Every once in a while, I visit Mike Glyer’s File 770 SciFi fanzine. I used to follow them and get email updates of new posts, but either due to an accidental technical glitch or me being deliberately booted off for being an “undesirable,” those notices stopped.
Anyway, I was scrolling through Pixel Scroll 8/15/20 To Clickfinity And Beyond! and came across a link to HBO’s ‘Lovecraft Country’ Brings Viewers To A World Of Monsters, Magic and Racism.
I didn’t learn about famed horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s racism until this last round of Hugos when he was denounced along with a lot of other dead white men.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Lovecraft’s monsters and his racism have both been twisted into a show set in the 1950s which features both:
In the new HBO series “Lovecraft Country,” a young Black Korean War veteran named Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors) explains why he loves the sci-fi novel “Princess of Mars” even though its protagonist is a Confederate soldier. “Stories are like people,” says Tic, who is on his way home to Chicago. “Loving them doesn’t mean they’re perfect. You just try to cherish them, overlook their flaws.”
This tension is at the heart of “Lovecraft Country,” which follows Tic, his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) and other family members as they encounter monstrous racists — as well as literal monsters — in the early civil rights era. The drama is primarily set in the North — a region that was technically integrated but where discriminatory housing policies, sundown laws and the specter of violent intimidation meant that de facto segregation was widespread — and like “Get Out,” uses horror to confront deeply rooted bias in all corners of American society.
What will they think of next? However, it wasn’t the HBO series that got my attention, but a specific piece of dialog. To quote from the NPR article (you’ve already read a bit of it above):
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Here’s the thing about being a Black nerd who loves science fiction, fantasy and superhero stories. Often, you wind up admiring work created to glorify people who are the exact opposite of you. That’s something the aptly-named bookworm Atticus Freeman tries to explain while telling a female friend about the latest novel he was reading on a long bus ride, the 1912 book “A Princess Of Mars” and its star, planet-jumping hero John Carter.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “LOVECRAFT COUNTRY”)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You said the hero was a Confederate officer.
JONATHAN MAJORS: (As Atticus Freeman) Ex-Confederate.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) He fought for slavery. You don’t get to put a ex in front of that.
MAJORS: (As Atticus Freeman) Stories are like people. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try to cherish them and overlook their flaws.
My very first thought when reading this quote on Glyer’s site was “Oh, here we go. Now the Hugo, WorldCon, Nebula, progressive, marginalized voices, woke crowd is going to pull a cancel culture on Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of, among other things, the John Carter of Mars and Tarzan book series. Will Disney now remove their 1999 Tarzan animated feature from their catalog? Actually, as far as Tarzan is concerned, there are more books, movies, televisions shows, comic strips and other artistic expressions featuring him than I can count, so “cancelling” him would be quite a chore.
But then again, Tarzan isn’t the problem (or is he? I’ll get to that), it’s John Carter, a former Confederate Officer turned gold prospector and adventurer who, through some fantastic means involving him actually dying, gets transported to the incredible planet of Barsoom, known to us here on Earth as Mars.
Of course, I can’t find any news on this whatsoever, so maybe, in spite of it being brought up in “Lovecraft Country,” the socially just pundits will bypass it. If they don’t, all of those Barsoom novels are safely stored on my Kindle Fire and in the cloud, so good luck getting them away from me.
Just yesterday, I wrote Retro Hugos, Dragons, and Why I Don’t Care (for the most part) About the Private Lives of Authors and with the power of the internet at my command, I decided to break with tradition and look up Burroughs at (yes, I know) Wikipedia.
ERB as he is sometimes called, was born on September 1, 1875 (so his 145th birthday is coming up) and was the fourth son of Major George Tyler Burroughs who was, among other things, a Civil War veteran. It doesn’t say which side the senior Burroughs fought on, but since Burroughs was born in Chicago, and his ancestors originally settled in Massachusetts, I’d have to guess it was on the Union side.
Oh, fun fact. In the late 19th century, Burroughs spent about six months working as a cowboy on his brother’s ranch in Idaho. Small world.
In 1903, Burroughs joined his brothers, Yale graduates George and Harry, who were, by then, prominent Pocatello area ranchers in southern Idaho, and partners in the Sweetser-Burroughs Mining Company, where he took on managing their ill-fated Snake River gold dredge, a classic bucket-line dredge.
On the surface, ERB doesn’t seem to have had a reputation as a racist. He was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2003, and because his books on Barsoom inspired real-life exploration of Mars, he has an impact crater named after him on the Red Planet.
But I decided to dig a little, and lo and behold, Tarzan is the problem after all.
In the 2015 article Racism and Imperialism in the Works of Edgar Rice Burroughs — Here’s Our Study File:
With Legend of Tarzan generating buzz courtesy of its well-received teaser trailer, the long-debated issue of whether Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs was a racist has come alive on discussion boards and comment threads. While one can argue that it’s not fair to apply 21st century standards or racial awareness to a 1912 story and its author …. the fact that the 1912 story is now a $180M wannabe blockbuster movie destined for the global marketplace makes this issue fair game and relevant.
But my deep impression is that Burroughs was a fledgling writer when he wrote the first book, and he had a much more limited universe (coastal jungle uninhabited by Europeans) in that book than he did in subsequent books — books in which he delved deeper into the continent and opened up to lost civilizations that got him away from black/white racial context. Also, in the second book and thereafter he had the Waziri, a highly admirable warrior tribe. The fact that Tarzan earns a leadership role with them can be seen as racist — but Tarzan, after all, is superior to not just the blacks in his world — he’s superior to the whites as well. Burroughs central thesis is not that Tarzan is superior because of his race; he’s superior to pretty much all humans regardless of race because of a unique nature/nurture combination…
This movie review states in part:
And then, of course, the bottom dropped out, for obvious reasons: Tarzan was such a racist product of such a racist time, that after the civil rights movement and the breakdown of the British empire, it became harder for mass audiences to enjoy the kind of deeply un-reflexive white supremacy that the character represented. To call the character “racist” is to state the painfully obvious: In the original books, the name “Tarzan” literally means “White Skin,” and the zest and righteousness with which he kills Africans is such an organic part of the character that, if you took the racism away, there wouldn’t be much left.
But then there’s the essay Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan, Was Not The Racist Hack His Critics Claim. Here’s Proof.
As a result of the “main lesson” that I did get from the (Tarzan) books, I did what Ray Bradbury said so many of us did. I went out into the world with enthusiasm and confidence; I set out to do great and mighty things; I believed in myself and was unafraid; I wasn’t timid; I challenged myself and tried to create a bio worthy of a Burroughs character; I took on major challenges and genuine adventures; I searched for an extraordinary woman to love and when I found her, I cherished her. If there was something negative that I derived from the books, it wasn’t about race.
While there can be no doubt the ERB was a man of his times and his racial views do not match up perfectly with 2016 sensitivities, any actual reading of the totality of his works must acknowledge that the dominant theme of his racial statements is one of tolerance and respect. To impute a deeply offensive white supremacist agenda, as his many sudden critics have done in the wake of the release of Legend of Tarzan, is inaccurate, unfair, unjust. While there are undoubtedly a few oft-repeated isolated passages with offensive racial characterizations, particularly in the works depicting the young Tarzan before he encountered any civilizing influences, the dominant theme of Burroughs’ racial commentary is one of tolerance, respect, and frequent admiration of non-white races.
By 21st century standards, I suppose a certain demographic would judge ERB as a racist if, for no other reason, the concept of systemic racism means that all white people are racist because “the system” raised us that way.
But it’s what I’ve been trying to say in my last few blog posts. Taking a man who was born in the latter half of the 19th century and who died in 1950 out of his context and thrusting him in to ours is grossly anachronistic and error-filled. A century from now, how will people judge we who are living and breathing in 2020?
Just like my temporarily popular article (thanks to a hotlink from a story published by the Vulture) Is SciFi Author/Editor Robert Silverberg Really Racist and Sexist (or has the internet once again lost its mind)?, ERB isn’t a racist within his context and neither is Robert Silverberg. Burroughs has been dead for seventy years, so we’ll never know how his sensibilities would have evolved if he could have somehow survived to today. Silverberg doesn’t see himself as a racist, but then again, he is a product of another context.
It’s time to stop judging authors of the past on attitudes popular in our present. Yes, men like Lovecraft should be condemned for his racist views, but he died in 1937. There are a few authors who I won’t read due to my personal convictions, but there are others who have held questionable views that I will. I can say that Lovecraft was a racist, but that he also established a very important position in writing horror. I’ve only read the first two Tarzan books and yes, there are some cringe worthy moments, but those books are over a hundred years old.
John Carter was a Confederate Officer, but ERB depicted him as a man of courage, honor, and integrity, and in twelve books, to the best of my recollection, he never treated anyone like a slave.
Burroughs wasn’t a social commentator. He just wrote a bunch of fun adventures. In an interview with the Paris Review, legendary science fiction writer Ray Bradbury said:
Edgar Rice Burroughs never would have looked upon himself as a social mover and shaker with social obligations. But as it turns out – and I love to say it because it upsets everyone terribly – Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world.
“By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go out and decide to become special.”
The men Burroughs created were cut from the same cloth, whether it was Tarzan of the Apes, John Carter of Mars, Carson of Venus, or any other. They were all bold men, courageous, adventurous, deeply loyal to their friends, and absolutely faithful to their wives (Tarzan married Jane in the second book and was fiercely devoted to her throughout the rest of the novels, which ERB wrote between 1912 and the late 1940s).
No, his writing and his attitudes probably wouldn’t fit in very well in 2020, but then again, that’s not when he lived. His experiences belong in a different time, and while Tarzan had a pretty good run in films and television, spanning nearly a century (the very first Tarzan movie Tarzan of the Apes, was a 1918 silent film starring Elmo Lincoln), yes, even he doesn’t really belong with us anymore.
Oh, everyday, among other’s I read the Tarzan comic strips. The weekly ones are from the early 1960s and currently the Sunday editions look to be from the 1980s or 90s. Especially the weekly strips are pretty dated…but they’re so much fun.