Burroughs’ Amtor – A Satire of Ideologies

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Roy Krenkel (1918 – 1983): Cover for the Ace edition of Pirates of Venus

Once upon a time – I believe it was twelve years ago – I published an article at the Brussels Journal, defunct since 2009 but still archived on the Internet, under the title Edgar Rice Burroughs and Masculine Narrative.  The article mainly addressed the author’s quasi-science fiction novels, but it also contained criticism of the stilted, politically correct apologies for Burroughs in otherwise handsome editions of his work reissued beginning in 2000 by the University of Nebraska Press under the Bison imprint.  The foreword writers ritually excoriated Burroughs for having exercised the usual list of phobic isms and inexcusable bigotries.  The article pointed to numerous counterexamples that, in particular, exonerated the Tarzan-author of having populated his stories with unrealistically weak or grotesquely male-deferential female characters.  The editorial matter accompanying the Burroughs sagas in the Bison editions anticipated today’s advancing disappearance of the Burroughs oeuvre from the marketplace, partly under influence of wokeness.  The stock of Bison editions nears depletion at Amazon.  Those that remain for sale are in short supply.  Used paperbacks from the 1960s and 70s are still for sale, but due to scarcity the prices are rising, especially for the Ace editions with cover-art by Roy Krenkel.  An Amazon customer may purchase publish-on-demand versions of some titles, but they make a poor comparison with the Dover, Ace, and Bison reprints of past decades.  The publish-on-demand editions often lack cover-art, coming with only title and author; and the printed page looks awkwardly composed, with no typographic grace.  The situation treats poorly a man who once enjoyed the status of the most-read popular author in the USA, if not also in the world at large.  (Burroughs’ adventures saw translation in a dozen languages, at least.)  It saddens me that a man of so great an imagination, and at his best, a master of sterling prose, should vanish from public knowledge.

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Fortunino Mantania (1881 – 1963): Illustration for POV – Carson Napier sees Duare for the First Time 

Nostalgia has sent me back to Burroughs.  I decided to tackle the Venus or Amtor series – a creation of the author’s mid-career, when his sense of irony about his own previous creative activity came to the fore.  The hero of the four Amtor books, Carson Napier, stands in contrast to the previous Burroughsian serial heroes: John Carter of Mars or Barsoom, as the planetary inhabitants call it, Tarzan “of the Jungle,” and David Innes of Pellucidar, the prehistoric world of the improbable hollow Earth, inhabited by cavemen and dinosaurs.  Napier’s difference from other Burroughsian protagonists consists in his being more subject to mischance than the others and more prone to mistakes.  First, however, a few literary observations: Burroughs supplies a prologue, circumstantially rich, to the first item in the series, Pirates of Venus (1932).  It distantly echoes the prologue to Burroughs’ first published novel, A Princess of Mars, mixing reality and fiction in ingenious and delightful ways, but much more so than its precursor, and with a dollop of the absurd.  Burroughs had domiciled himself on the Burroughs Ranch (renamed Tarzana when he split it into parcels and sold it off), a large tract of real estate in the San Fernando Valley, since the early 1920s.  Burroughs narrates how he received a letter from Napier soliciting his assistance in a grand project.  Napier, who possesses psychic powers, has caused a female apparition to present itself to Burroughs unannounced.  When the two meet at the Burroughs Ranch, Napier tells his new acquaintance of his plans: “For over a year I have been engaged in the construction of a gigantic rocket on Guadalupe Island, off the west coast of Lower California”; he is “ready to start at any moment.”

Napier intends to propel himself to Mars, as he says, because “my studies [have] convinced me that of all the planets Mars alone offer[s] presumptive evidence of habitability for creatures similar to ourselves.”  As Burroughs has proven himself psychically sensitive, Napier proposes to communicate with him via telepathy.  That way, Burroughs, whom Napier calls “an experienced writer” and a man of “integrity,” can report the explorer’s findings to an already existing, large, and receptive public.  Such an avowal would appeal congenially to Burroughs, who had ensconced Mars in his fiction as a planet of rare adventure, but Burroughs has his namesake character respond with the suggestion that Venus orbits closer to Earth than Mars and might make a safer object for so novel a thing as an inaugural voyage by rocket ship through outer space.  Napier has set his heart on Mars and demurs.  In the event, things go terribly wrong.  Having failed to link the gravitational pull of the moon to the mathematics of his flight, Napier finds that his “torpedo” has been flung around in the direction of the sun, in whose fire he expects to perish.  A destiny at once benevolent and ironic intervenes, taking him into the cloud-enshrouded globe of the solar system’s second planet.  Napier must bail out of his vehicle.  He does not so much come to earth as he becomes entangled in the limbs of the immense trees, thousands of feet tall, which cover the island-kingdom of Vepaja.  This too is fortunate – the Vepajans, who carve their cities out of the gargantuan tree-trunks, are the most civilized of human beings on Amtor.

With Napier’s arrival in Vepaja, Burroughs’ four-volume Baedeker’s Guide to Venus begins.  As in the cases of Mars and Pellucidar, Burroughs has given himself a whole planetary globe to populate with a spectrum of societies at various levels of primitivism, development, and decadence.  The Amtor series differs from these earlier-begun series in that explicit political ideologies become thematic in the four books, but most most thematically in the first two.  All of Barsoom corresponds to feudalism; stone-age tribalism reigns in Pellucidar.  On Amtor, however, Napier will encounter the emergent political dogmas of the mid-Twentieth Century in scarcely disguised forms.  Vepaja itself corresponds to a monarchy or principate with an enlightened king or jong who limits his royal agency so that it accords with a strong tradition of unwritten law.  In the Barsoom stories and elsewhere in the Burroughs oeuvre, the reader will encounter wicked kingdoms.  Nevertheless, the same reader will suspect that kingship attracts Burroughs’ preference as the form of a just polity.  No doubt this preference links itself to the kindred relations between the Western European form of kingship, as it emerges in the late medieval period, and the ethos of Chivalry.  Napier, like John Carter or David Innes, conforms in his behavior naturally to the chivalric code.  When Napier has learned the language and has begun to familiarize himself with Vepajan custom, Danus, his mentor, relates to him how the subjects of the kingdom became refugees from their homeland, finding their way in diminished numbers to the island where they resettled themselves and now live.  Whereas Vepaja resembles, in its social structure, a medieval Western European royaume, its history reflects the Twentieth Century fate of Czarist Russia.

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J. Allen St. John ( 1872 – 1957): Illustration for POV

“Hundreds of years ago the kings of Vepaja ruled a great country,” Danus tells Napier; “it was not this forest island where you now find us, but a broad empire that embraced a thousand islands.”  Danus adds that the kingdom “included… land masses and great oceans” and “was graced by mighty cities [that] boasted a wealth and commerce unsurpassed through all the centuries before or since.”  The population “numbered in the millions.”  A vital merchant class employed “millions of wage earners and millions of slaves.”  Science, medicine, law, and “the creative arts” flourished.  Mobility enabled a person born to one class to move to another: “A slave might become a free man [and] a free man might become anything he chose within the limits of his ability, short of jong.”  Despite the optimal condition, a cadre of misfits, “the lazy and incompetent,” harbored resentment against society.  As Danus says, “They were envious of those who had won to positions which they were not mentally equipped to attain.”  They made trouble in minor ways, spreading their propagandistic slogans.  Secretly, led by a man named Thor, they organized to overthrow the inherited order.  Thor “preached a gospel of hatred called Thorism,” the “sole aim of which” lay in “power and aggrandizement” of the movement’s leaders.  When the “bloody revolution” came, it subjugated under “virtual slavery” all who failed to escape.  Ironically, those who went into exile discarded the class system.  Gross bondage abolished itself.  Thus of class distinctions, avers Danus, “here there are none” – except, of course, for the dynasty.  And this will haunt Napier, who falls in love with the daughter of the jong, Duare (pronounced Doo-ar-ay).

Burroughs intuited that resentment fuels nihilism and that the cry for justice often expresses resentment that is, itself, unjust.  Danus puts it this way to Napier: “Their purpose was the absolute destruction of the cultured class.”  Anyone who sided with culture against the revolution would also be “subjugated or destroyed.”  The leaders held out the mendacious promise of a Rousseauvian “absolute freedom.”  The Thorists, having driven out the people who built their nation, enjoy the advantage of its vestiges, but these diminish steadily.  The level of education – and of intelligence – has sunk to a low mean.  Disease is resurgent among the population.  Worst of all for the Thorists, the fleeing Vepajans took with them the formula for an anti-aging serum, so that dotage has re-inflicted itself on an anti-reality regime that lacks both the antidote and the ability to reproduce it.  The resentment against culture has indeed never died.  The Thorists perpetually send agents into Vepaja to kidnap doctors and engineers, and young women of prime childbearing status, whom they enslave and abuse.  They also send assassins, simply to kill.  In Pirates, both Duare and Napier, but separately, fall into the hands of the Thorists.  The hero finds his princess at the end of the story only to have her rapt away from him once more.  Napier becomes a “pirate” when he foments a mutiny aboard a Thorist slave-ship, on which he is captive.  The Thorist officers whom Napier deposes by his insurrection Burroughs portrays as mentally lumbering, childishly egocentric, and terrified of violating the innumerable prohibitions on speech and action that pervade the milieu.

The story continues directly in Lost on Venus (1933), with Napier searching for Duare, finding her, and losing her once more before emancipating her again from her captors.  As Richard Lupoff writes in his Master of Adventure (1975 – Bison reprint 2005), the novel’s “basic structure, if the term is even applicable,” consists in “Carson and Duare wander[ing] about the largely unknown lands and seas of Amtor, visiting various strange city-states.”  The most prominent of these “strange city-states,” Kormor and Havatoo, detain Napier and Duare for the main part of the story.  Kormor and Havatoo, contrasting greatly with one another, stand on opposite sides of a Mississippi-sized river down which, on foot along the bank, the two protagonists have progressed; the stream will take them, as they logically deduce, to one of Amtor’s oceans or seas, where they will have a better chance of locating themselves than they would in the afforested and mountainous inland.  They come to Kormor first when, aimlessly afoot in the endless forest and under constant threat by predatory Amtorian fauna, they meet up with Skor, who announces himself as the jong of Morov, his kingdom.  He invites them to sojourn at his wilderness hunting lodgments.  When Skor admits them to his castle-lodge, they catch sight of his retainers.  Napier describes them as “a hard and sad looking lot.”  They exhibit morbid traits: “The feature that struck me most forcibly was the strange hue of their skin, a repulsive, unhealthy pallor, a seeming bloodlessness.”  All the servitors have “glazed, clammy eyes, without light, without fire.”  Skor has treated them with his zombie potion.  Skor has zombified the entire population of Kormor, his capital city of abandoned and dilapidated architecture, with streets full of filth.

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Roy Krenkel (1918 – 1983): Cover for the Ace edition of Lost on Venus

Kormor stands to Havatoo as the Thorist state stands to Vepaja: Skor sends his zombies through tunnels under the river to kidnap and assassinate the people of Havatoo; both the Thorist state and Kormor have dedicated themselves to death and they linger only by parasitizing life.  Napier sneaks into Kormor to rescue Nalte, a young woman who has come under his protection whom Skor has kidnapped; while searching for Nalte he also discovers Duare, another victim of Skor’s programmatic abductions.  In Kormor Napier hides in an unused building amidst the stench of decay: “From the window I saw an occasional pedestrian on the street.”  This scarce foot traffic shambles “with slow, shuffling steps”; the walkers are “gruesome figures that should long have been moldering in their graves.”  Kormor represents an inevitable later stage of the Thorist state.  Burroughs understands that ideology pits itself against life as such.  Every ideology is a nihilism that, standing against vitality, beckons the moribund, but Skor claims that his nightmare polity has its foundation in “true science and progress.”  Nalte, who has been Skor’s prisoner for some time, tells Napier, “Every day he takes a little blood from me” because “he is seeking the secret of life.”  Skor has declared, says Nalte, that he wants “thus [to] propagate a new race of beings fashioned according to his own specifications.”  Skor’s psychopathology emerges, among other ways, through his satanic inversion of vocabulary.  He denominates himself the creator of a new race and a new order whereas he is the author of torture and genocide and a destroyer of natural order.

Havatoo faces Kormor across the mighty stream.  It offers an aspect, when Napier first sees it, completely opposite to Kormor: “Presently as we topped a rise of ground we saw the city of Havatoo lying white and beautiful before us.  From our elevation I could see that it was built in the shape of a half circle with the flat side lying along the water front, and it was entirely walled.”  In company of Ero Shan, who has plucked Napier and Nalte from the deep forest in a moment when beast-men threatened their lives, they enter Havatoo through a “gate,” as Napier reports, “of magnificent proportions… bespeaking a high order of civilization and culture.”  The city’s defensive wall attracts Napier’s eye as well: “Of white limestone, [it] was beautifully carved with scenes that I took to portray the history of the city or of the race that inhabited it, the work having apparently been conceived and executed with the rarest taste; and these carvings extended as far as I could see.”  Inside, they discover a dazzling, highly technological, rationally organized civitas that works efficiently and makes a value of beauty.  Havatoo foreshadows the rebuilt Everytown of the H. G. Wells-Alexander Korda film Things to Come (1936).  The urban concentration seems to have sprung from “true science and progress,” to borrow a phrase.  Ambiguities, however, cast shadows of doubt from the beginning.  Immediately after their rescue, for example, Napier asks Shan whether he and Nalte will go to Havatoo “as guests or as prisoners.”  Ero Shan answers, “Will that make any difference – as to whether you return with me or not?”  Napier replies, no, and Ero Shan says, “Let us be friends.”

Ero Shan recites a capsule-history of Havatoo.  Napier has remarked not only the rationality of Havatoo’s layout and the attractiveness of its buildings and parks, but also the invariant healthy handsomeness of its people, men and women alike, and their knowledge and courtesy.  The word “science” enters the discourse again, as Ero Shan explains the city-state’s origin: “Havatoo and the race that inhabits it are the result of generations of scientific culture. Originally we were a people ruled by hereditary jongs that various factions sought to dominate for their own enrichment and without consideration for the welfare of the remainder of the people.”  Under the occasional good monarch, Havatoo prospered; “otherwise the politicians misruled us.”  The “demagogues” resemble the Thorists, having been “for the most part… men without culture or great intelligence.”  Under the corrupt regime “half our people lived in direst poverty, in vice, in filth… and they bred like flies,” Ero Shan tells Napier. “The better classes,” he continues, “refusing to bring children into such a world, dwindled rapidly.”  From the social nadir, the man named “Mantar the Bloody” or “Mantar the Savior” launched his coup d’état. Says Ero Shan, “With what seemed utter ruthlessness he wiped out the politicians, and to the positions many of them had filled he appointed the greatest minds of Havatoo – physicists, biologists, chemists, and psychologists.” Mankar founded a technocratic regime dedicated to a project of eugenics: “He encouraged the raising of children by people whom these scientists passed as fit to raise children, and he forbade all others to bear children.”  Moreover, “the physically, morally, or mentally defective were rendered incapable of bringing their like into the world; and no defective infant was allowed to live.”

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Fortunino Mantania (1881 – 1963): Illustration for LOV — Nalte and Napier in Skor’s Prison

Thus Napier and Nalte – and later, when Napier recovers her from Kormor, Duare – must go before examiners who will decide whether to admit the examinee to the polity or eliminate him or her.  The examiners admit Nalte, but initially sentence Napier to elimination.  They reverse their judgments when they discover that Napier possesses astronomical knowledge that affirms their pet theory about Amtor; they even elevate him to the rank of “professor.”  Burroughs supported the eugenics movement in the USA.  Wikipedia bashes him for it but it praises Margaret Sanger for the same beliefs and a greater degree of activism.  Napier says to Ero Shan during a discussion of the policy, “It seems rather drastic to punish a man for the acts of his ancestors.”  Ero Shan gives an inadequate response: “Let me remind you that we do not punish,” he says; “we only seek to improve the race to the end that we shall attain the greatest measure of happiness and contentment.”  He adds, “Nonconformists are not good material with which to improve a race.”  Napier is obviously a non-conformist.  When Napier rescues Duare and brings her to Havatoo, the examiners condemn her to death.  Napier in that moment rejects the ethos of eugenics.  He and Duare fly from the city in the anotar or airplane that he has built with the assistance of the Havatooans.  “We were safe,” he says.  And what could it mean except from eugenics? The non-conformity of both Napier and Duare, who love one another, trumps what has proven itself a cold sacrificial principle.  Despite their claim to rationality, the ultra-conformist Havatooans rely on murder to obtain their “happiness and contentment.”  That the Havatooans implement their theory unemotionally, like moral zombies, condemns them even more.

Pirates of Venus and Lost on Venus represent Burroughs operating above his literary mean, with robust prose and plotting that draws the reader through the story despite the repetition of the kidnap-and-rescue motif.  The two novels add up to a Burroughsian Gulliver’s Travels.  The juxtaposition and interweaving of the Kormor and Havatoo episodes in Lost on Venus permit the reader, moreover, to see Havatoo as another ideologically distorted polity with a certain basic likeness to Skor’s kingdom.  That parallelism undermines the claim that the Havatoo episode is a positive articulation of Burroughs’ unwavering and absolute devotion to eugenics.  The next installment of Amtor, Carson of Venus (written in 1937 and published in 1938), fails to live up to its two precursor volumes and operates below Burroughs’ literary mean.  The theme of a Gulliver-voyage through ideological polities nevertheless continues, with Carson briefly visiting a Mesolithic matriarchate, and then getting himself involved with the opposition to a crudely drawn Venusian counterpart of National Socialist Germany.  The matriarchate episode should have been extended.  The parody of the Nazis, like that of Charlie Chaplain’s Great Dictator, is too parodic, as signaled by the name that Burroughs gives to his villains – the Zanis.  Burroughs critic Ryan Harvey writes: “A city-bound thriller plot isn’t the sort of narrative that Burroughs was adept with.”  Harvey finds the book to be “filled with plot strands that don’t tie together and finally just drop when Carson loses his cover and has to flee Amlot,” the capital city of the Zanis.  Escape on Venus (published 1946) consists of four novelettes, sequential but otherwise independent.  Burroughs was obviously written-out as far as Venus was concerned.  His late “Barsoom” novelettes, on the other hand, vindicate his literary merit.  He would shuffle off this mortal coil in 1950.

Previously in the cases of Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard, I have made the case that “pulp fiction” often transcends mere entertainment.  Pulp fiction in the right hands treats profoundly of human nature and other philosophical themes that college professors associate exclusively with…  Well, with what?  The statement trails off into an ellipsis because college professors used to associate the treatment of ideas and the exploration of humanitas exclusively with what they defined as the highest levels of literature – bracketed, say, by Homer and John Milton or Sophocles and T. S. Eliot.  Nowadays, however, college professors regard the highest levels of literature as a toxic substance.  They prefer to limit the student imagination, or to stifle it completely, by replacing Sappho and John Keats with Maya Angelou and the collective authorship of Mahogany L. Browne, Elizabeth Acevedo, Olivia Gatwood, and Theodore Taylor III.  Contemporary academics still know the names of Homer and Milton and Sappho and Keats, even if they are but glancingly acquainted with their works.  Of the robust and in many cases philosophical “entertainment literature” that confined itself to the pulps, the contemporary mind knows absolutely nothing.  Although every English Department in the nation has a course on “popular culture,” such courses pay no attention to history.  They focus on the present.  If the name “Burroughs” occurred in a modern English-Department syllabus, it would belong to William S. Burroughs.  If the name of Edgar Rice Burroughs were ever mentioned in an English-Department lecture, it would be to denounce the man as “racist” for his authorship of the twenty-four Tarzan novels, but without having read them.

In “Clark Ashton Smith’s Representation of Evil,” I asked: “Could Weird Tales [the preeminent monthly magazine of supernatural horror in the pulp era] have been the premiere philosophical journal of the mid-Twentieth Century Anglophone world, outpacing such academic periodicals as The Philosophical Review, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, and The Monist – an International Quarterly Journal of General Philosophical Inquiry in its exploration of wisdom?”  Let me resolve my own rhetoric.  Talented and insightful authors, writing at a genuinely artistic level, published their work in the pulps.  While I would not place Burroughs at the same level of prose mastery occupied by Smith or Lovecraft, or for that matter Zane Grey, I would credit him with having integrated the mythic heroism of the ancient and medieval types with the genre plots of entertainment fiction – and with having done so, frequently, with noticeable literary merit.  During my twenty years on faculty at a branch of the State University of New York, I taught a course called Western Heritage almost every semester.  I based it on a reading list that, beginning with Homer’s Odyssey, included excerpts from Virgil’s Aeneid, the Beowulf epic entire, and ended with Burroughs’ Princess of Mars, serialized in Argosy, a general interest pulp, in 1910, and published as a book in 1916.  One theme that unites these sagas is initiation.  The stories trace the steps of the hero, in one way or another, toward a transcendent vision.  This path involves, for example, symbolic but harrowing rituals of death-and-rebirth.  Intense interaction with storylines can itself function as initiation.  Readers who were swept up over a long period in the serial adventures of John Carter of Mars or even Carson Napier of Venus submitted to a simulacrum, at least, of spiritual graduation.

Wiener Dog

3 thoughts on “Burroughs’ Amtor – A Satire of Ideologies

  1. I am not a literary critic. I am not even a Burroughs reader. But I grew up in the land of coastal mountains in southern and central California, near streams that run to the pacific, east to west, and oak forests on north and south slopes. If you lived in “Tarzana” at the time of Burroughs’ Tarzana Ranch, you lived in a place of natural splendor. Snow capped mountains in the east and north, sandy shores and bluffs in the west and a magnificent range of coastal mountains — streams and oak forests that led to the Pacific. Of course, one could imagine anything in this last “west” place. Jungle Land. Pacific Ocean Park. Disney Land. Travel Town. Griffith Park. With every landscape at hand, what could one not imagine?

    Had Burroughs lived in Kansas, would he have had the ability to imagine the landscapes he pictured in his fantasies? Not a criticism of Kansas. Just a reflection on the beautiful, rich landscape of southern California at the time of Burroughs’ work. One could imagine anything in this topography of ocean, beaches, mountains, canyons, creeks, coastal plains, snow capped southern sierras, high deserts and oasis in one west-most place. Anything landscape could be possible.

    • Thank you for commenting. Burroughs was born, I believe, in Michigan. He was a cavalry man in Arizona in his youth, but lived his (often frustrating) young adulthood in Chicago. It was in his Illinois days that he first imagined John Carter of Mars and Tarzan of the Jungle. When he had raised himself economically through the popularity of his fiction, he moved to California. This was 1919 or 1920, when he purchased the Burroughs Ranch in what would become Tarzana. The Ranch stretched over the mountains to Malibu, where he later purchased a second home on what is now called Old Malibu Road.* He kept horses and enjoyed horseback riding in the mountains. He was aware of the petroglyphs left by the ancient inhabitants. The Venus books belong to the latter part of the California phase of Burroughs’ life. As his Venus is a largely oceanic planet, it is very possible that the new geographical setting had something to do with the way he imagined that world. The “frontier” was important in pulp-era fiction, perhaps because it was disappearing or had already disappeared. America needs a frontier – in imaginative fiction, at least, when deprived of it in reality.

      *When I was a kid growing up in Malibu, my friend George Katz and I located the house (there was an address in a biography of Burroughs) and rode our bicycles to gawk at it.

      PS. A frontier is a limen: To cross it is a metaphor for transcendence. Modernity, which Burroughs implicitly criticized in everything that he wrote, would confine people to the banality of immanence.

  2. Pingback: A Bit More on Amtor – Is Carson of Venus a Paracletic Hero? – The Orthosphere

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