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Thomas Bertonneau: Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Masculine Narrative

A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan, The Tarzan Files

As many of you know, I’ve got my head down writing a book that is now tentatively entitled “Hollywood vs Mars”, about the recent John Carter debacle and what path, if any, there is to a sequel.  In it I’m “beginning at the beginning”, with Edgar Rice Burroughs sitting down to write A Princess of Mars in the fall of 1911.  Yesterday I published an article by Burroughs himself that intrigued me and forms part of the research; today I would like to share one of my favorite scholarly articles on Burroughs — Thomas Bertonneau’s “Edgar Rice burroughs and the Masculine Narrative”.  Bertonnau’s analysis is insightful, and one of the things I particularly appreciate is that it recognizes that by virtue of cultural impact if not, strictly speaking, literary merit, Burroughs was a giant of the 20th century.  I’m also with him when he takes issue with the timid nature of the praise that many of those writing introductions to Burroughs collections have offered — as if (this is my metaphor, not his) to inoculate themselves against subsequent charges that the just don’ t get that Burroughs was not a “serious writer”.  

For those in too big of a hurry to read the entire essay, I offer here an excerpt that truly speaks to me, and will find a place in my efforts with “Hollywood vs Mars”:

 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.

Here it is in full: I will add my comments later in the comment section.  I’m interested in hearing first what the readers here think of what he has to say:

Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Masculine Narrative

by Thomas Bertonneau   The Brussels Journal

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 controlof 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 ofPellucidar, 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 MarsLost on VenusPellucidar, 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 retellfrom 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 likeSavage 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 distancebetween 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 courseBurroughs’ 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.

12 comments

  • Fascinating article that will rightly so give you a headache if you, as I did, fnid it immersive and extraordinary.

  • Paladin —

    Guess I timed out. I was an idiot and didn’t copy before sending — CAPTCHA had been good for so long, but it was just lulling me into a false sense of security.

  • Dotar —

    Dammit, I forgot to include an emoticon to blunt my criticism!

    :-) There ya go.

    Anyway, I had started a point-by-point rebuttal to Bertonneau long ago, but then the summer house painting season hit and when I got back to my article I thought I could rely on my memory and, well, Bob’s you’re uncle. But to say something without straining too much your hospitality (and the patience of visitors here) let me boil down my criticism to this:

    Bertonneau makes shit up. Regardless of what I may think of his political views, the man makes shit up and that makes him a bad scholar.

    Of course, I won’t leave it at that. :-) Let me take as example the plethora of straw men from footnote #2: “Burger also finds the anti-Communist satire – but not the anti-Nazi satire – in the first of the Venus novels awkward and embarrassing.”

    My, awkward AND embarrassing. Let’s look at the source material, “In Defence of Carson Napier” from the Bison Books edition of “Pirates of Venus,” wherein the author hides his head in shame at ERB’s poor attempt at satire: “While the political satire of the Venus books is fairly straightforward — the communist Thorists of Pirates, the Nazi-like Zani of Carson of Venus — the Amtor saga also serves as a light-hearted parody of Burroughs’s own work. ” And that’s it. From this solitary non-commital reference (neither example of satire is praised nor condemmed) Bertonneau infers that the author is poo-pooing ERB’s anti-Communist stance I’ve seen better logic come out of Glenn Beck. The inference that the author is a communist sympathizer is a nice touch, though.

    If interested, you can read the whole afterword at http://www.erbzine.com/mag19/1971.html

    Yes, I agree that many of the Bison Book intro writers spend an inordinate time on ERB’s reputation as a “bad” writer before singing his virtues, but there has been nearly a century of ERB being slagged by the literary intelligensia and so one must acknowledge that when reprinting ERB in a semi-scholarly edition. Some, like Bisson with his intro to “Moon Maid,” seem not to have liked the book at all. But Tom Dietz in his intro to “Eternal Savage” had never read ERB before and was pleasantly surprised. Bertonneau, unfortunately, wants to score points against these liberal elitists, and so lumps them all together as writers of “unctuous apologies in awkward asides” even though he apologetically professes “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.” It’s okay if you’re a paleoconservative, I guess.

    As for myself, I’ve never felt it necessary to write of ERB’s literary virtues or shortcomings because I was writing afterwords — if the reader had gotten that far he must have enjoyed the novel, or at least found it interesting enough to read the afterword. My interest was in the historical, cultural and scientific background from which his stories arose. I don’t know the first thing about literary theory, I have no idea what post-modernism is, and so simply steer clear of such things. I suspect Bertonneau doesn’t know either, but at least he managed to work the word “jejeune” into his first sentence!

    Okay, one more point and I’ll quit. Here’s something from you and Bertie:

    “Anyway, I had viewed that part of the article (his critique of “preface writers” as preamble and warmup — the meat, for me, begins with this:

    “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.”

    I hope you can see the straw men — women, actually — in Bertonneau’s conclusion there. ERB’s women in no way embody the values of these current female stereotypes I just pulled out of thin air and which ERB wouldn’t even recognize (because he was, like, dead 50 years before such stereotypes arose), but even so his women represent a rebuke to such gender stereotyping. Or something like that. Really, I can’t get all of what Bertonneau is saying at times, but if this is how he views women then I’d say he has some issues he needs to work out.

    I asked a couple acquaintances in academia if they could shed any light on the concept of “masculine narrative” and they basically said, “huh?” At the risk of repeating my other post, the history of Western literature is practically synonymous with the concept of the masculine narrative. Yes, you can find feminine (and ethnic) voices here and there throughout, but the dominant voice has always been masculine.

    So, no, when Bertonneau writes that “Burroughs did not quite invent, but he refined and codified a robust popular masculine narrative” he’s basically blowing smoke. “Masculine narrative” had existed long before ERB put pen to paper — when you tie ERB to Malory and Homer you pretty much acknowledge that. Bertonneau is basically laying claim to finding something that’s existed all along. If he wanted to highlight some facet of this narrative that’s been previously overlooked then that would be worthwhile. Both Bertonneau and ERB rail against modernity — ERB’s effete civilization vs. Bertonneau’s emasculated society. Hell, a distrust of modern civilization is at the very heart of the most civilized product of society: literature. Instead of exploring something worthwhile, Bertonneau instead rails against feminists. Apparently he feels threatened.

    It is only within our lifetimes that the concepts of feminine or ethnic literary studies have been taken seriously, and even though these represent the smallest fraction of literature there is still blowback. Bertonneau equates such changes as the emasculation of culture and kowtowing to rampant political correctness. I’d say it just means there are more people at the table than just white males and they’d like to be heard.

    it’s okay, Professor Bertonneau, no one will take your Burroughs away. It’s just that if you find empowerment in reading literature involving someone very much like yourself, couldn’t you dredge up some empathy for those who might want to read about people much like themselves as well? This is not a zero sum game and this is not an either/or situation. Yes, there are some who call ERB racist and sexist with the intent of banning his writings. Funny, they don’t get very far. But if you recognize that there are differences between ERB’s (or his culture’s) racial and sexual attitudes you might be interested in figuring out how we got from there to here. Or if we’ve gotten anywhere. After all, in a hundred years our attitudes might leave our descendants appalled.

    Anyway, thanks for letting me play in your sandbox, Dotar; hope I didn’t leave too much of a mess. I’m typing in this teeny tiny box (and dealing with CAPTCHA) and ideas may not get the detail they need to be fully clear. And since I’m trying to recreate this from memory, well, you know how that goes.

    Oh, that Pellucidar afterword isn’t available online; you’ll probably have to ask the author for that. Really, equating the Mahars with Filipino insurgents just makes my blood boil …

  • If you take too long writing a post, thats when the F***ing captcha eats it.

    I do like pascalahad and always just copy before sending, then you can paste it back in if it gets ate.

  • On my computer it doesn’t work. When I hit the “back” button my message has disappeared. Every time I post on the site, I “copy” my message before sending. If the capcha doesn’t work, I don’t have to rewrite the whole text.

    I’m about to send the message, CTRL-C is my friend! :)

  • HRH
    Sorry!!!!! …. I had over 6,000 spam comments in two months before we put that in but the idea is that it should work………not gobble up comments. Sorry…..I see that Abraham Sherman put up some instructions that might help if it happens again.

  • HRH, if you get the “ERROR Captcha” message after attempting to post a comment, hit the “back” button on your browser and your message will still be there if you scroll down the page to the comment box. His the refresh for the Captcha, enter the new code, and it should post.

  • This is one of my favorite articles about Burroughs, ever. It puts the lazy criticism that has been levied against him in perspective and celebrates him for his strengths, as every great author deserves.

  • HRH wrote:

    what is it about Bertonneau’s article that you like?

    HRH I think we went a round on this before. I just don’t get your reaction to this.

    First, I agree with him that a lot of the preface-writers seem to feel obliged to diss Burroughs (not dismiss) before working their way to any praise, and then the praise is semi-backhanded. I think Burroughs in a way encourages this by his constant dismissiveness when talking about his writing skills, and so there’s kind of a tradition of doing this. I feel like there is a certain timidness in asserting that Burroughs was, in fact, a skilled writer, and I would like to see some of what he calls the “preface writers” show a little more assertiveness and less apologeticness (is that a word)……but that’s just a general impression I have. I wrote an earlier piece about this — about how I found myself in the presence of no less than John Barth at a dinner table and made some remark about ERB, and Barth practically got out of his seat singing the praises of Burroughs as a serious talent– much to the dismay of the rest of the people at the dinner table. I would like to see that kind of stirring praise of Burroughs, rather than always starting by acknowledging his deficiencies. I’m not familiar with all the references he makes so I don’t’ have a position on them, just on a general impression I’ve garnered over the yard. . You seem to be so defensive about the preface writers, I’m wondering — are you one of them? (Oops. Just figured out the answer.) Yeah — I think he goes overboard in picking on one of the preface writers who likens the Mahars to the Philippine insurgents …..I would like to read that preface and form my own opinion, especially because of the Philippine references. [By the way, just today in my labors over my book, I did a piece where I took Burroughs “The Black Man’s Burden” and talked about the context — Spanish American War; Teller Amendment; Cuba is freed; Philippines betrayed; anti-imperialist, etc, etc. I’m fascinated by the Fil-Am war, have written about it (The Balangiga Uprising: A Hero Tale, a Tragedy, and an Unsolved Mystery), so I’m open to all that and it’s obvious to me that Burroughs paid plenty of attention to America’s Philippine adventure and “got” the betrayal, etc.]

    Anyway, I had viewed that part of the article (his critique of “preface writers” as preamble and warmup — the meat, for me, begins with this:

    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.

    I suspect you’re going to tell me that he is not original in expressing this — and if so, please send me the other references so I can incorporate them into my education and edification.

    And this:

    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.

    I find those two quotes to be useful contributions to a discussion of Burroughs.

    Peace. Didn’t mean nuthin’ by it.

  • Well, aside from the author’s poor reading comprehension and/or deliberate misreading of his sources, his out-of-context quotes, his inability to recognize analogies, his misassigning of “nervous critics” to the wrong introductions, his immature assumption that criticizing Burroughs means dismissing Burroughs, his notion that the fairly recent recognition of the feminine as a valid literary voice after 4000+ years of a dominant “masculine narrative” dating back to Gilgamesh somehow has resulted in the emasculation of modern society, and his setting up of a veritable legion of straw men (three in footnote #2 alone!), what is it about Bertonneau’s article that you like?

  • Dotar-

    It’s common knowledge that ERB gets little respect from the serious, literary, academic intelligencia, so it’s great to see someone finally give him his due.

    No, ERB’s work is not in the same category as Ulysses by James Joyce (some say the best novel ever written), but ERB definitely fits really well with the original character of Ulysses as presented to us by Homer in The Odyssey. I mean that as very high praise indeed, considering that people have continued to read and love and re-tell the stories of Homer for over 2,500 years!

    There are different categories of lit, and in the ‘epic adventure’ genre, the John Carter hero reminds me a lot of Ulysses. If people are still reading a book 50 years after it came out, that’s a big deal. If they’re still reading a book 100 years later, like with ERB, you’re entering into select territory. Will folks still be reading James Joyce 2,500 years from now? I seriously doubt it. Of course, I don’t want to exaggerate, but ERB and Homer….. they have a lot in common……

    P.S. I didn’t even know there was a word ‘insipidity’ – love it! – you’ve just got to work that word into your book, Dotar

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