Fearful Symmetry: John Carter and the Struggle of the Individual

The publicity around John Carter offers an interesting insight into the symbolic role held by adventure heroes in our popular consciousness. With the success of superhero inspired media, the search for characters with fantastic elements has accelerated in recent years. Yet, those characters available for development and with the “geek cred” to generate excitement is shrinking. The desire to capitalize on the comic craze is there, but the limited availability of desirable characters explains the decision to resurrect Green Hornet as a motion picture. Green Hornet has a dedicated fan base that cuts across generations, yet the film was not a blockbuster success. Nonetheless, the chance that the faithful will generate excitement offers some conventional logic to why Disney is bringing John Carter to theaters in 2012. A pulp adventure character, John Carter is essentially a proto-superhero with elements recognizable to an audience familiar with superhero adventure. Beyond this simplistic analysis however, like all superheroes, John Carter reflects concerns vexing the zeitgeist.

Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs and first published in 1911, John Carter was conceived before Tarzan, but is lesser known to popular audiences. Like Tarzan, John Carter falls within a broad adventure fiction that offers a telling commentary on the anxiety generated by expansive urbanization, massive immigration, and evolving industrialization within the U.S. experience. When Burroughs fashioned John Carter, there was wide-ranging debate about these questions. Like today, critics from both side of the political divide suggested the sociopolitical system was out of balance. Fears about corporate abuse, poverty, and environmental excess drove liberals, while concerns about activist government, loss of traditional values, and dangers posed by immigration animated conservative calls to action.

Uncertainty created by living in the abundance of the United States, yet struggling, triggers reflective questioning. If you have not done well, then the question of “Why?”, looms large. To listen to any number of presidential candidates describe the country’s problems, it is a crisis of the suppressed individual. Obstructionist forces in government are preventing us from achieving our potential. This point explains anti-collegiate rhetoric, the like of which we’ve recently heard from Rick Santorum. For those concerned that core U.S. values are being wiped away by the actions of liberal elites, remember that college is a locus of subversive values. Faced with the specter of valueless institutions, the call to embrace established ideas of family, faith, and hard work are commonplace.

Neither these ideas nor these reactions are new. Indeed, when Burroughs created John Carter, many of the same issues vexed the public mind. In the decades after the Civil War, the United States changed rapidly as industrialization and urbanization reoriented the popular dialogue about the benefits and dangers facing society. The danger posed by “lesser” races immigrating to the United States and the challenge they posed to social stability added depth to public concerns about community development. Like today, the interplay between economic, social, and political decisions were complex. Revisiting the intricacies of the popular discourse when John Carter appeared is instructive.

Like us, political and social leaders in the past argued about how best to preserve communal stability while continuing to improve society. They too, argued about the relationship between the government and the individual. Heavily influenced by Herbert Spencer’s liberal utilitarianism. Spencer’s work, although conservative, should be understood in the context of his contemporaries taking his work and using it to justify social and economic inequality. Social Darwinism permitted elites and their middle-class allies to believe that laissez-faire capitalism allowed superior people with inherently better qualities (Anglo-Saxon Protestants) to “rise to the top” while lesser people (anyone not Anglo-Saxon Protestant) naturally toiled at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. We rightly dismiss these ideas, but they were rejected at the time. Like today, intellectual life created vigorous debate.

Academics and social activists call for reform and offered scientific justification for state-sponsored social program. As early as 1883 Lester Ward’s Dynamic Sociology dismissed the supremacy of natural law and challenged Social Darwinism. Ward argued that public institutions could either help or hinder social prospects and argued for reform. Efforts like Ward’s sparked wide debate that helped to evolve the public’s understanding. From a simplistic reading of genetics, public understanding was grown into a deeper understanding of environmental determinism. And it was this environmental determinism, the public came to understand, that embraced the possibility that controlling human interaction with their surroundings could improve society.

The emergence of social psychology furthered this thinking by offering new tools to explain community dynamics. Social psychologist stressed that negative outcomes could be avoided by intervening in the home and the neighborhood. Building on the work of Dr. G. Stanley Hall, a pioneer who conducted cognitive experiments on children, reformers saw a link between environment and child health and safety. Hall experiments demonstrated children living in U.S. cities had little conception of the natural world. He argued the city’s denial of nature and outdoor activities undermined child development and laid the groundwork for failed adulthood. In an era when reformers wanted to protect women and children, Hall called for the United States to “not only conserve but laboriously cultivate” its human resources. Rather than abandon children to harsh circumstances, Hall argued that the “development of our human quality” was crucial for future success.

These demands came in the midst of a growing social diversity and economic complexity linked to an urbanizing heterogeneous populace that challenged traditional Anglo-Saxon institutions and complicated the narrative of identity and community that historically shaped the United States. Social science followed in the path of the physical science in its attempt to explain how this increasingly complex world functioned. The chance to produce “better” people galvanized liberal and conservative voices. The turn of the century nature craze inspired millions to lead a “vigorous” lifestyle so the could be better Americans.

Promoted by public figures such as Theodore Roosevelt, nature’s allure rested in its ability to generate visions of a frontier where previous generations had tamed nature and nurtured the values that inspired the United States’ greatness. Roosevelt’s advocacy for an active lifestyle was one very visible cornerstone of his popular appeal. His own personal narrative was linked to the redemptive power of nature. Overcoming childhood asthma, boxing in college, and embrace a strenuous lifestyle as defining practice, his personal ideology became national policy. As president, his calls for conservation reflected concern about the need to preserve natural spaces as proving ground to forge “Americans.”

A hero of the Spanish-American War in truth and fiction, Roosevelt’s view on the United States role as a global power at the turn of the century highlights numerous tensions in the popular mind. A reformer that challenged the overarching power of corporations, he nonetheless embraced the concept of rare suicide and argued that Anglo-Saxon women were not dedicating themselves to producing children and nurturing family. The idea that a growing population of ethnic immigrants and African Americans would eventually outnumber and supplant the white majority allowed him to rally popular support. For all the bias Roosevelt held, when he ran as third party progressive presidential candidate in 1912, he warned against unreason conservative and liberal action in the pursuit of “social and industrial justice”. Indeed, Roosevelt’s ardent embrace of an assimilative vision for immigrant led Israel Zangwill to dedicate his classic play, The Melting-Pot to him. Ultimately, Roosevelt’s public life underscored the uncertainty linked to conservative and liberal view of identity and its connection to a popular discourse on individual agency in the early twentieth century.

Strong reactions driven by fear offered ample opposition to liberal forces dedicated to creating a new pluralist society. For critics, without the challenge associated with a “civilizing” mission to strengthen body and spirit, new generations reared in cosmopolitan urbanism faced the possibility of degenerative weakness leading to societal failure. Traditionalist actions to avoid this fate garnered widespread attention in the 1920s, but the struggle to save the country began a decade before. The campaign against the science of evolution that led to the Scopes Monkey Trial (1925) had its origins in the 1909 publication of The Fundamentals: A Testimony, a series of religious tracts. These pamphlets testified to the infallibility of the literal interpretation of the Bible, the reality of the virgin birth, the atonement, the resurrection, and the second coming of Christ. The Fundamentals galvanized the faithful and serve as the foundation for the modern Christian fundamentalist movement.

The passing of the Immigration Act of 1924 (also called the National Origins Act) can be tied to race science championed to new heights by Dr. Charles Davenport’s founding of the Eugenic Record Office (ERO) in 1910. The ERO advocated for race positive breeding practice and under Davenport’s direction developed a questionnaire to collect genetic information for human classification. By 1924 the ERO has collected 750,000 records and was an internationally known center for the study of Eugenics. Even the success of Prohibition can be linked to grassroots activism of groups such as the Anti-Saloon League, which was successful in getting half the counties in Illinois vote in favor prohibition as early as 1910. What these efforts shared was a commitment to “core values” that supporters associated with idyllic past.

Struggling to understand the shock of the new, popular culture reflected the longing for a past that was “better” than current conditions. Adventure magazine such Frank Munsey’s Argosy Magazine (1896), the first all-fiction pulp magazine (pulp refers to paper used to print the publications) offered science fiction, romance, horror, pirates, and western adventure that presented the tension of everyday life as symbolic metaphors.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ adventure stories provided a mix of frontier adventure and science fiction that melded established beliefs linked to “traditional” values with high action. For an audience struggling with looming question of identity and stressed with the implication of their placement as individuals in a rapidly evolving world, his stories offered a reassuring narrative journey.

Introduced in Under the Moon of Mars (later re-titled A Princess of Mars), John Carter is a member of the Virginia elite who served in the American Civil War. In his Mars stories, Burroughs created an epic adventure around a white aristocratic hero caught in the midst of an alien (which is another word for immigrant) civilization. Carter leads the red Martians in frequent conflicts with other Martian races. Within these stories, racism and sexism abound, mirroring contemporary beliefs and affirming accepted values. Yet, more broadly these adventures presented a white Anglo-Saxon hero facing and overcoming dangers offered by “colored” people in a strange (foreign) land. Moreover, Carter wins these battles because his values and physical abilities are superior to the natives.

I am not suggesting the new film is racist, (despite what some might charge), instead I see that the anxiety created by an uncertain economic future, a changing societal landscape, and challenging global circumstances that shaped the United States and Burroughs’ thinking in 1911 mirroring the social milieu in 2012. It is a telling testament to the symbolic power buried within the story that Disney decided to produce the film now. Indeed, John Carter, like many films toiled in development for years. The decision to embrace the characters, speaks to the overarching themes in the story. John Carter is the perfect hero for an audience struggling to achieve.

Indeed, if the furor over David Brooks’ column discussing Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart, which suggests a great division exists among whites, provides any insights into the collective mind, it is that there remains a deep desire to believe the United States remains a country where individual effort, not class or connections, defines success. This faith in the individual has both an economic and social dimension that shapes public discourse. While the reasons for contemporary economic troubles are complex, the argument that “loss values’ explains the country’s trouble is more compelling for some people than the facts of risky financial instruments or corporate executives greed. Like their counterparts in 1911, audiences in 2012 are being offered a passive acknowledgement of core beliefs through Burroughs’ adventure fiction. Carter inherent (mental and physical) character grants him the power to make a difference. His presence on Mars marks the beginning of a new civilizing push in society. He will eventually marry a Martian princess and their offspring will provide new vigor to Martian society. Indeed, subsequent books in the series offer adventures with Carthois, John Carter’s son.

There is no surprise that a hero with strong convictions is successful, indeed the hero must have those values to be the hero. Yet, the clear allegory related to culture and community provided in the Mars stories continue an unconscious commentary on our collective debate about the form and functionality in our society. Whether or not this film will be successful enough to explore the complex world Burroughs created through 11 novels is an open question. Still, the success or failure of John Carter should not distract us from a consideration of the cultural symmetry that informs the character.