Edgar Rice Burroughs As A Feral Child

July 18, 2011

Edgar Rice Burroughs As A Feral Child

by

R.E. Prindle

Cronus:

Cronus married his sister Rhea, to whom the oak is sacred, But it was prophesized by Mother Earth and by his dying father Uranus, that one of his own sons would dethrone him.  Every year, therefore, he swallowed the children whom Rhea bore him, first Hestia, then Demeter and Hera, then Hades, then Poseidon~ Robert Graves, The Greek Myths

I. The Father As A Cannibal Figure

     Following Poseidon came Zeus.  In place of Zeus Cronus was given a stone which he swallowed instead.  When Zeus grew up he then castrated Cronus, replacing him.

     While on the one hand an astrological myth denoting the precession of the equinoxes from one Astrological Age to another, on a psychological level the myth relates the fear of the Father that as the strength of his sons waxes his own wanes resulting in an eclipse.

     Different human fathers react in different ways.  Some nurture, some castrate or cannibalize their young.  This is a serious problem for the son.  For instance, what Tom Brokaw, a thoroughly castrated son, is pleased to call The Greatest Generation who were so enamored of their success in WW II, that they chose to emasculate a whole generation rather than surrender or even share power.

     I correspond with David Adams from time to time while doing my writing from whom I sometimes receive valuable input.  I had come to the conclusion that ERB’s father, George T, was a problem for ERB, especially as represented by ‘God’ in Tarzan And The Lion Man.  The new year opened with Hillman publishing Dodds’ feral child collection which clicked in my mind.  The week before ERBzine published my Part III, Two Peas And A Pod of the Tarzan Triumphant review.  David Adams commented favorably on my comments about the Jungian Old Man archetype.  He said in an email to me:

     I agree with your interpretation that “characters like Tarzan and John Carter serve in the capacity of Old Man/Jekyll figures while the actual Old Man figures who are betrayers serve perhaps as Hydelike figures as represented by the father.” (David quoting me.) Those old man figures, early and late, are also cannibals who are hell-bent on eating him up while then spreading the bones across some desert for the hyenas to chew.  Who was that old cannibal with the cancerous face followed by a pair of African wolves? (Jungle Tales of Kipling)

     As can be seen I picked up on the Father figure but adding the cannibal detail adds the needed dimension for full comprehension.

     George T. had been bothering me for some time.  The love-hate relationship ERB had with him is quite obvious, but then it occurred to me that the other sons had the same relationship to their father while George T. appeared to program them all for failure- that is they not surpass him in their lifetime somewhat like Cronus of Greek mythology.  He made them all dependent on him.  The supplicating tone of the letters from college of sons George and Harry is all too obvious.  George T. sending the boys to Yale without the means to support a position would have had the effect of emasculating them relative to their fellow students thus subordinating them.

     Then on graduation he took them into his battery business.  As a businessman in Chicago it wouldn’t be unreasonable to believe that George T. had some relatively influential contacts in town who might have been able to place Yale graduates advantageously but he chose to keep the boys with him and subordinate to him.

     The battery factory proved dangerous for his son Harry who developed respiratory problems from the battery chemicals plus perhaps in psychological reaction to suppression by his father.  He went West to join fellow Yalie, Lew Sweetser, in Idaho.  Son George, who had had enough of working for his father, also fled to Idaho to join Harry and Sweetser.

     None of the three knew enough about the cattle business to survive so that by 1913 when George T. had his basket pulled up all the sons were back in Chicago in various degrees of failure or, at least, lack of success.  As of that date it would appear that like Cronus George T. had swallowed or cannibalized his sons.

     There was a Zeus figure in the bunch who didn’t want to be swallowed and that Zeus figure was ERB.  Like Zeus ERB was the youngest son.  ERB developed independently of his brothers who were approximately ten years older than he.  Thus when they were at Yale ERB was attending grade school.

     As I pointed out in my Books, Burroughs and Religion George T. was especially rigorous in the attempt to emasculate his youngest son.  His effort culminated when he sent ERB to military school.  This was a form of dislocation and rejection that ERB could not bear.  He tried to escape but his father sternly returned him to the Michigan Military Academy.

     The effects of this were that ERB was declassed as he considered the MMA a rich kid’s reform school.  Thus to some extent he was criminalized in his own mind.  His reaction was also seminal in the formation of his two principal characters John Carter and Tarzan.

     His hurt was so strong, his separation from his parents and home so complete that he became psychologically orphaned.  His parents died to him the day he was returned to the MMA.  He adopted the drunken Commandant, Charles King, as his mentor or surrogate father.  While betrayed by his father ERB apparently thought he found a friend in King.  In that capacity King became the model for Lt. Paul D’Arnot of the French Navy.  D’Arnot was the man who tamed the feral boy that was Tarzan introducing him to civilization much as King taught Burroughs how to survive and prosper at MMA.  Or Burroughs remembered it in that manner.  There may also be a literary connection to D’Artagnan of Dumas’ Three Musketeers.

     This makes the period between the arrival of Jane and her party and the arrival of D’Arnot in Tarzan Of The Apes of special interest.  I’m not sure what the period represents in Burroughs’ own life.

     As his creation Tarzan is a feral child it follows that ERB considered himself alone and on his own as a feral child himself.  A romantic notion but one no less real to him.  Thus just as Tarzan’s parent’s died with the baby becoming a member of an ape tribe so Burroughs began a wild and difficult period as his parents died for him.

     These events occurred just as Rider Haggard was becoming famous for his great African trilogy of King Solomon’s Mines, She and Allan Quatermain which ERB undoubtedly read at this time.  Conan Doyle began his Sherlock Holmes mysteries and H.M. Stanley disappeared into an unknown Congo in pursuit of Emin Pasha.  The West to East transit of the Congo impressed ERB greatly as his own heroes later crossed Africa in the same direction.

     Being a complex individual ERB no longer wished to even acknowledge that he had ever had parents; thus his first creation- John Carter.  As Carter only came into existence when ERB was 36 the writer had plenty of time to knock around learning the odd legend here and there.  John Carter then is a version of the Great Historical Bum- the hundred thousand year old man of folklore.

     John Carter could not remember his parents.  In his memory he had always been the same age he was.  In the words of one of my famorite songs, Stewball, he didn’t say he was born at all, just blew down in a storm.  Certainly Burroughs had heard of the Comte de St. Germain who flourished at the time of the French Revolution.  As esoterical cult figure today, St. Germain’s  legend would have been more prominent from 1875 to 1911 than today.  Like Carter St. Germain claimed to have been alive forever.  In Revolutionary Europe he got away with it.  Calgiostro was another Revolutionary charlatan claiming mysterious antecedents who would have intrigued ERB’s imagination.  It seems certain the two would have been topics of conversation in the time before radio, TV and movies so it wouldn’t have been necessary  for ERB to have read anything.

     I doubt if he had read any of the books on Dodds’ list although one never knows but the list goes to show that the feral child would have been a popular topic of conversation.  In my opinion then ERB’s literary future was cast when his cannibal father returned him to MMA.

     He graduated from the MMA in ’95 but either couldn’t or wouldn’t return home staying on as an instructor.  In ’96, just before the summer break which might have necessitated a return home he joined the Army being sent directly to Arizona without passing through Chicago.  Was he avoiding returning home?  One can’t say as in ’97 having found Army life not to his liking he received an early discharge.  He could have kept going, of course, as many of us in his boots did, to LA, San Francisco or wherever but he chose at that time to return to Chicago.  Of course, Emma was calling.

     From ’97 to ’03 or so he worked for his father which he found as difficult as his brothers had.  Fleeing Chicago to Idaho in 1903, when he came back a year and a few months later to do anything (that word anything has some meaning in this context)  rather  than work with his father.  He became one of the poet Robert Service’s ‘men who don’t fit in.’  He had a very difficult few years from 1905 to 1913 bumping along the bottom.

     But then in 1911 he began his rise via his intellect.  He began to write becoming an immediate literary success of sorts.  By 1913 when he was about to become a financial success through his intellectual efforts thus escaping his father’s curse, his father died.  The young Zeus thus never got to castrate his father Cronus.

     One can’t know what would have happened to his psychology had ERB been able to present his father with evidence of his success.  I’m reasonably certain George T. would have belittled  or rejected his success as like Cronus his youngest would have replaced him.  He wouldn’t have liked that.

II.  A Hand From The Grave

     Had that happened and ERB been able to prove himself a greater than his father it is interesting to speculate as to what effect that might have had on ERB’s psychological development.  As it was, a few months after his father’s death he packed up family and belongings and got out of town as far as he could go to San Diego, California and stayed away nine months.  Time enough to be reborn.

     There are numerous examples of betrayers who are cannibals in his corpus, in fact there is so much betraying and cannibalism in Burroughs’ work I find it slightly offensive.  Rather than work up a list, which for the time being I leave to David, I’d rather concentrate on the most spectacular cannibalistic betrayer of the oeuvre, God of Lion Man.

     I know I just wrote about Lion Man but with David’s interpretation of cannibalism I can present a much more cogent image.  David’s much more into Jungian synchronicity than I am but the scene with God presents a remarkable occurrence of synchronicity.  The scene is very complex.

     George T. was born in 1833 so the book was written on his 100th birthday.  Chicago was incorporated in 1833 while it was celebrating its Century Of Progress forty years after the Columbian Expo at the same time.  Both events occurred just at the time that Burroughs realized he had lost control of his ‘meal ticket’ to MGM.

     MGM was undoubtedly a component of God, the Father, being combined with the Chicago that fathered him and George T., his actual father, in his mind.  From these components ERB then creates the magnificent apparition of God as man and beast.  God has the mind of divine power such as had Zeus but is still a Cronus, is, in fact, the ultimate cannibal.

     Tarzan and Rhonda  represent Burroughs’ Anima and Animus so that God has the whole man in his power in its component parts- the X and y chromosomes.  God tells the pair that he is going to use them to rejuvenate himself by cannibalizing them.  The Father’s desire and the Son’s fear.

     If God represents George T. on one side, MGM on another and organized religion on a third then even though ERB thought he escaped his father in 1913 by his intellectual efforts the father reaches up from the grave on his 100th anniversay to claim his son again.

     At this time Burroughs also wrote Pirates Of Venus and Pirate Blood.  Both would refer to the idea that MGM pirated his creation from him while the very despondent Pirate Blood is almost terrifying in its manic depression as the balloon rises and sinks being almost submerged in the ocean or the waters of oblivion, the subconscious mind, insanity, that I believe we can see it as the insanity of despair.  At the end of that story the hero pairs up with a desperate woman who I believe we can read as Florence.  All very transparent really.

     So there Tarzan/Rhonda/Burroughs is trapped in a prison.  He attempts his earlier escape of rising through his intellectual powers, that is, he ascends through a shaft in the roof.  Unlike the first time when he surprised and astonished the world with John Carter and Tarzan, God, the Father, is waiting for him preventing his use of his intellect.  In point of fact Tarzan And The Lion Man was a dismal sales failure thought by Burroughs to be caused by MGM.

     If his previous four previous Tarzans under the Burroughs imprint had been successes it seems strange that the truly excellent Tarzan And The Lion Man should have failed.  Failing proof of sabotage on the part of, say, MGM, one can only say the public taste is fickle or perhaps the innovative dust jacket didn’t look like the usual Tarzan dust jacket and fans just passed it by.  It is also true that the book was a put down of MGM.

     Tarzan/Burroughs sallies forth from his hiding place against superior forces.  He is knocked unconscious.  A sure sign that Burroughs is under supreme stress.  Meanwhile God’s castle, in other words the literary structure of the last twenty years is going up in flames.  The MGM pirates have lifted ERB’s life work.

     He has to finish the story so he turns the tables on God taking him captive and making him do his bidding.  Tarzan helps God recapture his City then abandons him disappearing down the hole of the subconscious to a lower level from when he emerges to be claimed by the Wild Thing- Balza, the Golden Girl, or Florence.

     In a thinly disguised scene Tarzan, unwittingly it seems, wins Balza from her former husband much as Burroughs took Florence from Ashton Dearholt.  The important thing here is that a transition has been effected from one world to another.  The intellectual City of God has been abandoned in favor of a world of the senses.

     It is at this point ERB abandons his own feral boy persona of horses, puttees and other symbols to become a sort of effeminate Dandy.  He now affects tightly fitted fashionable suits almost effeminate in appearance.  He turn into a party animal and if he had been a moderate drinker during his teens, twenties and early thirthies he now becomes almost a lush.

     So, in the end, ERB was probably devoured by the Father in Cronus fashion.  In the Myth Zeus forced Cronus to vomit up his brothers and sisters and he castrated him.  In real life ERB was castrated and swallowed down.

     He put up one heck of a fight that arouses the warmest admiration of him.  One wonders, that if when all is said and done anyone can escape the imprint of those formative years.  Is one’s whole horoscope cast in the womb and those few short months after birth?  Sure hope not.

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