Our Times, Mark Sullivan And Edgar Rice Burroughs
June 6, 2008
Our Times, Mark Sullivan And Edgar Rice Burroughs
Mark Sullivan doesn’t show up in ERB’s library although one wonders why not. Sullivan’s Our Times is a history of America from 1900-1925 as it might have been gleaned from newspapers. This is history as seen from the point of view of newspaper readers. Sullivan himself was a journalist. He was also almost an exact contemporary of Burroughs, born in 1874 died in 1952, so we can be can be certain that Burroughs was infuenced by all the events that Sullivan cherishes. Cherishes is the right word because Sullivan is also writing his own intellectual biography through his perception of the world he lived in. These events formed the warp and woof of his life. A life he obviously loved.
He was present at many of the events while knowing such men as Teddy Rooselt reasonably well. Others he was able to interview and failing that, as many of these participant in some really astounding events were still alive as he began writing Our Times in the twenties, he was able to get written impressions from such as Orville Wright and Thomas Edison among a great many others. Altogether the six volumes of Our Times are a unique, vastly interesting, entertaining and altogether charming record of the times. Of course Sullivan would have had a more intimate knowledge of matters than mere newspaper readers but these are the stories Burroughs saw, observed and experienced hence forming the warp and woof of his own life.
We are fortunate then to have a record that actually forms the background of ERB’s life as he might have seen it as selected and lovingly recounted by Sullivan.
Sullivan gives a good background to race relations that throws light on how Burroughs himself perceived them. At least from 1900 to 1920 the lingering effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction were quite strong heavily influencing if not dominating the thought of the times. There was a strong party that wanted to go on punishing Southeners both as rebels and as former slave owners. On the other hand there was also a strong party that wanted to reconcile the Whites of North and South healing the rift and bringing the two factions together into one nation. The former might be called the Tourgee school and the latter the Dixon school.
Sullivan was of the latter group as well as Burroughs and their hero Theodore Roosevelt. Sullivan recounts how Roosevelt worked very hard to bring the Southeners back into a respectable political condition only to blow his efforts away by inviting a Negro to lunch with him in the White House. That Negro was Booker T. Washington.
It was against this backdrop that Thomas Dixon was writing his Reconstruction novels The Leopard’s Spots, The Clansman and The Traitor. His trilogy was made was made into the movie The Birth Of A Nation in 1915. The movie was meant to be a seal on the healing process. From the inception of the United States the country was divided into two nations. The North and the South with two approaches to civilization. The Civil War began over the separation of those two civilizations while the subsequent period was devoted to uniting the two approaches into one people hence the title of the movie- The Birth Of A Nation. In other words Southern and Northern Whites combined into one people with one ideology.
The clinker in the coal pile was the African. No matter the relation between the two White peoples the problem was what to do about the African. Thus Sullivan, Burroughs and Roosevelt while wishing to unite the Northeners and Southeners had still to deal with the Africans. Obviously the introduction of the Africans into the equation as social equals was an impossibility for all concerned. They weren’t wanted.
Booker Washington’s response to the issue was not to try to socialize with the Whites but to live independent lives while trying to equal the White man’s achievement. The approach was correct but impossible for the Africans.
There was no racial animosity as such on the part of Sullivan, Burroughs and Roosevelt but there was no solution to the racial differences then as there are none now. Somewhat presciently Burroughs in his Martian trilogy had the Black First Born attack and demolish the White citadel thus conquering and eliminating them. This is along the lines of what is happening today where White males have been legally emasculated while White females are encouraged to seek Black males. Thus potentially without violence genocide would be committed on the Whites.
What was clear to all participants was that Whites and Blacks were not of equal capabilities. Whatever Sullivan and Roosevelt may have thought it is clear that Burroughs believed that Africans were not as evolutionarily developed as Whites.
From 1900 to 1920 this was the prevailing attitude in the country but then began to change as immigration changes began to disintegrate the social fabric. Circa 1900 the conflict was three way between the Liberals, the Reconcilers and the Africans being manageable to the Africans disadvantage. Just before 1920 the great racial organizations of the of the Jews – ADL and AJC-, the Africans- the NAACP-, the Italians- the Mafia- and the Whites- the second Ku Klux Klan- took shape that managed to spinter the forces along several racial lines with all except the KKK working against the Whites. Thus post-war America and post-war Burroughs developed in a different way than The Birth Of A Nation proposed.
Sullivan also lovingly chronicles the rise of popular music that began to take definite shape in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth as Tin Pan Alley came into existence. While Emma was trained as a formal singer ERB loved the pop tunes. He even went so far as to take a portable record player on their cross country trip in 1916. Of course electricity was not needed to play records as the players were wind up. The amplification was minimal as the needle translates the grooves through a large bell or horn. ERB’s record tastes were somewhat along the lines of his interest in boxing. Emma, I am sure, would have called his tastes vulgar.
Sullivan gives great coverage of the heavy weight boxing championship of the African, Jack Johnson. Johnson’s victory was one of the most traumatic events of the first two decades for White psychology. Burroughs himself was deeply chagrined resulting in the boxing story of The Mucker. The Mucker, Billy Byrne, became in essence a literary Great White Hope.
There is no indication that I have found that Burroughs read Our Times although Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen published near the same time dealing with the Twenties in the same way as Sullivan is found in his library. So, the approach was interesting to Burroughs and in some ways he also incorporated a lot of current events into his writing. Read between the lines his is a history of his times. Nearly every story can be related to something or things happening in his society. This approach goes back to his earliest writing long before Sullivan conceived Our Times.
Certainly ERB would have known of both Sullivan and Our Times. As an inveterate magazine and newspaper reader there is probably very little that escaped ERB’s notice.
The point of this essay is to recommend Our Times as background to the events that would have had great influence on Burroughs both before he began writing and as he wrote incorporating events such as Jack Johnson or the Mexican scare of 1915 and Pancho Villa into his writing.
Not only will the volumes of Our Times provide a social and political backdrop to ERB’s development but they will be a very enjoyable read with a lot of interesting pictures and cartoons to make the pages turn especially fast.