A Eureka Moment? John Carter, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Literary Empathy

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I have puzzled for some considerable time over the discrepancy between the intense emotional bonding that millions of readers experienced in their “relationship” with Burroughs’ writing, in contrast to the relatively short shrift that Burroughs has been typically given by “proper” literary critics.  The mere level of discourse and passion on the comments on this site is empirical evidence that Burroughs touched certain readers on a level that is somewhat more deeply and passionately felt than other “pulp adventure” writers of his day.

In my quest to figure this out, I’ve read everything I can find that qualifies as critical analysis of Burroughs; I’ve consulted all the Burroughs scholars I know can find; and I’ve consulted our readers here at the John Carter Files.  And still it remains a mystery.  Those to have “bonded” with Burroughs agree with me that there is something special there that sets him apart — but what is it?

A related issue that has been the subject of much discussion is — if Burroughs’ John Carter is the kind of “cardboard cutout” or “vanilla” character that his detractors claim he is (a perceived deficiency that motivated many of the character changes in the movie John Carter), then why do so may feel so passionately about the character, and not want him to be changed?

Today, while doing some research on a completely unrelated topic (empathy), I stumbled across an article entitled:  The Oxymoron of Empathic Criticism: Readerly Empathy, Critical Explication, and the Translator’s Creative Understanding by Russell Scott Valentino.  It was a little off topic for the supposed purpose of my research — but the title intrigued me and so I waded into it.

Well, well, well.  Interesting.

First of all, it traces the history of the word “empathy” to 1903, when it was first used  as a “technical term that grew out of the discipline of aesthetic psychology at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century.”  It did not come into general usage until much later.  So we can safely assume that ERB did not have the concept of “empathy” in mind when he wrote A Princess of Mars in 1911.

Yet all these passionate ERB fans clearly “empathize” with John Carter.  Now — to empathize means what?   In its simplest sense, it means experiencing what another person experiences.  In science, it is broken down into various subcategories that I won’t try to go into here.  The point is that reading fiction is essentially an exercise in empathy — and for a book to really work, and truly transport the reader and “make him/her care” . . .  empathy has to be achieved.

But the common notion of  Hollywood, literatary criticism, and the writing team for John Carter  is that a character who does not display discernable flaws, who is too perfect, is not one that audiences will empathize with.  Hence the decision to make wholesale changes to John Carter’s character.  Well, Valentino makes a few points that–while they may not crack the code on this whole inquiry–do at least shed some light on what’s going on with Burroughs’ writing.

Writing that anticipates empathic responses in the readers is supposed to fool people, or allow them to fool themselves temporarily, into  seeing its combinations of graphemes as real beings…. Part of this illusionary quality of realist and neo-realist depiction is the convention of having no conventions, merely telling the truth, perhaps  despite the beautifying (and falsifying) conventions of storytelling. “I may  not be a very good writer, but luckily that shouldn’t matter, since I’m merely  laying out the truth in all its ugly detail.” Or “I wish Mr. Newman had not  said such things, but I would be lying to you if I pretended that he hadn’t.” Identifying or empathizing with the characters in realist or other fiction  depends to a great extent on the willingness of readers to accept the claim of  a-conventionality that such a narrative convention implies.

Now, in reading this, I immediately thought of two aspects of Burroughs writing that resonates with this.

First, the frame story.  Yes, we know it’s all just a device — but it is consistent with this notion that by presenting the narrative as if it is merely reportorial, in line with realist or neo-realist depiction, it invites empathy.  That’s a very non-literary concept — more purely psychoglogical.  But it makes sense and it also tracks with what some of the teens who read A Princes of Mars last year in our Teen Reading Project said.  One in particular said that in spite of the setup wherein we gave here the book and explained that we were doing it in connection with a project that had to do with the Disney film, she said that even knowing that, she was actually snookered into believing the frame story and thinking that she was reading a true account of some actual adventure right up to the point that John Carter ended up on Mars, whereupon she finally realized she was reading a work of fiction.  When she said this to us, others ruefully admitted a similar experience.

The point?  I guess it would be that ERB’s clever use of the frame story works on us in subliminal ways wherein, even if we know on an intellectual level that it’s all good fictional fun, the frame tory nevertheless triggers empathic reactions that help draw us into the story.

And secondly — there was another thought that again is given further resonance by what some of the teen readers said.   John Carter tells us his story in first person and he does so without literary artifice.  He presents his manuscript as a journal of things that actually happened to him.  He is extremely detailed in his physical descriptions.  Consider, for example, his description of Thark hatchlings: 

Five or six had already hatched and the grotesque caricatures which sat blinking in the sunlight were enough to cause me to doubt my sanity. They seemed mostly head, with little scrawny bodies, long necks and six legs, or, as I afterward learned, two legs and two arms, with an intermediary pair of limbs which could be used at will either as arms or legs. Their eyes were set at the extreme sides of their heads a trifle above the center and protruded in such a manner that they could be directed either forward or back and also independently of each other, thus permitting this queer animal to look in any direction, or in two directions at once, without the necessity of turning the head.

The ears, which were slightly above the eyes and closer together, were small, cup-shaped antennae, protruding not more than an inch on these young specimens. Their noses were but longitudinal slits in the center of their faces, midway between their mouths and ears.

There was no hair on their bodies, which were of a very light yellowish-green color. In the adults, as I was to learn quite soon,
this color deepens to an olive green and is darker in the male than in the female. Further, the heads of the adults are not so out of
proportion to their bodies as in the case of the young.

The iris of the eyes is blood red, as in Albinos, while the pupil is dark. The eyeball itself is very white, as are the teeth. These
latter add a most ferocious appearance to an otherwise fearsome and terrible countenance, as the lower tusks curve upward to sharp points which end about where the eyes of earthly human beings are located. The whiteness of the teeth is not that of ivory, but of the snowiest and most gleaming of china. Against the dark background of their olive skins their tusks stand out in a most striking manner, making these weapons present a singularly formidable appearance.

Most of these details I noted later, for I was given but little time to speculate on the wonders of my new discovery. I had seen that the eggs
were in the process of hatching, and as I stood watching the hideous little monsters break from their shells I failed to note the approach of a score of full-grown Martians from behind me.

Now, this is a pretty extraordinary bit of “reportorial” communication.  It is not “literary” — it’s how I would imagine Louis Leakey describing a  Thark upon seeing one in real life.

What is interesting to me is the idea that by removing literary artifice and going to great pains to present the narrative as an unencumbered “journal”, it has an effect which promotes empathy between the reader and John Carter.

That’s fascinating, because we normally think of empathy as something that is achieved, in reading, more “artistically”.  Who would have thought that by using relatively flat, dry, scientific description and frame stories, Burroughs was building empathy that would play a role in forging an emotional bond between the reader and the narrator — even though the narrator didn’t have the kinds of deficiencies that are the common approach to making a character “real”.    Burroughs used an alternate technique to make John Carter real — he first created a frame story to sell the idea it was a “found footage” kind of story, and then he let his narrator tell his own story and do it with a kind of clinical, scientific detail that draws the reader in and makes the reader “believe”.

I recall one of the teen readers making the point that she saw John Carter like an explorer who had gone to some fascinating place and was filing his report of what he saw.

Valentino goes on to talk about a concept that is in some fashion “beyond empathy” …. the concept of “vzhivanie” , which is a mouthful unless you speak Russian an understand that “v” as a prefix means “in” or “to”  (as in I live in Moscow or I’m going to Moscow) and zhivanie comes from “zhit” — “to live” — thus vshivanie means “living within”, or “enter within” more or less, which is precisely what Burroughs does for us with Barsoom:

Mikhail Bakhtin explored this phenomenon in many of his works, early and  late. He dismissed “mere empathy,” by which he meant something like  “emotional identification,” as unhelpful and essentially sterile. “What would  I have to gain if another were to fuse with me?” he asked. Another person  “would see and know only what I already see and know, he would only  repeat in himself the inescapable closed circle of my own life; let him rather  remain outside me.”  For new understanding to be possible, Bakhtin proposed to replace talk of  emotional identification with something his early writings call vzhivanie. This is from the root zhit’(to live) and the prefix v (in, or more likely in this  case, into). The neologism has been translated by Gary Saul Morson and  Caryl Emerson as “live entering” or “living into.” The idea is to enter actively  into another individuality, another perspective on the world – without losing  sight even momentarily of one’s own unique perspective, one’s own  “surplus” of life experience, one’s own sense of self.  

This too seems to get at some of what it was that Burroughs did so well, in a way that typical literary criticism fails to appreciate.

Then finally illuminates the difference between the kind of immersive reading of the typical reader, versus the analytic reading of the critic, in a way that (for me at least) sheds light on how Burroughs could win such passionate fans while failing to impress critics:

Reading experiences, however, are not the same as their critical  explications. Readers often become absorbed by fictional works, “aesthetically enraptured” by them as Murray Krieger put it. Critics step away, distance themselves to explicate emotional responses. They also reify,  appropriate, synthesize, and evaluate. All these moves emphasize the  outsider judgment of critics over the insider identification of readers. 19 At this point, the reasons behind the title of this tour –and the oxymoronic  nature of empathic criticism –should become evident. Bakhtin seemed to  meld the two activities: the absorption or enrapturing of the reader with the  reflection or explication of the critic. His notion of vzhivanie attempts to  unify and integrate.

Does this make sense to anyone else?

To summarize:  Burroughs invited empathy and “vzivanie” immersion in his characters and world by employing techniques that stripped away liteary artifice and enhanced the sense of unaffected, reportial presentation of his fantatsic subject matter.   In doing this he broke down barriers the reader might have to the fantastic nature of his story, and he caused the reader to bond with, believe in,  and empathize with his narrator, John Carter, even though John Carter deficient in the eyes of the analytical critics, then and now, because he didn’t have sufficient flaws, an “arc”, etc.   Burroughs followed an alternate path that was carefully (though perhaps intuitively) created and which worked wonderfully on the “enraptured” reader who experienced a grand immersion — but which analytic critics, working from a different set of assumed virtues and always maintaining some critical, analytical distance failed to appreciate or even grasp.

Anyway, that makes sense to me.  It’s not the whole puzzle, but it adds a few pieces.


  • I think what Burroughs did was find a way into dream-logic, and the concepts discussed above were certainly part of it. His stories are crazy enough that they should seem outlandish, but he had a way of putting his readers into that “this is just how things are” natural state that one often has during a dream. Only when one wakes up and reflects on the dream does it seem strange. ERB found a way to keep that immersion-breaking voice largely speechless during the experience of the story. The flip-side of this is that overly detached literary critics will miss an essential attractive quality of the narrative.

    The reader has to be willing to jump into the deep end of suspended disbelief to enjoy ERB’s most distinct tales, but once there, it is a place we realize we very much want to be. The same type of phenomena took place with Avatar, when people became engrossed in Pandora and wanted to live there, to a degree of intensity that is achieved with only a few fictional worlds.

  • Perhaps one thing that helps the reader’s identification is that most of the time, Burroughs’ heroes are reactive more than active (which doesn’t mean they are passive, far from it!). And prior to their call to adventure, they live with no particular “adventurous” goal in mind (even if one could argue that searching gold in indian territory is an adventure in itself, but Carter really tries to find money, not trouble). And when they don’t have to react, well, they settle down and live an “ordinary” family life.

    Most pulp heroes have a goal, even a vague one like “fighting crime” or “do good”. I can’t speak for everyone else, but that sets them automatically apart from MY goal in life (which must be to survive another day at my boring desk job)! 🙂

    In fact I was surprised when I began to read Swords of Mars, because Carter became active in this one, trying to destroy the league of assassins. This was new.

  • Yo, Steve! I wasn’t talking about the comment posters here. The stupid critics were the “professional’ published and broadcast critics who couldn’t figure out JC.

  • Way to go Steve. If anyone is stupid here it is you who can’t have a discussion with opposing ideas without calling someone names.

    But, I wouldn’t write something like that.

    Has anybody read the recent EW article with the rationale about changing Superman’s character to conform with modern convention. Prepare yourselves for angst-y Superman. Oh, boy.

  • Fascinating speculation! And excellent discussion.

    Patrick: I agree. In fact I wrote an article several years ago placing ERB alongside a number of other Modernists; that article was incorporated into my book The Teenage Tarzan, published by McFarland. Look for it. The difference between first-person and third-person narration in the JC v Tarzan discussion was my topic at last year’s Centennial conventions. This whole argument resonates with me.

    Michael: What you do here is important. It IS literary criticism, but along psychological lines. The blending of the two brings out some important overlap and reveals some areas from a new angle. (There is a field of lit crit that focuses on psychological application, ever since Freud.) I am not objective enough at this point to say that the reasons you suggest are WHY I like ERB’s stories, but I can’t deny that I do. You have made me more conscious of myself, if nothing else, and that is a good thing as well.

  • The only critique I’d offer of this critique is that the ‘message found in a bottle’ was a fairly conventional plot device at and around the time Burroughs first wrote UTMOM.

    In that respect, he WAS following a literary convention of the time rather than charting new ground and therefore, one must ask, what did he change or add to that format that made it stand out and resonate far more than other contemporary examples? (It could be that merely combing BOTH the frame story and the first person journal account in one story achieved that difference.)

    I think the above means that you’ve found a path into the works, but we’re at the beginning of that path, not the end.

    And now, in reference to the first comment here: If I were engaging in arguments that directed themselves at individuals – rather than commenting on the subject at hand – I might be tempted to say something like ‘Kevin is being stupid and is apparently locked into believing the excuse that Stanton offered up to explain his destruction of the original character in a quest to MAKE HIS MOVIE CONFORM WITH HOLLYWOOD CONVENTION.’ I would then go on to suggest that only those who engage with this stuff in the shallow, shiny objects end of the pool wouldn’t recognize that going with the conventional wisdom is one sure way to insure that your property ends up being nothing more than conventional – certainly not ground-breaking or deserving of any special attention.
    But since I like to restrict myself to the discussion itself, rather than engaging in personal attacks that contribute nothing at all to the conversation, I wouldn’t write something like that….

  • I read Dracula years ago and my favorite parts were Jonathan Harker’s Journal. You were immersed in the story from the first person vantage point. Bram Stoker was good in that part of the book – it was exciting – so I can see how Burroughs would elicit the same response writing in that manner. That style of writing puts you right into the story.

    In reading all the history of Burroughs, how Under The Moons of Mars was his first time writing with no serious training, that says to me that he would not have been held back by all the so called “rules” that writers may operate under and critics enforce. I always thought that’s why some critics couldn’t figure out the John Carter movie other than the fact they are stupid and locked in a paradigm. The changes to the story were made to fit the current accepted way of writing a Hollywood script (the parts that MCR and others here hate). There are rules for a movie script that the movie still cast aside to be truer to the original John Carter story.. all the things some critics didn’t understand or like such as including the western part, the parts that some even thought were racist in the portrayal of the Tharks as many critics follow the so called “politically correct” mindset (one of the downfalls of college education these days).

    ERB’s imagination and ability to pull you into the story are shared in his stories and the movie for me. His inclusion of the romance worked in the original story and it worked so well for me in the movie. I was amazed when others missed it as it was obvious to me and part of the movie’s charm. That and the imagination involved, along with the animation, were what enchanted me.

  • Reading Burroughs is experiencing the adventure through a hero’s mind, and a modest hero, not a superman. When John Carter says that it’s no shame for an opponent to lose to him, he’s not arrogant, he just states a fact, and we know it. When Burroughs writes, he puts in his hero the qualities he would like to have ideally (and he seemed to have most of those anyway), while fully acknowledging where he came from (humble beginnings). That’s why it’s harsh to deny the status of author to Burroughs, for how whimsical the adventures of his heroes may seem, he put a lot of himself into them (and a lot of wits and intelligence, a quality most critics overlook in his works).

    That’s why another author can’t replicate that, that’s what makes him unique, that’s what makes Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft unique too. They are in their stories, and if you can’t be them, you can’t write like them. They use the same words as other authors, their style seems effortless and accessible, and yet there’s still something intangible and forever out of reach.

    I’m not surprised to read that some readers set Tarzan apart from the rest. Tarzan is not a first-person character, it’s almost a case in study Burroughs made up to explore some of its favorite themes (heredity vs education, primitiveness vs civilization), and it’s the hero that “gelled” the most for the general audience, because he has so many sides to him. The exploration in the Tarzan novels is in the main character, because he’s so alien to us, and not in the landscapes! But we saw what happened when he had explored all he could in Tarzan, the novels became serviceable “pot-boilers”. You can only add so many layers to a character, but on the other hand, there’s always an unknown part of Barsoom, Amtor or Pellucidar to explore!

    He’s the author I re-read the most, because each time it’s an emotional experience. I wrote in some other comments that Burroughs was like a rollercoaster to me. Like a rollercoaster, it’s a first-person experience. And even if I know every twist and turn, it’s the journey that matters, and feeling the sensations again, perhaps even discovering new ones.

  • There is a genuine-ness to Burroughs that many don’t have. I’m sure he was a man of his time but we see types rather than villains or heroes of color.

    The best example of this is African Mugambi in the “Beasts of Tarzan” who is Black and heroic, compared to portrayal of American Negro staff in other books who provide comic relief. And even those are given moments to shine like Esmeralda.

  • As a young and now old long time fan, I often felt it was the visual impact that held my interest and attention. It was like reading a movie, I have told many a person as I recommended reading him, particularly the Mars series, which I read in its entirety before the Tarzan and other books. Remains one of my favorite authors of all time. I suppose there is a certain relationship between seeing through the character’s eyes and empathy.

  • This is a very literary analysis of a work by a true master of popular literature. The schism between “serious lit” and “popular lit” is broad and wide and is not likely to be bridged any time soon, if ever.

    It’s odd, but my father, who was a great ERB’s fan during his youth, prefers the Tarzan series to the John Carter series because, in Pop’s eyes the Tarzan books had more “depth.” He considered the John Carter books to be a bit silly whereas Tarzan was serious stuff.

    My own feeling is that popular lit should simply be judged as popular lit. It’s purpose first and foremost is to entertain. Everything else comes along gratis with the package. In other words, you can read as much or as little into it as you like. That’s part of its genius.

    I would be curious to see if ERB had ever read Joseph Conrad, an acknowledged literary master who used the framing device to great effect. His Marlow(e) character typically tells the story (and occasionally comments parenthetically along the way) to a group of transfixed listeners. Conrad is considered one of the truly great early modernist writers. Perhaps it would not be out of place to suggest that ERB was a “truly great popular modernist.”

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