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Tarzan Forever

A Study in Moral Imbecility

Review by Patrick H. Adkins

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.
    Unfortunately, we are living in the late 1990's, when it is a truism in the publishing industry that “dirt sells” and writers are routinely advised to make their works as controversial as possible. Getting noticed is the name of the game, and Mr. Taliaferro (who reportedly hired his own publicity agent to promote this book) clearly knows how to play. Burroughs’ relatively staid and proper life offers few opportunities for scandal, but Taliaferro is industrious. He wrangles an adulterous affair out of Burroughs’ late-life divorce, peppers his book with gratuitous characterizations like cuckolder, deadbeat, and bum, and scrutinizes Burroughs’ voluminous writings for anything that might serve the purpose of sensationalism.
    Although Taliaferro is a most self-effacing author in other instances, social issues draw him out. He displays a genuine knack for deftly conveying his disapproval of people not as enlightened as he is, even when those people have been dead for a half century or more and lived in a world that could scarcely have conceived of the social standards to which he holds them accountable. The surest way to spot the bad guys in a Tarzan novel is by their abuse of the natives; but when it comes to Burroughs’ occasional use of racial epithets in the mouths of villainous or otherwise unsavory characters, Taliaferro can’t distinguish characterization from racism. (Surprisingly, he does manage to find the slave Jim in Huckleberry Finn barely acceptable—because he is “recognizable as an agent of satire, however subtle.” In fact, Jim is much more than satire—he is the mirror of human nobility against which everyone else in that book is measured and found wanting. But not for Taliaferro.)
    While diligently cataloging Burroughs’ lack of 1990's sensibilities, Taliaferro steadfastly ignores or pooh-poohs every bit of contrary evidence. When Burroughs writes sympathetically about lower-class characters (as he did numerous times throughout his career), he is only being “canny enough to play both sides of the street.” When Burroughs portrays groups of blacks as handsome, intelligent, and noble (such as the Waziri of the Tarzan books, the First Born of the Martian series, or the Abyssinian conquerors of Beyond Thirty), Taliaferro dismisses this as “playfulness” on the part of the author—a literary device that doesn’t represent his true feelings. If Burroughs seduces his readers into approving of a romance between a white hero and native (non-white) woman (as he did time and again), Taliaferro usually ignores this aspect of the story. In the case of Tarzan the Magnificent, however, he takes a more disingenuous approach (page 302): “As a subplot, Burroughs fusses with the perennially prickly subjects of racial purity and miscegenation,” he tells us, dismissing one of Burroughs’ strongest statements against the racial views of his time with a single misleading sentence. Not only is “racial purity” seldom a subject in Burroughs’ work, but interracial love is always portrayed positively. Here's a sample of Burroughs’ “fussing” with miscegenation (Tarzan the Magnificent, pages 151-152):

“. . . 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.”
     Wood nodded in sad acquiescence. There was no anger in his voice as he replied. “I know it as well as you, but I’d go through Hell for her. I’d live in Hell for her, and thank God for the opportunity. I love her that much.”
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 charge.
    Early in 1928 Burroughs covered for the Los Angeles Examiner the trial of William Hickman, who was eventually found guilty of kidnaping, murdering, and dismembering a twelve-year-old girl. The Hickman columns represent Burroughs at his most exorbitantly outspoken (and typically imaginative). To Burroughs, Hickman was a “moral imbecile” who appeared to be “a new species of man . . . differentiated by something other than anatomical divergencies” (emphasis added). Burroughs defines a moral imbecile as someone who “is as well able to differentiate between right and wrong as is any normal man—the difference between the two lies in the fact that the moral imbecile does not care what the results may be to others so long as he may gratify his abnormal egotism or his perverted inclinations.” He also advocates “destruction and sterilization” as society’s only defense against “instinctive criminals” like Hickman, because “moral imbeciles breed moral imbeciles, criminals breed criminals, murderers breed murderers just as surely as St. Bernards breed St. Bernards and thoroughbreds breed thoroughbreds.” (Burroughs’ bald assertion may be simplistic, but the inheritability of personality traits associated with criminality is one of the hottest—and most controversial—areas of research in sociobiology today.)
   These columns have not been reprinted in their entirety. However, in none of the text quoted by Taliaferro or Irwin Porges (in his monumental 1975 biography Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan) does Burroughs call for “the extermination of all ‘moral imbeciles’ and their relatives.” The closest Taliaferro gets to supporting that charge is (p. 230):

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 [1932], 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.
    Taliaferro continues:
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.
    Edgar Rice Burroughs’ views were enlightened by the standards of his day. One of the earliest works attributed to him (found unsigned among his papers, but almost certainly by him) is “The Black Man’s Burden,” a stinging rebuke of Kipling’s paean to colonialism. The theme of racial tolerance appears again and again throughout his works, from A Princess of Mars in 1911 onward, and in many ways he was a social progressive. He attacked class prejudice in The Mucker, anti-Indian sentiment in War Chief and Apache Devil, racism in Tarzan the Terrible, Tarzan the Magnificent, and Carson of Venus. He criticized religious intolerance in numerous works, often in striking terms, and portrayed people of all races, classes, and religions as capable of both heroism and villainy. The glorification of individualism and opposition to tyranny are hallmarks of his fiction, and after Hitler came to power Burroughs repeatedly mocked and denounced both him and his ideology. But Taliaferro turns a blind eye to all of that.
    Several years ago Charles Higham published Errol Flynn: The Untold Story, in which he accused Flynn of being a Nazi spy. An outrageous charge like that is sure to get attention, and it’s a relatively safe tactic. Dead people aren’t around to defend themselves. They have no right of privacy, can’t sue for libel, and character assassination gets attention. It gives the media something simple to focus on. Although Higham’s scholarship and conclusions were refuted in Errol Flynn: The Spy Who Never Was by Tony Thomas and My Days with Errol Flynn by Buster Wiles and William Donati, Higham got tens of thousands of dollars worth of free media attention, a catchy subject to talk about on the interview circuit, and his fifteen minutes of fame. Unfortunately, the truth never completely catches up with the lie and for decades to come many people will believe that Flynn betrayed his country, and repeat that story as if it were fact.
    It is very sad that Mr. Taliaferro seems to have chosen to follow in Higham’s footsteps. His book could have been an elucidation of one of the great imaginative talents of the century; instead it is a facile, tawdry grasp for notoriety and sales—a work that, like Burroughs’ “moral imbecile,” “does not care what the results may be to others.”
 

 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).
 
Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan
by John Taliaferro
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Copyright © 1999 Patrick H. Adkins. All rights reserved.