John Barth, Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter, and the “Masculine Narrative”

Barsoom, Edgar Rice Burroughs

In this, the season of John Carter, I have found my thoughts occasionally returning to the year 1976 when I was a graduate student in a seminar on the Modern American Novel, one of the highlights of which (besides reading Pynchon, Barth, Bellow, and Vonnegut and getting graduate credit for it) was a series of dinners with some of the same writers we were reading. Most notably — John Barth paid us a visit, right about the time that Giles Goat Boy was making waves and Barth was emerging as one of the great literary voices of the 20th century.

Barth was jovial, engaging — and of course the students were out to impress — and so the dinner conversation turned to structuralism and semiotics, the arcane method of literary criticism that was then in favor. Thinking I would throw a bit of a hand grenade into the conversation, I made a cynical observation — something to the effect that if I were to apply structuralism criteria, it would be hard to distinguish beween the value of, say, Giles Goat Boy and the Martian novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

There was a tiny moment of awkward silence as my classmates waited for a sober and thoughtful response from Barth. Intead what they got was a big grin: “Edgar Rice Burroughs? I LOVE that guy!” He then launched into an impassioned discussion of the world of Barsoom as created by Burroughs — complete with reference to thoats and banths and John Carter’s calot Woola (which left my erudite co-diners scratching their heads in bafflement) while I had my five minutes of glory with the great author, who, as he explained it, had something close to an equal regard for Burroughs as he did for the acknowledged literary greats of Burroughs’ and our day.

Over the years, when I ponder the magic of the writing of Edgar Rice Burroughs, I always have this elusive sense that there was a deeper genius to it than is generally acknowledged. Yet it’s hard to take up the cudgels on that when Burroughs himself was so consistently self-deprecating (no time moreso than when he penned Under The Moons of Mars under the penname “Normal Bean”) about the insubstantial nature of his efforts.

But here and there, scholars have attempted to grapple with Burroughs’ particular talent and view it in a social and literary context that begins to give some for the credit that I have long felt (and Barth evidently feels) Burroughs is due.

Writing in the Brussels Journal, Thomas F. Bertonneau addresses “Burroughs and the Masculine Narrative” and in the process makes some observations which resonate:

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.

Bertonneau also examines’ Burroughs use of the literary frame story as a way of getting into his novels, going so far as to make Burroughs himself into a minor character in the tales, usually either getting them directly from the participant whose story it is — or from a credible intermediary who delivers the manuscript. He cites in particular the frame story to Llana of Gathol, the last fully completed book in the Barsoom series, with Burroughs — then living in Hawaii — meditating on a figure who approaches from a volcanic slope whom Burroughs first, in a dreamy state, takes to be the long departed King Kahemanahana — but who resolves into John Carter, when then visits with Burroughs,his nephew, and imparts the stories (four novellas, actually) that were published as Llana of Gathol.

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.”)

Berteonneau draws clearly the lineage that sees Burroughs interplanetary romances as the modern manifestation of the great chivalric romances — Beowulf, Morte D’Arthur, and the like — and he’s right. My adolescent fascination with Burroughs led naturally and inevitably to the personal enjoyment and scholarly pursuit of the ‘Matter of Britain” — the multiple literary manifestations of Arthur and Mordred, of Bedivere and Kay, of Uther and that later French importation, Lancelot. Burroughs had extracted from this material — and the shrinking frontier of increasingly codified America in the era of Teddy Roosevelt, a story pattern that created a timeless resonance with male readers like myself who related to the world in patterns that went back even farther than the matter of Britain — to the matter of Greece, of Homer’s epic efforts which I pursued in the original language with equal fervor in graduate school.

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.

These are Sunday afternoon musings of mine — but Brettoneau’s article is worth reading in detail if you’ve ever read Burroughs and thought about the gap between the magic it creates in the reader – and the tendency to be dismissive of it in literary circles:

Edgar Rice Burroughs and the masculine narrative by Thomas Bretteneau

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