Reading racism into pulp fiction

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

Eric S. Raymond has a scholarly interest in the historical roots of science fiction, which has led him to read — or re-read — the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs — famous for Tarzan, of course, but also for John Carter of Mars — Rudyard Kipling — famous for Kim, but also for As Easy As A.B.C. — and Harold Lamb — famous for his Cossack stories, which, he doesn’t mention, influenced Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan.

This leads him to discuss reading racism into pulp fiction:

The skepticism I’m now developing about ascriptions of racism in pulp fiction really began, I think, when I learned that it had become fashionable to denigrate Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and other India stories as racist. This is clearly sloppy thinking at work. Kim was deeply respectful of its non-European characters, especially the Pathan swashbuckler Mahbub Ali and Teshoo Lama. Indeed, the wisdom and compassion of Kipling’s lama impressed me so greatly as a child that I think it founded my lifelong interest in and sympathy with Buddhism.

But I didn’t begin thinking really critically about race in pulp fiction until I read Tarzan and the Castaways a few years ago and noticed something curious about the way Burroughs and his characters used the adjective “white” (applied to people). That is: while it appeared on the surface to be a racial distinction, it was actually a culturist one. In Burroughs’s terms of reference (at least as of 1939), “white” is actually code for “civilized”; the distinction between “civilized” and “savage” is actually more important than white/nonwhite, and non-Europeans can become constructively “white” by exhibiting civilized virtues.

Realizing this caused me to review my assumptions about racial attitudes in Burroughs’s time. I found myself asking whether the use of “white” as code for “civilized” was prejudice or pragmatism. Because there was this about Burrough’s European characters: (1) in their normal environments, the correlation between “civilized” and “white” would have been pretty strong, and (2) none of them seemed to have any trouble treating nonwhite but civilized characters with respect. In fact, in Burroughs’s fiction, fair dealing with characters who are black, brown, green, red, or gorilla-furred is the most consistent virtue of the white gentleman.

I concluded that, given the information available to a typical European in 1939, it might very well be that using “white” as code for “civilized” was pragmatically reasonable, and that the reflex we have today of ascribing all racially-correlated labels to actually racist beliefs is actually unfair to Burroughs and his characters!

It’s almost comical to see the programmer-libertarian argument play out against an imagined intellectual-progressive audience: You see, Burroughs doesn’t mean white when he says “white” — he means civilized! Therefore, he’s not racist.

Raymond’s defense of Lamb is similarly unlikely to convert anyone on the Left:

The “brushes with anti-Semitism” lie in Lamb’s portrayal of the Jewish merchants of the time. They sell the Cossacks clothes, weapons, food, and gunpowder and turn the freebooters’ loot into cash. They are depicted as avaricious, cowardly, mean, and quite willing to toady to the warriors and princes they serve. How are we to interpret this in light of Lamb’s sympathetic portrayals of a dozen other races and cultures?

Of course it’s possible Lamb was simply replaying anti-Semitic attitudes he had absorbed somewhere. But in reading these stories I had another moment like the one in which I understood that Burroughs was using “white” as culturist code for “civilized”. It was this: the behavior of Lamb’s Jewish merchants made adaptive sense. Maybe they were really like that!

Consider: The Jews of Lamb’s milieu lived under Christian and Islamic rulers who forbade them from carrying weapons, who despised them, who taxed and persecuted them with a heavy hand. If you were a Jew in that time and place, exhibiting courage and the warrior virtues that Lamb was so ready to recognize in a Mongol or an Afghani was likely to earn you a swift and ugly death.

Under those conditions, I’m thinking that being cowardly and avaricious and toadying would have been completely sensible; after all, what other options than flattering the authorities and getting rich enough to buy themselves out of trouble did Jews actually have?

Lamb seems to have have mined the historical sources pretty assiduously in his portrayals of other cultures and races. Rather than dismissing Lamb’s Jews as creatures of his prejudices, I think we need to at least consider the possibility that he was mostly replaying period beliefs about Jewish merchants, and that those beliefs were in fact fairly accurate. He certainly seems to have tried to do something similar with the other flavors of human being in his books.

Nowadays we tend to interpret Lamb’s Jewish merchants through assumptions that read something like this: (1) All racial labels are indications of racist thinking, and (2) all race-associated stereotypes are necessarily false, and (3) all racial labels and race-related stereotypes are malicious. But it seems to me that, at least as I read Burroughs and Lamb, all these assumptions are highly questionable.

Leave a Reply