06 January 2012

Comments on Race in A Princess of Mars

It came as a surprise to me that my review of A Princess of Mars provoked some debate in its comment thread over at Black Gate. Although I get decent hits on my posts, they usually only get a few comments and don’t develop much discussion aside from, “Yeah, I love/hate that book/movie as well.”

Never underestimate the power of Edgar Rice Burroughs to create discussion.

The early comment that caused the debate was one suggesting that the racist material in A Princess of Mars put it on the same level as the racist ideology of D. W. Griffith’s notorious film The Birth of a Nation. After some back-and-forth in the comments, I decided I needed to address my thoughts on this, and how I deal with racism in pulp stories. What follows is a somewhat edited (for context) version of my lengthy comments, which should also have a spot here on my website.

When writing about pulp, in which racist assumptions are almost always prevalent, I’ve made the decision to address racism in the work if it is one of the primary reasons for the existence of the work, or if the author gets up on a soapbox to preach racist ideology. “Pigeons from Hell” is a good example of the former; that story is entirely linked to race issues, and it is impossible to discuss the story without it. In fact, the race issue of Howard’s horror tale is one of it’s most intriguing aspects. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Lost on Venus is an example of the latter; Burroughs halts the story to give obnoxious lectures on eugenics that are thoroughly loathsome and reflects the author’s own views on the topic. It also kills the pacing in what is otherwise the best book in the underwhelming Venus series.

In the case of A Princess of Mars, aspects of racism appear toward Apaches who appear in the first chapter. Burroughs participated in Apache hunting during his brief military career—although the only Apaches he ever met were the scouts who worked with the 7th Cavalry, whom he later wrote that he quite liked—so he brought some of the attitudes of the cavalrymen to John Carter in this section. (Carter refers to the Apache as “vicious marauders.”) This transfers onto Mars, which is in many ways a pseudo-Western setting, with certain Martian groups serving the part of the “savage tribes,” such as the green men, although it is definitely not a one-to-one analogy, and Burroughs uses the Western inspiration in a free-floating way. The Barsoomian cultural landscape is an intricate place.

A Princess of Mars uses a standard trope, most recently discussed regarding the movie Avatar, of the white man who joins another culture and then becomes its most powerful member. What makes A Princess of Mars different from many stories that follow this archetype is that John Carter doesn’t side exclusively either with the green Martians or the red Martians. He sides with the Tharks among the green Martians, but opposes the Warhoons. He sides with the red Martians of Helium against the red Martians of Zodanga. His principle drive is his love for Dejah Thoris.

It’s intriguing that the “red men” of Barsoom tend to be the heroes, and the “white Southern gentleman” hero falls in love with a “red woman.” This was probably not an intentional statement on Burroughs’s part—in fact, I’m certain it isn’t given what else I know about the author’s opinions—but it reads subversive today, and it will only become more so in the next two books. I’ve tried to find contemporary opinions on A Princess of Mars to see if anybody had a fit about a white hero in a love with a person of a different skin color, but perhaps because Dejah Thoris is an alien people didn’t think about it. Which is probably why ERB wasn’t thinking about it much either.

As for the Civil War: The film The Birth of a Nation is a racist screed, through and through. It’s director D. W. Griffith on a soapbox preaching the Southern Myth of Reconstruction that turned into the main narrative in the late 1870s that tried to rewrite why the Civil War was fought. Griffith used the medium of film to make the myth more widespread, and there is no doubt that the pushing of this racist ideology was the main point on its agenda.

A Princess of Mars is not preaching about the race assumptions in it; they are there as a part of the assumptions of the author and the period. The book is one of the less “message-themed” of the Burroughs canon. (Next year’s The Gods of Mars gets into a satire about religion, so we do not need to travel far before Burroughs starts overtly projecting.)

Specifically regarding the Civil War in A Princess of Mars: the novel deals with the conflict briefly, and has little to say about it aside from getting the story going in the first chapter. Based on Burroughs’s family background (which I’ll go into in more detail below), I do not believe that ERB bought into the Southern Myth of Reconstruction, except in the general way that it was permeating culture. The novel isn’t interested in preaching about the Southern view of the Civil War, and John Carter hardly mentions the war once he gets to Mars. A Princess of Mars contains racist views; but it is not a racist polemic, which The Birth of a Nation most certainly is.

For the record, here are the racially-tinged quotes in the prologue (narrated by “fictional ERB”) and Chapter I that refer to the Civil War. (Emphasis mine.)
We all loved him [John Carter], and our slaves fairly worshiped the ground he trod.

He was a splendid specimen of manhood, standing a good two inches over six feet, broad of shoulder and narrow of hip. . . . His manners were perfect, and his courtliness was that of a typical southern gentleman of the highest type.
The prologue has little more to say about the Civil War, and since it comes from the point of view of the fictional ERB, it does not address whether John Carter himself owned slaves. In fact, this is the only place in the book that slavery in the American South is mentioned. The story now skips ahead to Carter as a miner and his mysterious decade-long disappearance.

The real Edgar Rice Burroughs, as opposed to the fictional version in the prologue, not only wasn’t born before the Civil War (he was born in 1875), but was not a southerner at all, nor was his family. They were firmly on the Union side. Burroughs was born in Chicago to a Civil War veteran from Massachusetts who served in the Union Army. In fact, Major George Tyler Burroughs left his lucrative job in a large New York import firm to enlist because he believed in the cause, despite his employers begging him to stay.

What to make of Burroughs, no Confederate sympathizer, creating a fictional version of himself from the South who lived on a slave-owning plantation? It may just be that ERB thought a Virginian on the losing side of the war might make an interesting hero, or he bought into the image of the "southern gentleman" as a knightly figure. I don’t know; Burroughs is often a difficult man to know, and I’ve read almost all his work as well as extensive biographical material and still frequently find him baffling. Often, the mysterious nature adds to the enjoyment of his work—even when I disagree with what he is saying, as in Lost on Venus.

(Side note: Burroughs’s mother wrote an interesting memoir about being a Northern “War Bride.” It can be read here.)

John Carter’s statement on his Civil War service:
My name is John Carter; I am better known as Captain Jack Carter of Virginia. At the close of the Civil War I found myself possessed of several hundred thousand dollars (Confederate) and a captain’s commission in the cavalry arm of an army which no longer existed; the servant of a state which had vanished with the hopes of the South. Masterless, penniless, and with my only means of livelihood, fighting, gone, I determined to work my way to the southwest and attempt to retrieve my fallen fortunes in a search for gold.
Carter has nothing more to say about his service. He never mentions it when he returns to Earth. When telling his history to Dejah Thoris in Chapter XI, he mentions that he is a “gentleman of Virginia,” but says nothing about the Civil War. (In fact, he tells Dejah Thoris only the barest outline of his past history before she leaps in and tells all that she knows about Earth already.) Aside from this “southern gentleman swagger”—which will become crazy arrogance in the later books—John Carter has zero interest in his past once he reaches Barsoom. This may be because, as Burroughs’s family history indicates, he didn’t care about the Confederacy at all except as a backdrop for his character.

In fact, it would be bizarre if John Carter said anything pro-North; I wouldn’t believe a white Southerner in 1866 having a Northern view about the war’s outcome. In fact, Carter is surprisingly reticent to be pro-Southern. I think this is Burroughs’s Yankee background coming through.

But I think C Foxessa [earlier commentator] has a point when she singles out this thematic idea: “The solution to all problems of other people is a white man, preferably one who is either Brit or American, or even, if a creator is particularly acrobatically skilled, one who is both!” This is a very common assumption from not only literature of the period, but books and movies today. I do not think A Princess of Mars is preaching about the Civil War in the way of Birth of a Nation. But the Southern Myth of Reconstruction was something many writers, even a Yankee one like Edgar Rice Burroughs, took for granted in 1912, and this comes across in aspects of Carter’s character.

[In response to another comment that argued against the book having racial overtones] I don’t think it has racist overtones. I think it has racist undertones that come from the time and ERB’s background. Compared to some of Burroughs’s later novels, A Princess of Mars is subdued in the extreme in regards of race.

And by the way, that Burroughs still provokes these kind of discussions a century later is one of the reasons I find the man and his work endlessly fascinating. As Jackson [another commentator] said, “Layers.” ERB’s work is filled with differing interpretations and ideologies that belie the simple adventure plots that would seem to drive them, whether issues of race or politics or science. I seriously never get tired of looking into the man’s work—even with some of his poor novels.

One day I must write about his two novels concerning the Apaches. Amazing material there.