the author, taking delivery of manuscripts or recalling long messages from the fictional exotic “Elsewhere.” Tanar opens, not with a vista of some fictional exotic “Elsewhere,” but with a description of life on the actual Burroughs Ranch in what would become Tarzana in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, a much-subdivided suburban community of “ranch-style” houses on fifty-foot-to-the-side allotments. This “real-estate development” became fully integrated into “The Valley” after Burroughs’ death.
The story of Tanar reaches Burroughs through the providential mediation of one Jason Gridley, “an orphan with an income,” who, “after graduating from Stanford… came down and bought a couple of acres at Tarzana, and that is how and when I met him.” Burroughs gets along amiably with his young neighbor, a radio-experimenter. Burroughs and Gridley go horseback riding together in the then-persistently-wild, now heavily built up, Santa Monica Mountains; Burroughs listens with interest, although with defective understanding, as Gridley explains his theory of a new type of low-frequency radio-wave. Later, in Burroughs’ Spanish-style house, Gridley asks his friend about the purported reality of his stories. He wants to know whether John Carter, of the Mars stories, and David Innes and Abner Perry, of the Pellucidar adventures, are real. When he read about Barsoom and Pellucidar, Gridley says, “the inner world at the earth’s core was as real to me as the High Sierras, the San Joaquin Valley, or the Golden Gate, and I felt that I knew the Twin Cities of Helium better than I did Los Angeles.” Burroughs keeps a poker face. “I have never told anyone that it is true,” he replies; but he also says, “If damsels flee and villains pursue I must truthfully record the fact.”
A short time later, on his equipment, Gridley picks up a transmission that purports to emanate from Pellucidar and which furnishes the main narrative of Tanar. In Tarzan at the Earth’s Core, the sequel to Tanar, Gridley voyages to the inner world to experience it himself.
The meaningful kernel of the Tanar Prologue consists in its memory of unfettered horseback riding in the Santa Monicas. As a young cavalryman in the Arizona Territory in the 1890s, Burroughs had witnessed the closing of the frontier at first-hand. In the 1930s, on a smaller scale but in a way that struck him perhaps as an even more poignant, he was seeing it again: Los Angeles was snaking its suburban tentacles along Ventura Boulevard and through the Arcadian San Fernando Valley, replacing farmlands and distinct towns with swaths of “tract” housing while it pushed roads – and access and demystification – into the mountains themselves. About the time I started reading Burroughs, I participated in the last chapter of this sad progress. In 1967, I could still hunt small game, in company with the Cunningham brothers, in the Santa Monicas above Malibu, but by 1972 when I went off to college, fences, threatening signs, and an unprecedented density of coastal-canyon housing now kept trailblazing audacity fully at bay, under penalty of law. Burroughs, who had a second house in Malibu, would have been even more familiar than I with the vestiges of the aborigines to be encountered in those summit-ridges and canyons – the petroglyphs, middens, straw-baskets, and abundant chipped-flint arrowheads. The Burroughsian landscapes are less “escapist” than “conservationist,” preserving in memory the primitive life of everyone’s remote ancestors.
We find this same nostalgia, heightened, in the last but one of Burroughs’ completed books, the Barsoom entry called Llana of Gathol (1948), which like Savage Pellucidar consists of a knitting-together of four novellas. In another elaborate “frame,” Burroughs meets his Martian protagonist Captain John Carter, late of the Army of Virginia, for the last time. Lanikai, Oahu, rather than Tarzana, provides the setting, Burroughs having left California to become a resident of the Hawaii Territory in his last years. Lanikai lies “a long way from Mars,” Burroughs writes; “its waters are blue and beautiful and calm inside its coral reef, and the trade wind sighing through the fronds of its coconut palms at night might be the murmuring voices of the ghosts of the kings and chieftains who fished in its still waters long before the sea captains brought strange diseases or the missionaries brought mother-hubbards.” In a dreamy mood Burroughs thinks to have a sudden vision of King Kamehameha on the volcanic slope above the shore, but the striding Hawaiian royal gradually resolves into the familiar Carter.
Burroughs says, “I never expected to see you again.” Carter replies: “You are the last of my Earthly kin whom I know personally. Every once in a while I feel an urge to see you and visit with you, and at long intervals I am able to satisfy that urge – as now.” Burroughs inquires about Carter’s Barsoomian people. He wonders whether Gahan, a character from The Gods of Mars, won the hand of Tara, a Princess of Helium. “Yes… They have a daughter, one whose character and whose beauty are worthy of her mother and her mother’s mother – a beauty, which, like that of those other two, hurled nations at each other’s throats in war. Perhaps you would like to hear the story of Llana of Gathol.”
III. Nostalgia of the type on display in the Tanar- and Llana-related “frames,” tinged with a powerful sense of mortality, belongs to masculine narrative in that it tends away from the merely personal or egotistic and towards the objective and the historical. The Llana “frame” puts Kamehameha, a larger-than-life historical personage who has since entered the realm of legend, in juxtaposition with the writer’s larger-than-life fictional creation the Warlord of Mars that readers might understand how the pith of reality nourishes the poetic figure. That people such as Kamehameha and John Carter have no place in the modern world – a world dominated by “missionaries” and “mother-hubbards” – signifies the ethical impoverishment of modernity. The rather subtle allusion to Homer and the Trojan saga belongs to this attempt to redeem modernity’s flatness-of-life by reuniting the suburban subject with the heroism and chivalry codified in myth. Early in his extra-planetary career, Carter observes: “The Martians are a happy people; they have no lawyers.” We transcend our petty egos and the bureaucratic restrictions of our lives in establishing contact with le beau geste in epic narrative, but we do so also in marriage and through our children. (“Her mother and her mother’s mother.”)
Marriage supplies an invariable theme in Burroughsian narrative, as does the valor of women. One might remark not only that the tale of Gahan bears the title of Gahan’s wife, but also that two previous entries in the Barsoom cycle refer to a central female character – A Princess of Mars and Thuvia, Maid of Mars (1916).
Whereas it is the case that, “no matter how instinctively gregarious one may be there are times when one longs for solitude,” as John Carter says in the first part of Llana; nevertheless the Burroughsian hero never thinks of himself as alone, but he, or she, is always, even in the necessary moments of withdrawal, acutely aware of the social – beginning with the matrimonial and parental – bond. The Burroughsian-type masculine narrative is not, however, a “romance,” in the sense of a story primarily about the emotions of courtship. Both parties in a developing Burroughsian match look, neither for prettiness nor handsome features (although these are incidental givens), but rather for a person of character equal to himself or herself, who honors custom and tradition. While the Barsoom and Pellucidar stories thrive on episodes of battle, privation, contest, captivity, escape, and victory, the courtship of the hero and heroine always looms large, and never simply as background. Often the commitment of either or both parties to strict observance of the courtship-code thwarts their strongly felt amorous impulses, promoting ritual scorn above the promptings of the heart.
John Carter, new to the Red Planet in the inaugural Princess of Mars (1912), instinctively puts himself at the service of a young woman, Dejah Thoris, captured by the barbarous Green Men (among whom Carter ranks as a prisoner-trustee), but, in failing out of ignorance to address her under the proper forms, alienates her for most of the novel. Duare, in Pirates of Venus, initially spurns Carson Napier, her earthman, for the same reason, as does Dian the Beautiful her suitor David Innes in At the Earth’s Core.
In Savage Pellucidar, both Dian and Oo-aa, physically separated from their spouses, assume the role of Odysseus and strive against tribes and terrain to return across the lonely distance to their men. Oo-aa, captured in ambush by an arrogant polygamist who boasts that he will add her to his harem, stays angry and vigilant until, seaborne in her captor’s canoe, she finds the fleeting but ripe occasion to kill him off with his own oft-brandished spear. Burroughs makes the rapine attitude of the captor as clear in its intention as it is ugly in its cast; it besmirches an ethos of female independence that belongs to the moral structure of all Burroughsian narrative. Dian, too, defends herself with lethal robustness against assailants. John Carter observes, regarding Barsoom: “Give a Martian woman a chance and death will take the back seat.”
IV. In his preface to the Bison edition of Savage Pellucidar, Harry Turtledove, in addition to leveling the usual moral charges against Burroughs, also criticizes ERB’s writing. The book depends heavily on “cliché,” Turtledove writes. As for style: “Read it for the story,” as Turtledove judges, implying the hackneyed quality of the prose. In introducing Tanar, however, Paul Cook dissents from the shared reservations of his fellow Bison edition preface-writers, even to praising Burroughs as a talented prose practitioner. “Burroughs’ style owes a great deal to the languorous prose of late Victorian writers, particularly Robert Lewis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling. He also owes something to Henry James in his use of long, complex sentences and Jack London for his compact narrative detail.” Cook remarks Burroughs’ “elegant prose” and his “grace and exactness of… word choice.” The ascription of Jamesian influence comes unexpectedly but does not flout plausibility given Burroughs’ own impressive literacy. Employing Jamesian syntax in settings Martian, Venusian, or “Pellucidarian,” fits well with Burroughs’ sense of humor, rarely out of play.
Burroughs likes to throw off original epigrams abruptly and to do so seemingly without any context. In Savage Pellucidar, for example, while Oo-aa’s mate Hodon explores how he might escape from imprisonment in a cliff-cave, Burroughs offers that: “Sometimes we are annoyed by the studied perversities of inanimate objects, like collar buttons and quail on toast, but we must remember that, after all, some of them are the best friends of man. Take the dollar bill, for instance – but why go on? You can think of as many as I can.”
The images of “collar buttons and quail on toast,” besides constituting all by themselves an utterly outré pairing, something maybe for a page out of Gertrude Stein, do call readers back to the world of commerce, bourgeois custom, and the present day. By so doing at a moment in the narrative of literal “cliff-hanging suspense” they open up quite abruptly the distance between the reader, in his comfortable sitting-room or library, and the prehistoric world in which Oo-aa and Hodon, and Dian and David, throw themselves lustily into the struggle for survival. The name “Oo-aa” is itself a joke, aimed at the magazine covers in the periodical venues where most of Burroughs’ stories first appeared, but one that the young lady herself abundantly lives down not least by sheer cave-girl prowess but also, importantly, by keen intellectual perception. Is there not, after all, a parallel with James’ heroines, like The Golden Bowl’s Maggie Verver; and does not John Carter, ex-Confederate officer, bear a strong family-relation to The Bostonians’ Basil Ransom?
I experience some hesitancy concerning my own suggestion. But let me be bold. The commitment to chivalry – that modern people, in the flaccidity of their moral relativism, sneeringly disdain – powerfully motivates both the Jamesian and Burroughsian characters. This too belongs to masculine narrative.
Permit me to return to my earlier claim that the epithets (“racist,” “sexist”), which the Bison-edition preface-writers feel compelled to invoke, as they excuse Burroughs for his being politically incorrect, stand in ritually for something else, a more deeply seated anxiety. The problem, for Burroughs’ nervous critics, is not, as honest examination of Burroughs’ text will demonstrate, that Burroughs retails in demeaning representations of women, exaggeratedly male representations of men, or – God help us – in mean-spirited portrayals of despised Philippine guerrilla-rebels under the imagery of evil winged reptiles. He perpetrates none of this. The problem is that Burroughs makes a compelling case for pre-politically correct images of the masculine and the feminine – especially the feminine – that have deep roots in the Western tradition, as Beowulf or La morte d’Arthur teaches us. The preface-writers, being despite themselves aficionados of that modern version of medieval epic, the planetary romance, know this instinctively, but because they all have contracts with a university press, they act reflexively to suppress the intuition. The PC preface-writers are afraid of Dian the Beautiful and Oo-aa, who has “seven brothers” or “eleven brothers” or perhaps “thirteen,” all ready to defend her reputation.[ii]
Modern, politicized, conformist codes, and “organization” thinking, drastically limit individuation and autonomous judgment. That Burroughs wrote muscular prose, not without art, goes some way in explaining his persistence as a “good read” sixty years after his death and nearly a century after his first publication. In addition to telling a ripping yarn, however, Burroughs had a moral perspective that grew more acute, as the decades of the Twentieth century ticked away and modernity increasingly revealed its ugly tendencies. Burroughs witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor and became a war correspondent in the Pacific Theater. At the very end of his life he began a new interplanetary series in which the recurrent anti-war theme of his previous work came to the fore.
Recently my son, age fourteen, complained to his mother and me about his boredom in the eighth-grade reading class. What was the assignment, we asked. It was a well-known novel by C. F. Hinton, the basis of a “Brat-Pack” movie of the early 1980s, full of adolescent neurosis and truly cliché depictions of how mean-spirited bourgeois-types in a small midwestern town oppress and revile their working-class neighbors. Hinton definitely fails to qualify as a writer of masculine narrative. Her story telling foolishly turns adolescent misery and self-exculpation back on themselves by affirming them. That is the worst possible gesture, and a pandering gesture, as far as it concerns outgrowing post-pubertal angst. Hinton’s male characters, in particular, lack articulateness and not one of them can envision the way out of his largely self-imposed impasse. They should all have read Tarzan of the Apes or The Warlord of Mars. In the 1960s, the temporal locus of Hinton’s novel, anyone could have had either title in the Ace edition – from the turning vertical display-rack at the local drugstore – for thirty-five cents.
Hinton provokes me to one more word about the supplementary charge of “escapism,” as laid against Burroughs by his tepid apologists. Of course Burroughs’ stories are “escapist.” The way to judge them is to measure them against what they design to escape. In the 1920s it was the Babbitt-type sub-existence. In 2009 it is PC emasculation and the brutal Islamifying of Western societies in their nihilistic syncretism.
[i] Burger’s afterword to Pirates of Venus (1931) is less condemning, but it celebrates the space-faring protagonist Carson Napier for his incompetence in comparison to earlier Burroughsian heroes.
[ii] Burger’s afterword to Pirates of Venus is again relevant: Carson Napier’s proneness to finding himself in a fix elicits Burger’s praise, as does the fact that on two occasions the female interest Duare has to come to the hero’s rescue. But why should he admire Duare and not Dian or Oo-aa? Political dogmatism explains the inconsistency. Burger also finds the anti-Communist satire – but not the anti-Nazi satire – in the first of the Venus novels awkward and embarrassing.