Thursday, 1 March 2012

A Princess of Mars (1912)

I have been an aficionado of Edgar Rice Burroughs' writings for some time, enjoying both the Tarzan and the "Land That Time Forgot" series of Pulpy adventure novels. Though I strenuously objected to the critic who suggested that The Land That Time Forgot is more imaginative and generally superior to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, the latter being my favorite novel of all time, I still find Burroughs to have an infinitely breezy and readable style.

Nevertheless, I had never gotten around to reading his Barsoom series beginning with A Princess of Mars. With all the hype surrounding the upcoming Disney adaptation, the perfect opportunity was upon me. A Princess of Mars (1912) begins a discrete trilogy continued in The Gods of Mars and concluding with The Warlord of Mars, both published in 1913. This will be the first in a series of reviews of the trilogy. Burroughs' Barsoom chronicles continue for another ten books, picking up from the heroic John Carter and following the exploits of his son.

Read in rapid succession, the Carter trilogy puts the exclamation on something about Burroughs' writing to which I was previously only dimly aware. I touched on it in my reviews of the Tarzan feature films starring Johnny Weissmuller, but it came out in full force through this cycle. That "something" was Edgar Rice Burroughs' attributes as a manufacturer of pure escapism devolving frequently into outright wish fulfillment.

It is de rigeur to criticize Stephanie Meyer for rendering up a platter of her "Mary Sue" fantasies for public consumption. I have to admit that I am impressed with the Machiavellian studiousness of the Twilight saga. A series of novels about a fairly mundane teenage girl who suddenly gets obsessive attention paid to her by tall, dark and handsome vampires as well as totally ripped wolfboys and later becomes, like, totally the best vampire ever is a licence to print money. Of the two I would certainly rather read Edgar Rice Burroughs, but he shows just the same aplomb with his planetary romances.

Tarzan has aspects of this, but they at least begin in a more subdued manner. Lord Greystoke (a lord!) is at the height of human strength and agility, is brilliant enough to teach himself English, gets to run around a jungle with abandon just being awesome, and is irresistible to women. He even gets to become a superspy. John Carter comes fresh out of the gate. First, you take what would be a fairly average soldier for the Confederacy and transport him to Mars, where decreased gravity and air pressure make him a veritable superman. He is just shy of being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. He is utterly unbeatable, which eventually earns him the regard of all the warriors of Barsoom (Burroughs' name of Mars). Second, you let him and everybody else run around naked. Third, you make every hot, naked Martian woman fall at his feet. Of course Carter opts to claim the most stunningly beautiful woman of any world, Dejah Thoris the Princess of Mars, but he still enjoys the attention of a half-dozen gorgeous paramours.

Being escapism par excellence, Burroughs doesn't tend to clutter up his work with a self-critical or socially critical narrative. In A Princess of Mars this is seen most succinctly in his dealing with the question of race. In order to appreciate literature of the Victorian and Edwardian Eras, one must have a pretty thick skin anyways. However, it is not fair to say that all the literature was uniformly racist. There are degrees and examples which make it easier to choke down. For example, in 1912's greater Scientific Romance - the aforementioned Lost World by Conan Doyle - the worst thing that the haughty Professor George Edward Challenger has to say about the Natives of the dinosaur-riddled plateau is that they're no smarter than the average Londoner.

A Princess of Mars is not one of those books. Burroughs is utterly unconscious about his racial assumptions, to the tune of nearly quoting verbatim from the prevailing attitudes of his day. When Carter arrives on Mars, he falls in with the totally inhuman, four-armed, tusked, green martians. Also sharing Mars are the red-skinned race of perfectly humanoid martians (except that they lay eggs) to which Dejah Thoris belongs, and the races of humanoid black, white and yellow-skinned martians we meet in later books. Some episodes from A Princess of Mars illustrate the problems this arrangement make for issues of race.

The green martians have successfully conquered and driven off an expedition of red martian airships, having captured the incomparable image of feminine loveliness that John Carter fell instantly in love with. Sight unseen, Carter has already expressed feelings of sympathy for their evidently advanced culture: "The scene I had witnessed seemed to mark the defeat and annihilation of the forces of a kindred people, rather than the routing by our green warriors of a horde of similar, though unfriendly, creatures." Then he saw the red martian woman, and his heart was stirred by racial similarities. When the green martians bring her to trial, the following exchange occurs:
"What is your name?" asked Lorquas Ptomel, addressing the prisoner.

"Dejah Thoris, daughter of Mors Kajak of Helium."

"And the nature of your expedition?" he continued.

"It was a purely scientific research party sent out by my father's father, the Jeddak of Helium, to rechart the air currents, and to take atmospheric density tests," replied the fair prisoner, in a low, well-modulated voice.

"We were unprepared for battle," she continued, "as we were on a peaceful mission, as our banners and the colors of our craft denoted. The work we were doing was as much in your interests as in ours, for you know full well that were it not for our labors and the fruits of our scientific operations there would not be enough air or water on Mars to support a single human life. For ages we have maintained the air and water supply at practically the same point without an appreciable loss, and we have done this in the face of the brutal and ignorant interference of your green men.

"Why, oh, why will you not learn to live in amity with your fellows, must you ever go on down the ages to your final extinction but little above the plane of the dumb brutes that serve you! A people without written language, without art, without homes, without love; the victim of eons of the horrible community idea. Owning everything in common, even to your women and children, has resulted in your owning nothing in common. You hate each other as you hate all else except yourselves. Come back to the ways of our common ancestors, come back to the light of kindliness and fellowship. The way is open to you, you will find the hands of the red men stretched out to aid you. Together we may do still more to regenerate our dying planet. The granddaughter of the greatest and mightiest of the red jeddaks has asked you. Will you come?"

Sola, one of the few green martians who expresses what Carter considers human-like emotions, condemns her own society by comparing it with that of the red martians:
They live at peace with all their fellows, except when duty calls upon them to make war, while we are at peace with none; forever warring among our own kind as well as upon the red men, and even in our own communities the individuals fight amongst themselves. Oh, it is one continual, awful period of bloodshed from the time we break the shell until we gladly embrace the bosom of the river of mystery, the dark and ancient Iss which carries us to an unknown, but at least no more frightful and terrible existence! Fortunate indeed is he who meets his end in an early death.

In any other sense, this sort of characterization might be considered simple world-building, the establishment of a character for the denizens of Barsoom. Its similarity to European and Euro-American attitudes towards Native Americans, unfortunately, makes one's skin crawl.

An example of these prevailing attitudes can be found in Karl Pearson's National Life from the Standpoint of Science, a 1901 publication of his 1900 lecture to the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle. Pearson, as evidenced by the illustrious organization which he address, was no fringe thinker. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1896 for his work in mathematics, which in turn proved influential for Albert Einstein. He was also a devotee of Sir Francis Galton and a fervent eugenicist, being the first to hold the Chair of Eugenics at the University of London, a seat founded by Galton's bequest. It was only his Marxist beliefs that led him to refuse offers for both an Order of the British Empire and a knighthood.

What Pearson had to say was eerily echoed by Dejah Thoris:
I venture to assert, then, that the struggle for existence between white and red man, painful and even terrible as it was in its details, has given us a good far outbalancing its immediate evil. In place of the red man, contributing practically nothing to the work and thought of the world, we have a great nation, mistress of many arts, and able, with its youthful imagination and fresh, untrammelled impulses, to contribute much to the common stock of civilized man.

He adds "Against that you have only to put the romantic sympathy for the Red Indian generated by the novels of Cooper and the poems of Longfellow, and then - see how little it weighs in the balance!" Horace Greeley, writing in 1860, condemns the authors as well. After declaring that Native "arts, wars, treaties, alliances, habitations, crafts, properties, commerce, comforts, all belong to the very lowest and rudest ages of human existence" he says:
It needs but little familiarity with the actual, palpable aborigines to convince anyone that the poetic Indian—the Indian of Cooper and Longfellow—is only visible to the poet's eye. To the prosaic observer, the average Indian of the woods and prairies is a being who does little credit to human nature—a slave of appetite and sloth, never emancipated from the tyranny of one animal passion save by the more ravenous demands of another.

An 1869 New Mexico Supreme Court ruling judged that,
The idea that a handful of wild, half-naked, thieving, plundering, murdering savages should be dignified with the sovereign attributes of nations, enter into solemn treaties, and claim a country 500 miles wide by 1,000 miles long as theirs in fee simple, because they hunted buffalo or antelope over it, might do for a beautiful reading of Hiawatha, but is unsuited to the intelligence and justice of this age, or the natural rights of mankind.

Dejah also invoked President Theodore Roosevelt, who spoke of the Native Americans "whose life was but a few degrees less meaningless, squalid, and ferocious than that of the wild beasts with whom they held joint ownership."

President Andrew Jackson's 1830 message to Congress prefigures Pearson, and echos Burrough's characterization of the Tharks as inhabitants of the abandoned cities of a greater civilization:
In the monuments and fortresses of an unknown people, spread over the extensive regions of the West, we behold the memorials of a once powerful race, which was exterminated or has disappeared to make room for the existing savage tribes. Nor is there anything in this which, upon a comprehensive view of the general interests of the human race, is to be regretted... What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion?

Even those with a more liberal mind still preferred the extinction of Native culture to the extinction of Natives themselves. President Ulysses S. Grant's 1871 State of the Union Address expressed the hope that
the policy pursued toward the Indians has resulted favorably...many tribes of Indians have been induced to settle upon reservations, to cultivate the soil, to perform productive labor of various kinds, and to partially accept civilization. They are being cared for in such a way, it is hoped, as to induce those still pursuing their old habits of life to embrace the only opportunity which is left them to avoid extermination.

And of "that horrible community idea" - which, incidentally, is an entirely sensible practicality of survival in a harsh, resource-poor environment like the plains of North America or the dead sea beds of Mars - Indian Affairs Commissioner John Oberly decreed that Native Americans "must be imbued with the exalting egotism of American civilization so that he will say ‘I’ instead of ‘We’, and ‘This is mine’ instead of ‘This is ours’."

Some attempt to laud Burroughs for creating a world of racial harmony, as the end has the red martians of the city-state of Helium join together with the green martians of Thark. They are, naturally, joined together under the auspices of John Carter. Being "good", the problem did not belong so much to the red martians. It was those pesky green martians and their violent, joyless society. The key figure is Tars Tarkas, a green martian with almost human-like emotional depth who befriends Carter and thus becomes the green martian leader. He becomes a Good Indian.

The remaining two volumes of the original John Carter trilogy move beyond race to deal with subjects of religion and society at large. They are subjects treated with the same nuanced perspective with which Burroughs treats the subjects in this classic study of escapism.


liminalD said...

A really interesting read and very well written, thanks for sharing!

Marquis de Montcalm said...

Seems like quite a stretch to read so much racism into these hundred year old adventure stories. The fact that Burroughs made the red martians so admirable and the white martians (Therns) so despicable probably raised a few eyebrows at the time and always seemed fairly courageous to me. Maybe he had the sort of hidden agenda you postulate, but I would guess it was lost on most of his readers, who probably came away with the (for the time) liberal notion that people should be judged not for the color of their skins but for their character.

Jack Horner said...

Yes, Burroughs does betray his time and cultural attitudes. It gets really obvious with the moon series. I have made the Green men + native American connection before, but had always interpreted his problems with communitarianism to Burroughs anti-communist leanings. (although I may have to reconsider, 1912 is a bit early)

But then also he does turn these things on their head. Yes, the green men have some aspects of native Americans, and yet the dominant race of Barsoom look and dress like exoticised Aztecs. The white race is debauched and parasitic, and the black race is on top of the food chain preying equally on White and Red. I think these things should be given weight in the final analysis.

Cory Gross said...

Great discussion! Thank you!

My point was not that there was some secret agenda of racism on Burroughs' part. There was nothing secret about it. His views, as I attempted to show, were entirely consistent with the mainstream Euro-American thought of his day, writ onto Martian soil.

When I wrote this I was probably reacting to a number of reviews I had read - looking back at it through generous, liberal eyes - which exaulted Burroughs for his vision of racial harmony. I'm a bit baffled at how anyone could get that kind of conclusion from what was there, especially when looked at in its social context. I would definitely defend my interpretation that John Carter's friendship with Tars Tarkas isn't John overcoming his racial prejudices to judge someone by the content of their character; Tars Tarkas is the "Good Indian" that John approves of because he is most like "civilized" people. I would love to see someone write a revisionist autobiography of Tars Tarkas from the perspective of the green Martians' rich cultural heritage, suddenly forced to adopt this barbarian from another planet.

Jack, I'm not sure that race is as big a consideration in Gods of Mars on. As I'll talk about in the forthcoming reviews (which, when I look back on them, are actually meaner sounding that I intended), the metaphors about religion take precedence over racial theory.

Akula said...

Thanks for bringing back some great memories Cory I read those books ages ago and still love them, can't wait for the movie it looks like they may have done a decent job, but we'll see. I still need to read his Venus series I found book 2 at a used book store but haven't found book one to start it. Have a great weekend.

grouchomarxist said...


I don't think you need to reconsider, at least, not going by A Princess of Mars' publication date. By 1912, Red-baiting was a well-established tradition in some quarters, after the labor/management strife of the late Gilded Age. (Eugene Debs had his first run as the Socialist Party's candidate for President in 1900.)

Burroughs was undoubtedly something of a reactionary -- not so surprising for a writer of escapist fiction -- and what with Tarzan's heritage as an English lord and John Carter coming from the ersatz nobility of Antebellum Virginia, he sure seemed to have a fascination with aristocracy, not to mention a fondness for hierarchical societies.

My hunch is both you and Cory are likely correct: Burroughs is clearly articulating the imperialist concept of the anarchic savage, while also getting in a dig at socialism by having his character state that the green Martians' practice of it led to and keeps them mired in viciousness and degradation.

Until someone contacts ERB in the Great Beyond (probably by Gridley Wave) we'll never know for sure, but it's not implausible.

Be that as it may, Cory nails it when he describes Tarkas as the "Good Indian". And if this is a parable of racial harmony, it's strictly on the superior culture's terms.

Sola's speech is also rather interesting, because as Burroughs elaborates on the civilization of the red Martians he rather undermines her description of their kindly, peace-loving ways. They are in fact extremely warlike: The wealthier city-states maintain huge aerial armadas. Many of their citizens hire out as mercenaries. Assassination is such a common feature of Heliumitic society that at night they elevate their houses on hydraulic pylons. They may not be a joyless bunch, but they are pretty violent.

Good thing, too: Otherwise, these stories wouldn't be such cracking great reads.