Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter and the Racial Imagination

The inner poetry of life is the poetry of struggling humanity, the interrelations of people in their struggles. Without this inner poetry there can be no epic composition capable of exciting human interest, capable of intensifying and keeping alive this interest. The art of the epic and, naturally, the art of the novel consists of the ability to show typical and humanely significant features of the social life of a given period. –Lukács

Preparations for a long road-trip across the country this summer led me to research quality audiobooks for long-distance car rides. One can now actually “borrow” audiobooks from a library by downloading them for an allotted time to a smartphone and this advancement I find to be quite wonderful although I have only listened to a handful of recorded books in my life. Various blog posts suggested a wide range of contemporary titles, most of which were already “checked out”, but one writer did mention that Edgar Rice Burrough’s A Princess of Mars, or any book from Burrough’s Barsoom (Mars) series is his go-to analgesic whenever he encounters a traffic jam–Burrough’s narrative invention leads the mind into a fantastic sphere where one quickly forgets the frustrating hassles of the frenetic life. I was also dimly aware that Disney had also just released John Carter into theaters earlier this year and that John Carter was an adaptation of Burrough’s work, but that the film was a bomb, or a marketing disaster. Driving out we listened to Burrough’s 1912 A Princess of Mars and driving back we listened to the sequel The Gods of Mars. The Warlord of Mars, which completes the “trilogy” that opens the Barsoom series of eleven martian tales, will have to wait for another road-trip.

There has been a long-running, but more recently boiling interaction between Science Fiction and the political left– Whereas revolutionary activists struggle to transform society, to change our relations and power structures in a way that benefit disenfranchised layers of society and by ending massive inequalities strive to create a future geared more towards the needs of the material human community rather than the needs of capital– If the action of revolutionaries is strategizing towards the future (often while theorizing the past!)– then the genre of Science Fiction perhaps in a parallel way is the imagination of how that future may materialize, and is thus inherently political– The genre of science fiction creates a friction between the state of society now, the status quo, and how society will be, or could be, or should be (or shouldn’t be), a friction which critic Darko Suvin has labelled “cognitive estrangement”. Our minds imagine and inhabit worlds in which social relations are markedly different from our own with the result, perhaps, that a simple question might be asked: “Why can’t it be like this?” Suvin then goes on to prioritize works in which this estrangement is not so much an escape or escapade into a fantastic realm, but an exercise in drawing sharp critiques or ironic distinctions with one’s own society and its problems.

The kind of other side of this fictional coin perhaps is the historical work, which is related in some ways to fantasy and could perhaps be seen as closely connected to the political right, or conservatism: “Why can’t it be like this was?” (Think of the work of Sir Walter Scott’s tales of Scottish clans disintegrating in the rising tide of capitalist transformation, which arrive right after the French Revolution as Lukacs reminds us in The Historical Novel).  Of course there is conservative Sci-Fi and revolutionary historical fiction, but the relationship between the left and Sci-Fi is fascinating terrain as recent collections attest: Frederic Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future , the essay collection Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fictionthe novels and writings of China Mieville, Kim Stanley Robinson, the list goes on… There is also the unavoidable fact that most sci-fi from the 20th century these days appears dated in a particularly hip way, which leads the way to a new embracing of the genre, although with that knowing tang of ironic distance. Nevertheless among certain pockets of the left Sci-Fi will always be “our genre” even though the enthusiasm always seems to be closer to a theoretical, critical and generic appreciation, rather than a specific consensus over a handful of authors.

Edmund Wilson, in his Patriot Gore– Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War
in his chapter on “The Myth of the Old South” writes that “If the Northerners were acting the Will of God, the Southerners were rescuing a hallowed ideal of gallantry, aristocratic freedom, fine manners and luxurious living from the materialism and vulgarity of the mercantile Northern society.” Wilson quotes Mark Twain’s opinion of a certain Scottish novelist at length:

Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress [of the French Revolution], and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society… It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a major or a colonel, or a general, or a judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations.

So who is John Carter? Edgar Rice Burrough’s novel A Princess of Mars (which was mostly completed in 1911, serialized in 1912 and finally published in book form in 1917) inserts the myth of the Old South directly into a Martian world that reflects the narrative inventions of a burgeoning genre that would come be labeled as Scientific Fiction. The result is a kind of bizarre hybrid– There is the now-familiar trope of world-creation and the total immersion of the reader into a fantastically unfamiliar arena populated with different creatures, laws, customs, and languages that allow for endless adventures limited only by the author’s imagination or willingness to invent another species or region–this, coupled with the figure of Captain John Carter of Virginia who fought for the South in the Civil War and who decides to head out West in 1865 to prospect for gold– Instead of gold, however, while evading an Indian attack in Arizona by taking refuge in a mystical cave, John Carter (burdened with the wounded pride of his Lost Cause and all the myriad mythologies of the antebellum South) soon discovers himself on the planet Mars.

As the novel begins with that wonderful device of the forward that explains how a “strange manuscript” was “found” containing the very story that the reader is about to read, let us sample a section of Burrough’s modest narration of how he remembers his “uncle” John Carter, the author of the manuscript:

He was a splendid specimen of manhood, standing a good two inches over six feet, broad of shoulder and narrow of hip, with the carriage of the trained fighting man. His features were regular and clear cut, his hair black and closely cropped, while his eyes were of a steel gray, reflecting a strong and loyal character, filled with fire and initiative. His manners were perfect, and his courtliness was that of a typical southern gentleman of the highest type.

If John Carter is a character that most human beings on Earth could hardly relate to, one can only imagine how the creatures and people of Mars will react to this strapping superman. Aided by Earth’s gravity, which provides human’s with muscles that are comparatively stronger than those of the Martians who have evolved according to Mars’ lower gravity, John Carter quickly finds himself able to jump hundreds of feet across the Martian landscape and in duels with different peoples he has no problem fighting and killing not only the best of the Red Martians (who are quite similar to Earth humans in appearance and size, which is quite convenient for John Carter’s sexual appetite) but also the 15 foot high, four-armed savage Green Martians. After John Carter slays two green Martian chieftans and receives their retenues as reward, he muses on their unique customs:

All property among the green Martians is owned in common by the community, except the personal weapons, ornaments and sleeping silks and furs of the individuals. These alone can one claim undisputed right to, nor may he accumulate more of these than are required for his actual needs. The surplus he holds merely as custodian, and it is passed on to the younger members of the community as necessity demands.

The women and children of a man’s retinue may be likened to a military unit for which he is responsible in various ways, as in matters of instruction, discipline, sustenance, and the exigencies of their continual roamings and their unending strife with other communities and with the red Martians. His women are in no sense wives. The green Martians use no word corresponding in meaning with this earthly word. Their mating is a matter of community interest solely, and is directed without reference to natural selection. The council of chieftains of each community control the matter as surely as the owner of a Kentucky racing stud directs the scientific breeding of his stock for the improvement of the whole.

In theory it may sound well, as is often the case with theories, but the results of ages of this unnatural practice, coupled with the community interest in the offspring being held paramount to that of the mother, is shown in the cold, cruel creatures, and their gloomy, loveless, mirthless existence.

The green Martians are consistently described as savages who kill their unhatched and weak young, and honor war and violence above all–that is until an entire sentimental sub-plot develops in which John Carter’s green Martian best friend attempts to create a “family” and reunite with his daughter, which is of course outlawed by green Martian tribal custom. John Carter’s immersion into green Martian culture gradually turns into a reform mission of transforming this communalistic culture into one that respects marriage, values families. This is partially a civilizing mission to Mars in which John Carter can Victorianize ancient tribal ways.

But the chivalry and manliness of the Southern gentleman doesn’t end with mere physical prowess, swordsmanship, and proselytizing for the nuclear family– A racially-obsessed consciousness pervades the entire work, and in the last instance this is probably the governing engine of Burrough’s narrative invention. “World creation” as I wrote above, is what Edgar Rice Burroughs is credited with developing in his Barsoom series. There are probably many literary prototypes–one thinks of the center of the earth of Jules Verne’s eponymous journey, and also the Earth itself (although far in the future) of H.G. Wells Time Machine, but also perhaps Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels. But the Barsoom series opens up a new world and one that is physically limited by the vast territory of Mars. The paramount narrative necessity becomes one of needing to populate this large world with a diversity of flora and fauna that realistically reflects the diversity we know exists here on Earth, but differs in exciting and crucial ways.

As I wrote in my blog post on Madison Grant and Green Eugenics there is at the beginning of the 20th century an interrelation between science and race that would of course help build towards disastrous consequences. The conservationist and founder of the Bronx Zoo Madison Grant’s theoretical opus The Passing of The Great Race; or, The racial basis of European history was published in 1916 and his paranoia over the quality of racial stock and emphasis on Nordic superiority are both themes that Burroughs already was exploring and rhapsodizing in the opening novels of his Barsoom series. As I ask in that blog post, the theoretical territory that needs unearthing is the interrelation of colonialism and imperialism with the science of the day: the reading and misreading of Darwin’s works (The HMS Beagle was on a cartographic survey expedition after all), the seriousness of the eugenics movement, the growth of academic anthropology. Many scientific developments such as these seem impossible to imagine outside of an era of countless encounters with a dizzying diversity of lands and peoples. Burrough’s other major series that he wrote concurrently with the Barsoom novels is of course Tarzan, which takes on the nature vs. nurture debate as Tarzan was the son of English nobility, but raised by apes in Africa. Mirroring the excitement and fears of an age of intimate exploration when colonialism was attaining its zenith, the Barsoom series is preoccupied with racial morphologies:

Evidently, then, there were other denizens on Mars than the wild and grotesque creatures into whose hands I had fallen, but the evidences of extreme antiquity which showed all around me indicated that these buildings might have belonged to some long-extinct and forgotten race in the dim antiquity of Mars…
Dejah Thoris [the red Martian Princess] and I then fell to examining the architecture and decorations of the beautiful chambers of the building we were occupying. She told me that these people had presumably flourished over a hundred thousand years before. They were the early progenitors of her race, but had mixed with the other great race of early Martians, who were very dark, almost black, and also with the reddish yellow race which had flourished at the same time.

Racial knowledge here mingles with the evocation of an ancient and forgotten civilization–Mars not only has various races, but these races have complex and ancient histories. In John Rieder’s “Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction” he writes about the “Lost race motif”:

It presents us with a plethora of widely repeated elements, including the map or document that initiates the expedition, the perilous journey to a nearly inaccessible destination, and a strictly circumscribed set of locations for the lost land itself (the underground world, the polar paradise, the isolated island, plateau or valley). In the lost land we find a beautiful priestess, a corrupt priesthood, an architechturally impressive pagan idol, and a treasure or a fabulously rich mine. The plot will often include the return of an important native in the company of the explorers, the instigation and resolution of a civil war, and of course romantic involvements between the explorers and the princesses. …it is fundamentally grounded in and expressive of an anonymous, collective, colonialist and imperialist ideology.

I need not describe the plot of the second Barsoom book, The Gods of Mars and much more of the first as it fits this generic description frightfully well, even in combining a polar paradise with an underground world in which a corrupt priesthood deceives the masses of Barsoom.

Rieder continues his discussion on the Lost-race motif in describing the importance of the map in these stories in an era in which the unmapped areas of the world were quickly becoming smaller and smaller– Burroughs opens up a detailed vision of Mars (or Barsoom as it is known to the Martians) to the reading public at a crucial moment in world history when most of the previously-unknown and unmapped territory of the globe had finally been claimed by one imperialist power or another.

This process of imperialist expansion and the concomitant arms race would of course be one of the driving factors that led to World War in 1914. Mars is of course the Roman god of war and listening to the narrator of Burroughs’ books describe the violence and bloodshed John Carter unleashes on his victims I could not help think that much of this had to have been written before the mass deaths of the Great War began to pile up. John Carter lusts for battle and rarely has any problem slicing, stabbing and killing his opponents with his sword before they can injure him. Even with the knowledge of thousands of soldiers dying ignoble and banal deaths on the killing fields of the World War, Mars allows us a world in which hand-to-hand combat still reigns supreme and dueling is almost a daily chore. These ancient ways still survive, but at the same time exist alongside “futuristic” air wars between flying crafts, conflicts which Burroughs describes in the language of naval warfare but with prescient knowledge (in an era when air battle was still mostly a theoretical possibility) of the terror such attacks can create.

So why a “John Carter” movie in 2012? Why would the director and writer of Wall-E decide to helm a project that has been languishing in Hollywood for decades and whose best ideas George Lucas had already plundered for Star Wars? On the DVD special features the John Carter, a host of nerdy men attached to the project (including script doctor Michael Chabon!) give mostly formal reasons why they are involved with the project: It’s a classic tale, old-fashioned sci-fi, this was the first real sci-fi story, etc, etc– The interesting issues such as how they had to politically correct the plot and make the Princess of Mars, Dejah Thoris, into a scientist developing a new technology while her family and society resent her accomplishments, are of course unmentioned by the talking heads. The editing of the film is quite poor: the first close up of the movie (which is called “John Carter” remember), is that of Dominick West the actor whom most people would recognize as McNulty on The Wire, and who in this movie plays a villain red Martian. (Parenthetically, I believe that far from being a great work of “realism”, as it is usually lauded,  The Wire is in fact a great work of Science Fiction– All of the genre conventions of World-Creation, warring tribes and races, internecine strife, etc., political corruption, are all there, and the schematic presentation of these layers of society rely on genre conventions that began with works such as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series.)

What seems to be the problem with John Carter as a Disney movie in 2012 is the same problem A Princess of Mars and subsequent Barsoom books have: As opposed to James Cameron’s Avatar, which has an obvious politics that reflects an epic journey of naive liberal identification with the people of Iraq while the USA invaded and occupied that country, the politics of A Princess of Mars are rooted in a 19th century colonialism that more accurately reflects the wishes and problems of modern imperialism. In Avatar, the climax of the movie arrives when all the different creatures of the planet unite to defeat the mineral-extracting militaristic imperialists. In A Princess of Mars, the green Martians and red Martians are hardly united because of their skin color, but are each split into warring groups. Civil war is ubiquitous. There is racial enmity, but there is also hatred within “races”– There is also an eventual and historic reconciliation between groups of different races (because they are both friends of John Carter of course!). “Divide and Conquer” is no empty rhetoric, but a tried-and-true method of demographic subjugation. When Cortés marched on the Aztec empire, he did so with thousands of natives fighting on his side.

Bourrough’s world is not only obsessed with racial distributions and soft yearning princesses, but also the complexities of imperialistic adventure. The intricacies of the tribes, races, their histories and religions, how they interact, which city is vying against which mirror (if distortedly) the complexities of countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan and the problems inherent in trying to govern or subjugate them and bring that most violent thing about: “peace”.

John Carter becomes the white “wish” under which all perhaps could come to order and obedience. This is the wish, but Burroughs’ story avoids simplistic unity except for in the obvious need for John Carter to “get” his Dejah Thoris, Princess of Mars. As the story continues in The Gods of Mars we meet two entirely new races, one of which is the Black Pirates, which Burroughs of course refers to as “the Blacks”, and the Therns, who form the corrupt priesthood of the planet and also figure early on (and distractingly) in Disney’s John Carter. Attempting to weave these strands together is a complicated task that Burroughs usually solves in prosaic ways, but the maze of characters, races, geographies, histories, tribes, peoples and sidekicks makes for an enjoyable series of pulp fiction (or a post-modern Michael Chabon novel) but a difficult story to condense and deliver cinematically with that Disney je ne sais quoi.

For all its crypto-racism, misogyny and wanton violence, Burrough’s series reflects the desire to recreate the complexity of colonial adventure. The narrative is inventive, but in the end is overdetermined by its unironic intersection with imperialist ideology. John Carter stands as an impossibly secure Anglo-Saxon pillar against which the windy tumults and conflicts of Barsoom can blow–Even with this Great White Hope present on Mars, the planet still retains its autonomously complex power and historical and political contradictions, a vision that is far from the good vs. evil divide James Cameron creates in Avatar. The world of Star Wars of course is hung together by a good vs. evil dichotomy that quickly deepens into an Oedipal drama, a genius move, but one that sooner focuses on the Collective Unconscious and only flirts with the jagged facets of world history–Although these facets are what keep the Star Wars fans obsessed with that complex universe, the tight twist of the Oedipal drama is the braid from which all the inventive strands can hang. All that remains emotionally in John Carter is the emotional tension of the desire for that  other world–think Brigadoon.

The problem with Disney’s movie is a political one and is the same problem with invading and occupying a foreign country: No matter how many millions of dollars you throw at a bad story, it won’t get any better.

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5 Responses to Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter and the Racial Imagination

  1. takemebacktobarsoom1031 says:

    it is a rare treat to see john carter taken out of the used bookstore dollar racks (and now surely best buy 50% off dvd bins) and deconstructed with such careful precision. sadly, this sort of pulp science fiction only seems to live in the minds of young men (like those in gentlemen broncos), where it sits, unanalyzed, probably confusing just as much it delights. in particular, the dissection of the pro-colonial race theory permeating the john carter mythology seemed utterly on point and exhaustively researched, and was a pleasure to read.

    i read the burroughs’ books more than a decade ago and only remember them vaguely, but a few thoughts on the recent disney movie come to mind. though awkwardly constructed and edited (in particular the first twenty minutes), the movie did come together about half way through, at least for me, into something quite interesting (the lush michael giacchino score certainly helped), and one moment late in the film adds a quality to the film that the books sorely lack.

    this moment occurs nearly two-thirds of the way through, when the evil thern leader takes john carter on a stroll through the city streets to explain his master plan. (the books are a distant memory, so i can’t say for sure, but my recollection is that this master plan is not in the book). the thern leader explains that his race works behind the scenes, manipulating factions (which i remember as similar to the books), but he then goes on to explain that the therns are not from mars (barsoom) and that their way of life is to go from world to world, surviving off the ravaging of a planet’s natural resources. the therns have been working at this for some time on mars, and this is why the planet is a barren red rock. eventually, when the therns are done with mars, they will come to john carter’s home of earth and do the same thing.

    this new plot twist seems to take the burroughs books out of the imperialist era in which it was written, and push the story all the way into the present of late stage capitalism. this portrait of the thern’s multinational (or multiplanet) disaster capitalism offers a glimpse into world deconstruction (as well as burroughs’ world construction or world creating). this change from the book also, in a slightly whimsical way, takes this story out of its pulp fantasy origins and pushes it into the realm of true science fiction, by positing a real world scientific explanation for these fantastic events i.e. the world and life of barsoom may have actually existed as depicted, but we just didn’t get to mars in time to see it! the therns got to it first, just a mere 100 or so years before the mars rover landed! of course, there are so many fantastic elements to the story that this all falls apart quite quickly, but it does strike me as an ingenious and quite amusing updating device, giving a real breathe of life into the series — and it also offers a potentially tragic tone to the movie’s story if it were to continue onto the next chapter (disney’s oft-mentioned massive tax write off for the movie seems to indicate this not to be in the cards.)

    perhaps i am just that core target audience of a sci-fi nerd who reads these sorts of books, but i would have liked to have seen how this movie series developed. i’m sure the marching orders for every movie studio post-massive avatar box office were – get me another avatar…so i imagine that’s why disney ends up making the strange john carter book into a movie now. the similarities between the two are overwhelming: a military hero falling in love with alien princess, becoming leader of alien civilization, and even getting new legs!, and even perhaps, post-avatar, the john carter bad guys are now bent on raping the natural world (this intertextuality, of course, is as much avatar’s anxiety of john carter influence as it is the other way around). i enjoyed avatar immensely, wooden dialogue and all, and though avatar is written in a much more robust cinematic language than john carter’s…going to see avatar in 3-d was one of those rare movie events that most everyone needed to participate in and then talk about afterwards…i just don’t know if there is that much to the world of avatar.

    now that the “aliens” (as the humans are referred to at the end of the movie) have gone back to their home planet, and the forbidden but irresistible taboo of literally becoming the other has been broken…i’m curious where the story has left to go. does the then-human-now-blue alien go back to earth and introduce his alien bride, along with his new alien self!, to his parents? of course, this story has been told before (among other antecedents there’s john smith and pocahontas, and lawrence of arabia, which I heard cameron mention in an interview as his template)…and part of the alluring power of these stories is that, despite the beguiling intoxication of this wish to become the other, these sorts of stories simply don’t end well. i don’t know if john carter survives this litmus test either, but the more tragic element of john carter continually being taken back to earth and having to find his way back to barsoom (yes! this is the stuff of brigadoon!) i think helps it bit (there’s also the inherently nostalgic and slightly tragic tone elicited by telling the story through the device of a retelling of past adventures in a found diary).

    in a way, i wonder if avatar’s breaking of this taboo, grants us a new space to imagine colonization as a potentially successful utopian project. if we only had sigourney weaver and her scientists with the avatar device, we could go and mix with these alien civilizations, and we could all be friends. this is no cautionary tale about the intractable inevitability of difference between you and your neighbor. maybe we can not just intermarry and live in a multicultural world…we can kick our civilization off the alien planet, projecting all our guilt about past colonization projects and late stage capitalism onto them, and finally become one with the alien civilization…and even resurrect religion in the process, which the rationalism of bourgeoisie capitalism had tried to kill! of all the science fiction texts about colonization, my favorite would probably be ray bradbury’s martian chronicles, which has a chilling final image that says much more about colonization than anything in avatar.

    i’m curious if avatar will hold in people’s imaginations over time the way the john carter series has. avatar certainly has more galvanizing pro-indigenous population politics and offers much more of a voice for strong, vital women. as one of the members of this science fiction target audience, this strange underground who crave/need this “cognitive estrangement” that grants them a world in which to posit alternative political and psychological possibilities, i’d like to hope so.

  2. Pingback: Legend of Tarzan Reboots the Debate: Was Edgar Rice Burroughs a Racist? | John Carter Files

  3. John Carter says:

    The South will rise again.

  4. Phil Obbard says:

    Thanks for this! I just read “A Princess of Mars” on a vacation whim and am working my way through “Gods of Mars” now. This analysis adds a lot. I haven’t seen the “John Carter” film yet, but plan to do so – though I still can’t figure out why Disney didn’t call it “John Carter of Mars” or “A Princess of Mars”, both of which would have been superior titles…

  5. To ERB’s credit, he does portray the ‘Black’ Martian’s as being in every way similar and equal to the ‘White’ and ‘Red’ Martians, so any racism is not blatant.

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