Post Road Magazine #26

E.R.B. and the Red Planet

Peter Glassgold

On my bookshelves, Edgar Rice Burroughs now nests between Hermann Broch and Emily Brontë directly to the left, Mikhail Bulgakov and Frederick Busch to the right, just below Max Beerbohm and above Joyce Cary. A myriad of equally preposterous configurations constitute my home library, three-hundred-fifty-odd feet of shelving arrayed throughout the house. The incongruities change from year to year, as I add, subtract, and rearrange, but no matter where I've lived or how large or small the haphazard collection, since I was ten years old, most of the time something by Burroughs has been there. The number changes. Right now there are five, once there were dozens, and the reasons for this suggest an interesting complex of questions regarding the books we own: why we choose or choose not to read them at any given time, let alone why we have them in the first place and how we get them; how our relation to them, and theirs to us, changes over the years; what cultural influences come into play as our reading tastes evolve during the course of our lifetimes—all of them epitomized for me in the work of E.R.B.
      In 1944, at summer camp in Maine, I was introduced to Tarzan of the Apes; not the book, but the silent film of 1918, starring Elmo Lincoln. At age five, I knew the letters of alphabet, could recognize a few common words the way one might a simple ideogram, but I couldn't yet actually read. Nor was I the only small boy sitting there baffled by the flickering captions, so someone had to read them for us out loud. There was nothing monstrous in the movie, nothing overwhelming, just shambling apes, raging natives, noble and evil white colonials, every move in stage gestures, every expression broad. Yet, it worked where steady dialogue and modern special effects would have failed. Silent movies make room for the viewer's imagination, as do books for the reader's. For me, in any case, later talking-picture Tarzans all fell short of this one. Years afterward, when I finally did read the novel, I was tickled by young Tarzan's perplexed first look inside a book and at the puzzling clusters of bug-things that were letters. Somehow he manages to comprehend that these are symbols, not tiny objects, and somehow, too, he teaches himself to understand them. When in due time he learns full human speech, and then how properly to read and to write, he is coached by a naval officer of the Troisième République, and the language is French. English comes next. Burroughs's ape man, unlike Johnny Weissmuller's, is fluent and bilingual, as well as at home in his foster-mother tongue, the idiom of the apes who reared him.
      Five years later, at that same summer camp, I discovered John Carter of Mars, Burroughs's most widely known hero after Tarzan, though never as popular. I liked to retreat to the quiet of the camp's lakeside library, which had been recently built in memory of a former camper killed in action during the war, and there on the jumbled shelves I happened on A Princess of Mars, the opening novel in Burroughs's series of adventures on the fourth planet—"Barsoom" in the universal language of the place. This first one was published in 1917, the tenth and most recent, as I soon learned—Llana of Gathol—in 1948, just the year before. Once I got started, I had to have them all. Next to them, the Earth-bound Tarzan books seem parochial. E.R.B.'s Mars is a dying world, kept alive by an atmosphere factory, and has a history recorded in hieroglyphics of civilizations eons older than our own, along with science and technology far more advanced. There, on the warring planet of the god of war, where everyone goes armed, modernity and archaism mingle. Where once were oceans and a global seafaring trade, there are desert wildernesses peopled by savage hordes; ferocious animals prowl among ancient ruins; and scattered city-states maintain boatlike aerial warships and smaller fliers powered by an antigravity force. Warriors wear leather helmets and harnesses to which are attached two swords, long and short, their weapons of choice, though they also carry pistols that fire explosive radium bullets. Radium is also the source for interior lighting, but animal skins and furs are used for bedding. A woman will defend her honor and virtue with her dagger. Her gossamer raiment would become Isadora Duncan, a tiara crowns her tresses, and she would not look out of place in a Greenwich Village salon, circa 1913. E.R.B.'s Mars books span the first half of the last century, but largely reflect the prevailing modes and manners current in his youth and the early years of his career, tempered by his peculiar military experience and manly notions nurtured on the American Western frontier and played out on the Red Planet.
      Burroughs was born in Chicago in 1875 and raised in suburban Oak Park, though he spent considerable time, both as an adolescent and then as a young man, working on a ranch in Idaho that belonged to one of his older brothers—he knew the wilderness firsthand. His father, a West Point graduate and Union officer in the Civil War, sent him first to Phillips Academy, Andover, and then to Michigan Military Academy, in preparation for West Point, but he failed the entrance examination and enlisted in the U.S. Cavalry instead. Posted to Fort Grant, in Arizona Territory, he served two years before being discharged in 1897, at the age of twenty-two, because of a putative heart condition; even so, he lived another fifty-three years. Thus ended his military aspirations. His vocation was uncertain, as he went from job to job, married, had children, though never earning quite enough to support his family adequately; but he read a lot, mainly men's magazines devoted to tales of adventure, and in 1911 decided to try his hand at writing such stuff himself—and at once found his métier. In 1912, All-Story serialized both A Princess of Mars (then titled Under the Moons of Mars) and Tarzan of the Apes. The trajectory of his abundantly successful writing life was set. There were other series and stand-alone works, some seventy books in all, but his earliest two established the winning formula for the rest: blameless hero, beauteous girl gone missing, vile abductor, hero's quest, his trials and triumph, villain's comeuppance, lovers joined. That it works is nothing to be wondered at: this is timeless, primordial romance, grounded in the universal horror of seeing one's love swept away. Burroughs's genius was in setting his tales in exotic climes, both present and future, earthly and otherworldly; old hat by now, but he was among the first to do it with a modern and scientific twist, an avantgardist in the field of genre literature.
      John Carter is a born fighting man, a gentleman from Virginia and former Confederate colonel who, seeking a new life after the Civil War, is somehow teleported to Mars, his tutelary planet, into a landscape very much like that of Burroughs's familiar Arizona Territory. We don't question how he gets there, anymore than we do when the aspiring writer in Woody Allen's recent film Midnight in Paris travels back in time to the Paris of Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, and Gertrude Stein. In storytelling, we allow for miracles and blatant coincidences; the science in sciencefiction is generally a matter of faith. The first three books (A Princess of Mars; The Gods of Mars; The Warlord of Mars) comprise a unified trilogy in the course of which John Carter frees the planet from the religious tyranny and superstitions of the cannibalistic priests who operate the atmosphere factory and from whose hands he rescues Deja Thoris, princess of Helium, then marries her and establishes a kind of among the disparate city-states. There is an echo more of ancient Greece than Rome here, and even as a boy I was something of a budding Hellenophile, though the overwhelming appeal was of course in the page-turning adventures. The first book ends in a cliff-hanger, with a priestly dagger aimed at the heart of the captive Deja Thoris. As soon as I came home from summer camp, I bought the next two, then one by one all the rest, and in this way began to add to my small library items of my own choosing while learning to negotiate the hitherto formidable precincts of bookstores. It was natural for me to want books of my own. My parents were readers, my mother was a published writer, and I had box of ex libris bookplates given to me printed with my name.
      Perhaps if I'd plucked a Hardy Boys novel from off the camp library shelves instead of A Princess of Mars I might have become a mystery aficionado, initial imprintings being so strong. But adventure fiction has remained my first choice in light reading, and a couple of times a year I need a fix. It is a modest habit now—as the ancient Greeks advised, "Nothing too much"—though that was not always the case. As a boy, I was a fanatic, until the day came when, having finished high school, I decided it was time to put away childish things—and that was the end of my Mars books, all those original editions I'd acquired with such prepubescent hunger. A few years later, with college and all its required reading behind me, I found myself, temporarily I supposed, disinclined to open a book. But a full year passed. I began to worry, since I was going to be a writer (and in my heart already was one), and I wasn't writing either. And so, mental hero that I was, I battled my way out of the slough of literary despond with the most elemental reading weapons I knew, E.R.B.'s Mars books; not the old editions with their wonderful period illustrations, which had become hard to find, but new, life-giving mass-market paperbacks, and they did the trick. It was thrilling to find that an eleventh book, John Carter of Mars, published posthumously, had been added to the series. Tarzan came next, then Carson of Venus, then Pelucidar (the world at Earth's core), and others I have now forgotten. This time, the appeal was more than plain adventure; there were actual ideas being fought out in the clash of Martian swords. Consider the question of religion for one, since I've already alluded to it. The overthrow of the cannibal priests, "Therns" as they are called, in their faux-Edenic sanctuary, is one of the many turns of plot revolving around the exposure of fake gods and hallowed myths taken as facts, with the implication that as it is on Mars, so it is on Earth.
      My second round of E.R.B. acquisitions having accomplished its work, I let the books sit on my shelves for some twenty years, ignored and unread. Then, once again, a day came when I asked myself why I still had them. They were taking up needed space, and when would I, a man in middle age, with more books at home than I could read in my lifetime, ever open them again, even with my penchant for an occasional adventure novel? So out they went. I might have shown some gratitude for their earlier service by keeping one or two, but I am no sentimentalist and had no immediate regrets. I was a published writer by then, though not of fiction, and a literary editor specializing in poetry, translation, and the avant-garde. It was only when I returned to writing fiction, after having put it aside for a score of years and more, that I owned some affection and remembered thanks for E.R.B's Red Planet and reminded myself that no one, even the best of writers, cuts his reader's teeth on Proust. Burroughs reappeared on my shelves: first an out-of-print Dover edition of 3 Martian Novels (Thuvia, Maid of Mars; The Chessmen of Mars; The Master Mind of Mars), offset from the originals I used to have, then a few others sent by an old friend and fellow writer in token of a shared liking for armchair adventures. Without them, I would feel my library was incomplete—the highest recommendation I can give for any books I have, however hesitantly, come to cherish.

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