Edgar Rice Burroughs And The Lost Cause

May 4, 2008


Edgar Rice Burroughs And The Lost Cause


R.E. Prindle

     Edgar Rice Burroughs was a man of his times.  He was a concientious observer and interpreter with a prodigious memory.  He seems to have had the remarkable faculty of being able to compartmentalize nearly everything he learned in his mind.  When he writes his sources are nearly transparent when you know the sources.  Of course the more you’ve read the novels the easier it is to see his influences.

     Underlying, perhaps, its whole intellectual structure is his understanding of the Civil War and Reconstruction.  His father was a veteran of the GAR.  One imagines that his father sometimes talked to him of his experiences although not necessarily so.  How he integrates this understanding into his personal psychology is interesting.  I have attempted to point out in my last few essays that Burroughs felt as though his early expectations in life of what was to be were destroyed at some point in his youth changing the direction of his life from success to failure.  The story of his subsequent life then was the attempt to regain this lost status. 

     In the terms of the Civil War the triumphant North represented his personal defeat while the defeated South with their Lost Cause represented his life after the loss of his expectations.

     He is fairly open about this mentioning his three favorite books The Prince And The Pauper by Mark Twain, Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett and The Virginian by Owen Wister.

     Prince begins as Burroughs began.  Then in a sort of nightmare the Pauper who is a twin of the Prince shows up and the two identical lads exchange places, the Prince becomes the Pauper and the Pauper become the Prince.  In the end the Prince regains his rightful position.  The attempt to regain that position is the story of Burroughs’ life.  Twinning also become an important part of the plotting of the Tarzan books.

     In Fauntleroy the Prince lives a humble life after his father dies but then come back into his own.

     The Virginian, of course, must have been part of the Slaveocracy dispossessed by the Civil War then trying to find his place in the world

     While slavery enters into the issue it is not part and parcel of the Lost Cause.  The South today stil talks of Southern civilization as opposed to Northern civilization.  Both civilizations thought of the Negro in the same way but in adopting Negro slavery the slave owner thought of the Negro as another form of livestock intermediate between an animal and Homo Sapiens.  To put it bluntly the Planter saw the Negro as an intelligent ape.  Hence there was no more guilt to be associated with working the Negro than there was in working a mule.  They were both livestock.

     Thus while the North was commercially rude and crude the Southerner- The Virginian- was courtly and mannered.  The Negro livestock created a situation for such a civilization to exist.  The Civil War destroyed this situation so very pleasant for the Slaveocracy.

     So what was lost by the emancipation of the slaves was not only so much livestock but a whole conception of life.  This conception of life was the Lost Cause.  Thus Burroughs having also been deprived of his early paradisical expectations was able to identify with the Lost Cause but not necessarily with the freed Negro.

     With emancipation the whole relationship to the Negro changed.  He was no longer something of value that had to be understood and used but a competitor who had to be baffled.  The Southern Planter like John Carter and Tarzan was clearly the superior White man in pre-Civil War times and he retained that status during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era because of his superior talents- what today would be called White Skin Privilege.

     Tarzan was an alter ego of Burroughs but John Carter was not although he may have had some relationship to ERB.  It is more likely that Carter was based on Burroughs’ ideal of what his father might have been.  It is noteworthy that Carter loses his preeminence in the Martian novels after 1913 and the death of Burroughs’ father.

      Ronnie Faulkner in his recent article in Erbzine Volume 2177 makes the comment:

     When Burrughs’ heroes brought change its purpose was conservative- “to restore a lost order, to put a rightful prince back on the throne.”

     This is a perceptive observation but the purpose wasn’t conservative in the political sense.  The purpose was to right a Lost Cause or in  other words “to restore a lost order”, that order that existed in Burroughs’ childhood, “to put a rightful prince back on the throne’, that is, Burroughs himself.  The whole corpus is saturated with the Prince and the Pauper theme.

     The problem of the Negro remains.

     In the God Of Mars the Holy Therns who are White undoubtedly represent the Planters of the slaveocracy.  In American politics from the early days the South was dominant in politics.  This was aided by the slaves being counted as three-fifths of a voter but with votes being voted by the Planters.  Not the Whites but the Whites who were Planters.  The Planters were but a very small portion of the Southern population with the Blacks and poor Whites or White Trash as we were unkindly spoken of by both the Planters and the Negroes while being equally controlled by the Planters.  We po’ White Trash were forced to fight and die in the Planter’s war.

     In the same way the Therns from their center in the South of Barsoom controlled both the North by religious means and the Black First Born.  As in the popular representation of the Civil War the Blacks were the cause of the destruction of Joel Chandler Harris paradise, the wonder land of Disney’s Song Of The South.

     The First Born of Barsoom or the Southern Negroes successfully took on the Holy Therns and destroyed their hold over them and the people of Northern Helium.

     As in the South where Planters were compelled to accept their defeat and mingle with the Negroes they did the same on Barsoom.

     Emancipation solved one problem but created a few others.  The North sought by Reconstruction to place the Negro over the White.  While slavery was wrong the placing of the White above the Negro was seen as right.  That Burroughs so believed is prove by both John Carter and Tarzan.  John Carter became the Warlord of Barsoom or Supreme Commander while Tarzan was the Lord Of The Jungle, the arbiter of African fates.

     Whatever one thinks of Thomas Dixon Jr. he was the spokesman for the Lost Cause.  He wasn’t the only one who wrote Reconstruction novels.  Equally successful was a writer by the name of A.W. Tourgee.  Tourgee wrote, among others, two very successful novels:  A Fool’s Errand By One Of The Fools and Bricks Without Straw.  He wrote from a carpetbagger and Northern point of view; the Negroes were poor benighted heathen while the Whites were merely benighted but the Negroes were superior in most respects to the Whites.  Tourgee was a successful carpetbagger.  Writing beginning in 1880, three years after Reconstruction ended he preceded Dixon by a few years.  Dixon most likely was writing in reaction to Tourgee.

     Tourgee’s novels enjoyed a longish vogue so that Dixon’s and Tourgee’s would have been competing for the popular favor.  The war was over and different sentiments took precedence favoring the point of view of Dixon.

     While the North rather hypocritically tried to force Negro equality or even supremacy on the South they maintained separateness of the species in the North.  While the Negro was given the franchise in the South he was unable to vote in the North.  So that while there seemed to be sympathy for the Negro species there was little or none for the Black individual.

     This was more or less the reverse of Burroughs’ dilemma.  He honored the manhood of the Black individual but he denied it to the African species.  I don’t believe there can be any denying of this; thus Tarzan is The Lord Of The Jungle, a jungle god, the Big Bwana, the arbiter of African destinies.  It is important that Tarzan was seen as a god compared to the Africans.

     So in real life Burroughs chose Dixon over Tourgee.  I’m sure he knew of both.  While the carpetbagger pushed the superiority of the Negro in a society that no longer cared about Blacks, the war being over, Dixon advanced the interest of the White species against the African species while the Lost Cause resonated in Burroughs’ soul as it does today in any person who feels that they have been deprived of their birthright in life.

     Oddly Burroughs had only the third volume of Dixon’s Reconstruction trilogy – The Traitor- in his library.  Perhaps because John Carter’s tomb seems to be based on the tomb in the The Traitor.  There can be little doubt that the latter was the inspiration for the former.

     In The Traitor the tomb had been sealed from the ouside but there was a secret entrance to the tomb and once inside the tomb an underground passage led from the tomb to the old manse.  Of course, Carter’s tomb was sealed with the latch being on the inside.

     In 1907 William A. Dunning published his Reconstruction: Politcal and Economic which furthered the Lost Cause view and set the tone for scholarship until Du Bois published in 1935. 

     So, in  a way the South had risen again as the Southern view of the struggle gained preeminence.  The high water mark for the attitude was the filming of Dixon’s trilogy as The Birth Of The Nation by D.W. Griffith in 1915.  Political winds then turned in favor of the Blacks again.  A last salvo was fired by Claude Bowers in 1929 in his successful Reconstruction history, The Tragic Era.  Bowers’ book dealt not so much with Reconstruction as with the politics of the era that Mark Twain depicted as The Gilded Age of which Reconstruction was a part.

      Bowers book was answered in 1935 by W.E.B. Du Bois in his Black Reconstruction In America 1860-1880.  This book successfully downed the Dunning hypothesis.  The racial tide now swung in favor of the Blacks with any critics discredited and silenced as bigots.  Just as Dixon and Dunning were successfully attacked during the twenties and thirties suffering total defeat at the end of the latter decade so were any dissident voices.

     The pro-Negro point of view continued to gain strength as the century advanced.  In 1988 Eric Foner published his Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution that has become the standard view.  Today Reconstruction as the unfinished revolution is expected to be completed by the next Presidential election.  Thus it is believed that the Lost Cause will disappear forever while according to Ronnie Faulkner Burroughs will become the apostle racial integration.

3 Responses to “Edgar Rice Burroughs And The Lost Cause”

  1. Ronnie Faulkner Says:

    Mr. Prindle:
    I am more than familiar with the “Lost Cause” mentality, having read numerous books on the subject and having written a dissertation on a figure prominent in promoting the “Lost Cause” view in N.C. Having also read Burroughs, and being a Southerner, even as a young man in my teens I could not avoid noting the obvious liberality with which Burroughs’ treated blacks in his Martian novels. I just do not see such a clear link to the Dunning School attitude–a view promoted and spread by Southerners who studied under Dunning. At the same time, having read Dixon’s novels, which drip with virulent racism, it seems silly to say that “in real life Burroughs chose Dixon over Tourgee.” Also, the Therns are not the Southern planter class, which never really lost its economic and political hold until well into the 20th century. In the actual South, the planters rose gain to dominion via business and agriculture and dominated the region while Burroughs lived. The Therns were not noble, they had none of the characteristics attributed by Dunning-types to the aristocracy of the old South. Indeed, they were even eaten by the Black Pirates from time to time. The Therns were a degenerate race, far lower in the estimation of Burroughs than the Blacks of Barsoom. I could go on and on about this, but will stop here.

  2. reprindle Says:

    Well, Mr. Faulkner, here’s the deal. ERB was from Chicago and I’m from Michigan. We aren’t Southerners nevertheless I just love the song: Are You From Dixie? I get misty every time I pull out my Phil Harris record and play That’s What I Like About The South and Doo Wah Diddy. Cowboy Copas singing Alabam’ does things to me I can’t explain. I wear my Confederate flag button in honor of my Lost Cause. The South’s Lost Cause just synchs right into that.

    We know ERB loved Are You From Dixie? because he played the song all the way across America in 1916 while dancing in the moonlight. However to my knowledge he never set foot in the South. Neithr have I and I have no intention of doing so. I’ve seen Detroit, Chicago and Oakland and I don’t have to see that Mississippi shore or New Orleans to know what the reality will be like.

    Heck, Are You From Dixie? wasn’t written by a Southerner or even a native American. It was written by Jack Yellin who was a Lithuanian Jew who came to the country at the age of five. When he wrote the song he had not only mastered the language and the dialect but had figured out exactly what the South’s relationship was to the North. So, where’s that at?

    So, while I respect your more intimate knowledge of the mind of the South that reality is not what ERB is talking about.

    Capt. John Carter was an ex-Confederate from Virginia, a very romanticized one I might add as was Owen Wister’s Virginian. As an ex-Confederate officer you might note that John Carter captured Mars and in that sense the South did rise again. There might be a joke there. John Carter also ruled the First Born which restored the ‘natural’ order of things.

    I don’t see the Therns as being ignoble, after all, their powerful intellect controlled Mars for the gods only know how long. Burroughs responded to many influences. For instance the Thern control room can be seen to be modeled on The Wizard Of Oz when Dorothy pulled the curtain aside so the association of the Therns with the Civil War doesn’t have to be taken as literally as the first Bull Run.

    As I say it would seem probable that Burroughs read both Tourgee and Dixon. I personally do not believe that Dixon’s novels ‘drip racism’ anymore than the absurdities of Tourgee. Race isn’t even the issue. The question is are Negroes and Whites equal in their intellectual capabilities? Certainly the Planters (I’m more on the Po’ White side, Grandpappy having come down from the hills of Kentucky.) didn’t think so based on their experience. Modern science is indicating that there is an irreconcilable difference anless you think that James Watson who discovered DNA is some nutcake bigot. I sure don’t.

    So the question is did ERB believe the two species were equal. I don’t think you can demonstrate that he did from the corpus. Burroughs was a good man, a decent man and would never injure a Negro for the joy of injuring a Negro even though Tarzan did but that doesn’t mean he would have been happy if Joan asked him: Guess who’s coming to dinner?

    I can understand how you derived your views and I agree with you that Slotkin’s opinion of Burroughs is too distorted to take seriously. Slotkin didn’t even read the Tarzan novels let alone the corpus. He just flipped through whatever novels he handled with preconceived notions and in disgust so I am more aligned to your point of view than Slotkin’s but that’s a far cry from thinking ERB thought Blacks were equal to or superior to Whites.

    I liked your article though.

  3. Ronnie Faulkner Says:

    I always welcome criticism and appreciate the time you took for a response. We could go back and forth on variety of points for some time! However, just note this: Carter’s favorite race on Mars were the Red Martians, who were a result of interbreeding of whites, blacks, and other ancient races. Of course, that goes back to my point that from the viewpoint of Carter, and perhaps even ERB himself, racial mixing could be a good thing–a desirable thing! Carter demonstrated this inherent belief by mixing his own blood with that of the Red Martians.

    I read the character of the Therns very differently than you. I saw them as evil, ignoble, and deceitful! Whatever the case, certainly they were below the Red and Black people of Mars in Carter’s estimation, despite the fact their skin matched his.

    While ERB may not have been a racial liberal in the modern sense, he was so far ahead of his time on the pivotal American issue of race that he deserves special recognition for his tolerance!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s