A Study in Moral Imbecility
Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan by John Taliaferro
Scribners, 1999, ISBN 0-684-83359-X
Hardcover, 400 pages including index, $30.00.
Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) was one of the most widely read and influential
writers of the Twentieth Century. For four generations his Tarzan books
and dozens of science fiction adventure novels have sparked the imaginations
of millions of readers, including such notables as Ronald Reagan, Ray Bradbury,
Arthur C. Clarke, Jane Goodall, Carl Sagan, and many of the scientists
who have worked on the NASA space program. Burroughs’ influence cuts a
broad swath across popular culture and can be detected in hundreds of imitators
and successors, from King Kong, Jungle Jim, and The Phantom to Doc Savage,
Superman, Flash Gordon, Star Wars, and a host of Saturday morning
adventure cartoons. Under normal circumstances the appearance of a new
biography of such a cultural force would be an occasion for celebration.
“. . . You know as well as I what one drop of colored blood does for a man or woman in the great democracy of the U.S.A. You’d both be ostracized by the blacks as well as the whites. I’m not speaking from any personal prejudice; I’m just stating a fact. It’s hard and cruel and terrible, but it still remains a fact.”The book ends with Wood (the secondary hero of the volume) and his lady-love planning to go to America and marry, despite her black ancestry.
On at least one occasion Taliaferro even falsely summarizes Burroughs to “prove” Burroughs’ racism (p. 224):
Shoz-dijiji, who has learned his true ancestry from Geronimo, tells her on the final page that he is white, nimbly sidestepping the unspeakable eventuality of miscegenation, a well-exercised Burroughs taboo.In fact, in Apache Devil Shoz-dijiji (the “white” hero who has been raised by the Apaches) tells Wichita Billings that he is an Apache and Wichita says that she loves him anyway. Even more to the point—and unknown to the character himself—Shoz-dijiji is actually part Cherokee and therefore not white by the standards of Burroughs’ time; but he gets the girl anyway.
Mr. Taliaferro’s misrepresentations could be shrugged off as mistakes and his brand of judgmental “progressivism” (his word) might be excused as the excesses of an overzealous social moralist . . . had he stopped there. Biographers are not required to be objective, or to try to see the world through the eyes of their subjects; but Taliaferro is hunting bigger game. He isn’t merely trying to demonstrate that Burroughs was at times racially insensitive and class conscious, like most of his contemporaries. These passages to which Taliaferro calls attention are merely the groundwork of a much more defamatory argument. He is going to craftily suggest that Edgar Rice Burroughs—a man who denounced Adolph Hitler at every opportunity—was a Nazi sympathizer. During the course of his book Taliaferro will compare Edgar Rice Burroughs to Hitler or Nazism no fewer than five times!
The most inflammatory of these comparisons are made in his opening chapter,
which serves as an overview of the book—and positions those statements
far enough away from the purported evidence supporting them that the reader
cannot easily compare Taliaferro’s characterizations with what Burroughs
himself actually wrote. (This chapter was presented whole on The New
York Times Book Review and Barnes and Noble Internet web sites.) It
is here, on page 19, that Taliaferro claims that Burroughs called “for
the extermination of all ‘moral imbeciles’ and their relatives, a doctrine
that would soon be trumpeted by Adolph Hitler,” without explaining what
a “moral imbecile” is. It isn’t until page 229 (a portion of the text few
Internet readers will ever see) that he gets around to clarifying that
Hickman was not the only one who deserved execution. “[W]e should not stop with Hickman; in fact, we need not wait to begin with him,” Burroughs wrote after the first day in court. “The city has plenty of moral imbeciles that we might well dispense with.”What Taliaferro doesn’t tell us, but Porges makes clear, is that these columns are laced with humorous, even farcical, asides (Porges, p. 459):
He referred to Judge Trabucco as “our new guest conductor,” and suggested that a master of ceremonies was needed to introduce the celebrities in the courtroom. Concerning the citizens who were unhappy because they could not “crash the gate,” he was sorry to disillusion them: “It is a bum show. The lead is a ham and the comedians are a flop. The heavy is all right. He goes around shouting: ‘No talking in this courtroom,’ and wakes us up every time we lapse into beatific unconsciousness of expert testimony.” He believed the alienists provided most of the entertainment, but there were too many of them “in the cast.”Viewed in this context, Burroughs’ statement that “The city has plenty of moral imbeciles that we might well dispense with” is clearly a flippant jibe and not a call for wholesale slaughter. Even more to the point is Burroughs’ summation at the end of the trial: “There always have been Hickmans—there will always be Hickmans. The best that we can do is to discourage the uncaught Hickmans from plying their chosen profession and destroy those whom we do catch” (emphasis added). A sympathetic biographer might have recognized that as Burroughs’ final statement on the subject, but Taliaferro does not, nor does he explain just how Burroughs’ comments concerning sociopathic killers amount to “a doctrine that would soon be trumpeted by Adolph Hitler.”
Next (again on page 19) Taliaferro claims that “in an unpublished essay, ‘I See a New Race,’ Burroughs offered his own Final Solution to the world’s problems.” According to Porges, the manuscript of “I See a New Race” (which is about a future American race) is undated, and Taliaferro gives no indication that he has established a date. (References to “disruption of the economic system” and bread lines, combined with the absence of any mention of Roosevelt and the New Deal, suggest that it was probably written during the period 1930-1932.) Nevertheless Taliaferro tells us (p. 266-267):
As events abroad were already making clear, eugenics and fascism were made for each other, and in “I See a New Race,” written at roughly the same time as Lost on Venus , Burroughs applauded the marriage. . . . Nowhere in “I See a New Race” or in his personal records and correspondence [of that period] does Burroughs explicitly mention Adolph Hitler or the policies of sterilization and persecution that was [sic] then unfolding in Germany, but they surely were on his mind. . . .This passage demonstrates Taliaferro’s technique of prosecuting with exculpatory evidence, as well as his willingness to ignore or obscure facts: Policies of sterilization and persecution did not begin until after Hitler came to power in 1933 and we don’t know when “I See a New Race” was written, though it probably was before that time.
In the ensuing years, when Hitler’s pragmatic means produced such abominable ends, it was hard to find anyone who would own up to having ever been seduced. “I See a New Race” was never published, but there can be little doubt that at the time he wrote it, Burroughs believed in both the end and the means.But if Burroughs never “owned up” to being “seduced,” it was probably for the excellent reason that he wasn’t. Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh, to whom Taliaferro compares Burroughs, publicly praised Hitler. There is no documentary evidence that Edgar Rice Burroughs ever said a single positive word about Adolph Hitler, the Nazis, or the race-based eugenics they practiced.
What is this “Final Solution” (Taliaferro’s phrase, not Burroughs’) that Taliaferro claims Burroughs proposed? What are these ends and means he supported? The utopian society described in “I See a New Race” (a fictional sketch, not an essay) is brought about by voluntary intelligence tests that are administered to candidates for office, which make it possible for the electorate to identify their smartest candidates; eventually, when most people have come to recognize their usefulness, such tests are required of both voters and candidates. “Stupidity became unfashionable,” Burroughs tells us. “The sterilization of criminals, defectives, and incompetents together with wide dissemination of birth control information and public instruction in eugenics resulted in a rapid rise in the standard of national intelligence after two generations.” (Sterilization laws were hardly uniquely Nazi; between 1911 and 1930 half the states in the Union passed laws permitting sterilization of criminals, the mentally retarded, and the insane—laws upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1927. To give the past its due, it should be noted that many individuals in these groups would have been unable or unwilling to practice birth control reliably or care for their own offspring.) Since Burroughs’ future eugenic society is based on education, democratic processes, and laws already in effect in much of the United States, it’s hard to understand how Taliaferro justifies his claim that a writer who denounced real-world tyranny at every opportunity “applauded the marriage” of “eugenics and fascism.”
Indeed, it could hardly be possible to portray Burroughs’ views in a less favorable, or less fair, light. The words Final Solution, which are separated from the discussion of Burroughs’ sketch by almost 250 pages, have a very specific meaning and draw an intentional comparison to the Nazi extermination of the Jews. Conventional notions of race are never a factor in any of Burroughs’ comments on eugenics, and nowhere in “I See a New Race”—or in any of Burroughs’ published works—does Burroughs call for the extermination of any group of people (except, perhaps, sociopathic murderers). Again, the facts utterly fail to support Taliaferro’s accusations and strongly suggest that Taliaferro is more than willing to play fast and loose with his interpretations in order to sensationalize his book. (Taliaferro is a clever writer; part of his technique is to provide mitigating evidence, such as the existence of eugenics laws in the United States, then ignore or obfuscate it in order to reach unjustified, but attention-getting, conclusions. How can anyone accuse him of being unfair if he gives “both sides”? In politics it’s called wiggle room and believable deniability.)
Taliaferro is willing to go to absurd lengths to compare Burroughs with Hitler (p. 231):
. . . Burroughs began his Tarzan novel about a latter-day Roman empire in which undesirables and their blood relations are systematically destroyed. Meanwhile in Germany, Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf (1925), in which the author envisions his homeland as the natural continuum of the “First Reich”—the Holy Roman Empire—was already a best-seller. In 1933, Hitler’s Third Reich would enact its own Eugenic Sterilization Law.Exactly what does that prove? Tarzan and the Lost Empire, which isn’t about eugenics at all, was written in 1928, when Adolph Hitler and the Nazis constituted at worst a troublesome little fringe group in German politics. Mein Kampf would not be available in English until 1933, the same year Hitler took power, and then only in an abridged version. But Mr. Taliaferro is so determined to link Burroughs with Nazism that even a very brief passage of background material—in an intentionally fantastic novel written five years before the dictator became a world figure—is noteworthy evidence for him.
Creative writers explore ideas; that’s their business. In 1932 (still before Hitler came to power) Burroughs created his fullest and probably last treatment of the subject of eugenics. In Lost on Venus, Carson Napier (the hero of the Venus series, upon whom Burroughs bestowed his own genealogy) visits the scientific city of Havatoo, a eugenic utopia. He is found to be genetically unfit and barely escapes being put to death. Most readers would consider this an indication of the author’s recognition of the danger of eugenics carried to an extreme; predictably, John Taliaferro does not.
Predictably, too, Taliaferro finds a way to twist Burroughs’ blistering 1937 parody of Nazism (Carson of Venus) into yet another comparison to Hitler:
Less than five years earlier, many of Burroughs’s views had not differed greatly from those of Hitler (and on the topic of eugenics, they were still in accord). But by the summer of 1937, he and nearly every other American had ceased to regard the Third Reich as a beacon of conservative order and common sense; now the Nazis were profoundly sinister.What, exactly, were those “many” non-eugenics views that did not differ greatly from Hitler’s? That athletic ability is admirable? That “modern art” is an abomination? Or did Burroughs believe that free speech should be crushed and political opponents murdered—that all non-Aryans should be enslaved until they’re too weak to work, then ruthlessly exterminated? In a breathtaking display of verbal legerdemain, Taliaferro has turned alleged agreement on eugenics into agreement on a whole range of issues—without even explaining what those other issues are or offering a shred of additional evidence!
There are other examples—far too many to treat individually—of what appear to be calculated distortions and sly defamation.
A great deal more could (and undoubtedly will) be written about this book.
While Taliaferro is a more engaging writer than Porges and the shorter
length of Tarzan Forever makes the story of Burroughs’ life and
times more accessible than Porges’ magnum opus, Taliaferro has made
such extensive use of his predecessor’s original research, both published
and unpublished—and presents so little new material about Burroughs—that
one suspects Irwin and Cele Porges should be credited as co-authors. Many
of Taliaferro’s factual details are simply wrong, and he shows little understanding
or appreciation of Burroughs’ work. His repeated dismissals of Burroughs’
opposition to Communism—a system of government that systematically murdered
tens of millions of people over a period of more than seventy-five years—as
merely “Red Scare” make one wonder what kind of ideological baggage Taliaferro
brings to his subject, and his appraisals of Burroughs’ stories are often
wildly off-mark. One could come away from Tarzan Forever thinking
that late “potboilers” like Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, Tarzan
and the Lion Man, and Swords of Mars (which Taliaferro deems
“one of his very best novels”) were Burroughs’ greatest accomplishments,
while books generally considered to rank near the top of Burroughs’ work
(such as The Moon Maid trilogy and Jungle Tales of Tarzan)
are belittled or otherwise given short shrift. Indeed, one could easily
read this biography without gaining any insight into what has made Burroughs’
works so beloved by so many readers around the world over such a long period
of time. This is probably the second-greatest weakness of Tarzan Forever:
It utterly fails to capture the sweep and wonder of Burroughs’ imagination.
Nevertheless, all of that would be of minor importance had Taliaferro not
been so determined to sensationalize his book.
Copyright © 1999 Patrick H. Adkins
This article is scheduled for publication in The Great “Tarzan” Debate: Perspectives in Black And White on the 20th Century’s Most Controversial Folk Hero edited by Frank Blisard (Africa World Press).