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The Power of Imagination

    The 26th mailing of ERB-APA boasted many fine and interesting contributions, but the one that really caught and held my interest was Bob Barrett’s collection of ERB book reviews from the New York Times.
    When I was in high school, I commuted ten miles or so every day. My route took me within half a block of the main branch of the New Orleans library, and on many occasions I stopped off after school to amuse myself among the books and periodicals to be found there. I particularly recall one occasion, when my ERB fanaticism led me to seek out microfilm rolls of the Times-Picayune so that I could discover what that incredibly rare story The Tarzan Twins was about--by reading the daily comic strip adaption of it.
    On other occasions I perused bound volumes of excerpts of book reviews (I’ve long since forgotten the titles of these works), searching for references to ERB. I vaguely remember one concerning The Land that Time Forgot--source unknown--that was quite favorable. The reviewer commented on how spicy the opening chapter was--where Bowen is forced to warm the girl he’s just rescued from the icy sea by pressing his own body against her. “Whether or not this book is banned in Boston,” the reviewer observed, “it should sell quite well” (or words to that general effect).
    What a delight, after all these years, to finally be able to read in a single sitting (“in the comfort of my own home”) all of the reviews published in one of this country’s most influential publications. It’s edifying, too, to see that--with perhaps one exception (Back to the Stone Age)--the contemporary reviews were not particularly harsh or unkind.
    It’s edifying, too, to note the marked difference between the reviews of the Tarzan stories and those of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ science fiction (what ERB referred to as his “highly imaginative” tales). Tarzan the reviewers could understand, if not fully appreciate; but those other stories! My! Such startling imagination was unnatural and frightening, best dealt with through humor.
    I’m reminded of an episode of You Bet Your Life which I saw as a classic repeat a few years ago: A contestant tells Groucho Marx that his hobby is building and launching small rockets. Mugging to the audience, Groucho eggs him on. “Why do you do that?” he asks, wiggling his eye brows. “Well, Groucho, maybe someday I can help send a rocket to the moon.” The audience roars with laughter at this fool’s goofy idea, and Groucho wiggles his eyebrows some more. All this was around 1958, only a decade before we landed on the moon. Lack of imagination was endemic!
    Clearly the reviewers (and the general population, too, I dare say) did not understand or appreciate the imaginative aspects of ERB, and probably were intimidated by them. Occasionally the reviewer betrays himself, as in these comments about Thuvia: “To say that the book is at all times intelligible would be stretching a point, although it may be that continued activity on this mundane sphere unfits a reviewer from following Mr. Burroughs in these Martian peeps,” the NY Times admits in a condescending, foolish summary of the story. The reviewer--supposedly intelligent and literate, possibly even articulate on other occasions--had trouble understanding Thuvia! Now, Thuvia may be one of Burroughs' imaginative triumphs, but it is not a particularly complex or difficult book, even for ERB--who, after all, was writing for a wide audience and not attempting to be obscure. The person who reviewed this book must have had virtually no experience at all with imaginative concepts. And if he had that much trouble with Thuvia, what would he have made of Land that Time Forgot? He’d never have recovered from the experience.
    The person who did review Land apparently managed all that imagination only with difficulty. In The Land that Time Forgot, he tells his readers, ERB reversed the old adage to “proclaim fiction stranger than truth--much stranger.” Even the sarcastic reviewer of Back to the Stone Age (which I consider one of ERB’s worst books) reveals himself as responding more to the threatening nature of ERB’s unencumbered imagination than to failings of the story itself: “. . . flapdoodle . . .” he proclaims, “. . . pseudo-scientific whist of a Jules Verne . . . sheer bumblepuppy.” This person thinks he’s insulting ERB by comparing him to Jules Verne!
    I can almost understand it. Imagination-- fantasy--is intimidating at times, like a sudden glimpse into a mind that differs from our own by orders of magnitude and sees things we never even suspected. There is, too, an uneasiness evoked by the hazy demarcation that separates imagination from the delusions of madness. But we’re very lucky to live in an age when imagination is valued and esteemed. I sympathize with that poor, brave man who endured Groucho’s mockery and the world’s laughter, and I admire him. Men like him helped forge this newer, more foresighted world.
    Edgar Rice Burroughs helped forge it, too; his stories taught generations the power and beauty of imagination. In a very real sense, Edgar Rice Burroughs is one of the fathers of the imaginative age in which we live.

    I was very saddened to learn of the death of Frank Shonfeld. A memorial collection of his ERB correspondence would be welcome.

    --September 21, 1990
 

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Copyright © 1999 Patrick H. Adkins. All rights reserved.