Barsoom For Barsoomians — Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter, and Spaceman’s Burden
Every time I think I’ve discovered all the nooks and crannies of Bill Hillman’s ERBzine, something pops up which shows me there are more treasures there. This article by Den Valdron makes some very good points and creates some insights that have otherwise been elusive.
Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote Barsoom for Barsoomians. That is to say, except for the occasional interloper from Earth the stories of Mars were by and for Martians. Sure, there was the occasional interloper from Earth, John Carter or Ulysses Paxton, but these guys tended to go native pretty quickly, adopting the methods and mores of the culture around them. But for the most part, the Barsoom stories took Barsoom on its own terms, looking at life and existence as the natives saw it. It truly was another world, very distinct from our own. Earthlings became a part of it, but their earthly natures were not terribly significant.
There’s no story, for instance, where John Carter sets up a modern “Henry Ford” style industrial plant to mass produce fliers, for example, or where he single-handedly builds an industrial structure to get himself a working radio… Although there are other examples of such stories throughout science fiction, beginning with Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. That’s just a different kind of story.
There are, of course, lots of different kinds of stories in science fiction and literature. Spaceman’s Burden was another one.
Look at it this way. First come the explorers and adventurers, people who go out and discover new worlds, new realms. John Carter on Barsoom, Professor Challenger in the Lost World, Sinbad of the Seven Seas, Stanley and Livingston in Africa, Lewis and Clarke in America, Columbus and Magellan, the intrepids who ventured into India and China. The adventurers brought back tales and stories, exotic trinkets, the philosophies and techniques of new lands.
But on Earth, the adventurers and explorers of the European era were eventually followed by traders and armies, the companies came… The British East India Company, the North West Company, the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Congo Rubber Company, and with the companies, came white men, European cultures and values, commerce, fortresses, trade, armies and Empires.
In the article, Den Valdron wrote: “For all that it may be fashionable to diss the man for racism, its worth noting that his protagonists joined and triumphed within the societies they encountered. They didn’t overrun it. Tarzan was always ‘of’ the Apes. Imperial aspirations or pretensions were absent from Burroughs work, there was no divine or racial right to European or American rule, no ‘White Man’s’ or ‘Space Man’s’ burden.”
It’s so nice to hear someone speaking some sense into this particular question that many casual critics pose about ERB. I got a little tired over the years perpetually manning the watch tower over at IMDB, keeping an eye out for just plain inaccurate statements about Burroughs. So, Valdron’s commentary was refreshing to see.
This article does a great job of describing how Burroughs handled the issue of racial interaction – every group should have an honorable indigenous leader of its own choosing, every group shows respect to other groups, and every group maintains sovereignty over its own lands. ERB’s poem “The Black Man’s Burden” squares perfectly with the honor and decency with which he treated the issue of race on Barsoom.
There is no Empire of Helium or Domain of John Carter. There are only principled men of all colors helping each other get out from under the reign of tyrants so that each people group might live free and independent under good leaders of their own race.
Fascinating article that went a lot of places I didn’t expect.
I didn’t know anything about Brackett’s Mars tales but now I think I’ll check them out – if only to explore the theory of the essay. Always loved the little bits of lower and middle class Barsoomian life (all that business in Zodanga with the Assassin’s Guild, and Andrews much derided “moments with farmers”, etc), and the notion of a whole series of books living on the other side of the Heliumetic ‘1%’ sounds like a good read.
Especially enjoyable was the economic breakdown of Barsoom politics in the wake of the Warlord, and how the proposed imperialism from Earth would unbalance that.
I am reminded of the fan theory that Lucasfilms’ “Willow” is set on an isolated planet @ the fringes of the Star Wars Galaxy, where the primitive inhabitants understand The Force only as magic or sorcery.
There is one area where John Carter pushed his Earthling sensitivities on native Barsoomians: the humane treatment of animals. By sparing the rod, Carter shows the Tharks a kinder and more effective way of gaining the cooperation and loyalty of callots and thoats. I was sorry this was downplayed in the movie, but glad they included the scene where Carter sacrifices his freedom to save Woola from a savage beating.