The Madness of Normal Bean
David A. Adams
Copyright © 1999
”Twinkle, twinkle, little bat”
“The Edgar Rice Burroughs of summer 1911 who entered hesitantly into the field of writing was almost a dual personality.” Thus states his most famous biographer, Irwin Porges on page two of his mammoth work, Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan.
Burroughs at age 35 was a driven man who had failed at everything in life, or at least he felt that he was such a failure, which amounts to the same thing. He turned to writing his fantasy life, and it made him an enormous success in both money and fame. Yet, the first steps of this career were taken with such hesitation and uncertainly that he used the pen name, “Normal Bean” (corrected by an editor to read Norman Bean) for his first work, “Under the Moons of Mars,” which later became known as “A Princess of Mars” in its novelistic version.
Porges tells us that Burroughs felt ashamed of his writing. It was an act performed in secret, and his nom de plume reflected these worries. He wanted to make it clear that he was a man with a normal mind, a “normal bean,” yet I wonder if the man did not protest too much.
Given Porges’ tome, which will undoubtedly stand as the definitive biography of Burroughs despite the new, revisionist work of Taliaferro, the student of his life and work is nearly crushed by the weight of its 819 pages. Porges had access to ERB’s files and was given the freedom to write about his subject in a way that it is likely that no one will ever have again given the tight rein ERB Inc. holds on his letters and manuscripts.
It would be folly to claim that Burroughs was mad, but that he was an unstable man at the time of his earliest writing has been well-established, and the fact that he remained a writer who doubted his own considerable powers throughout his entire life at least demonstrates his feeble grasp on what he was about.
Burroughs never claimed to be a great writer, in fact, he made fun of “literachoor” and serious writers, although he sorely felt the sting of neglect from his fellow writers and literary critics. He claimed to be writing for money alone and thus did not have to come up to the standards of “real writers” like Jack London, H.G. Wells, or Rudyard Kipling, to mention only a few of his famous contemporaries.
ERB remains an enigma. There is the early blow to his head that may or may not have led to his nightmares that plagued him all of his life. He was a physically strong man with an athlete’s body and gigantic hands. He was an expert horseman and a soldier, yet his talents as an artist were considerable. He was a man of great passion, as we can tell from his “romantic adventures,” which is really the best description of his works, yet he predictably crashed in his waning years -- divorcing his wife for a younger woman and acting like a old fool with no sense of the psychology behind his actions other than the fact that he fought for eternal youth even though he probably knew that only his characters really could have it.
Porges was on to something when he said that Burroughs was a dual personality. He clearly displayed manic-depressive behaviors, given to great bursts of energy in his writing, followed by periods of misgiving and bouts with the bottle. Any man who writes 80 plus novels does it more than for money alone. Even though many of his works are formulistic, seemingly dashed off without revisions, the amazing thing is the fact that so many of them are quite clever in their imaginative scope. He wrote 24 Tarzan novels alone, and although they are in many cases predictable and even trite, he managed to hold up a type of an heroic adventurer who is consistent in personality and character.
Some critics have said that Burroughs really created only one hero, who appears in various guises, and to a certain extent this is true. The man is noble, brave, strong, courteous, a loner at heart, devastatingly handsome, forever young. Yet at the same time, this hero is all too human: he makes stupid mistakes, is clumsy around women, trusts too much, and often kills his enemies without an ounce of compassion.
Like their creator, the Burroughsian hero is an arrested adolescent caught in a web of fantasy. He halfheartedly pursues women, but the consummation of the sexual act is a matter taken care of off stage, something left to the reader’s imagination. Some of his characters are hatched from eggs or partake of an odd form of progressive generation that seems closer to plants than to animals. They fall from a tree of life in quite a literal manner like so many leaves rather than birthing from a womb.
Yet, the womb is a constant theme in the Burroughsian world. However, for the most part it takes shape symbolically in the form of a series of caves or underground passageways, a Dark Mother of labyrinthian of tunnels and secret caverns that are filled with treasures, secret traps, and deadly monsters which are more often treacherous byways of death and destruction rather than doors into life.
Burroughs is a masterful guide to the unconscious mind. His episodes are often dream-like, taking place at night in ghostly or even ghastly, crumbling towers of gloom and doom. All of his worlds are past their prime, dying planets, filled with weird creatures, many of them feminine, blood-sucking, parasites, who would rob the youthful hero of his virtue and life. His lost cities are often degenerate farces of historic places, filled with mad men and women who consort with beasts or monsters to produce nightmarish creatures that can only be overcome by plunging deeper and deeper into the Stygian darkness of terror upon terror.
Yet many of his heroes are indeed rather normal human beings. They fight and love amid this darkness and these unspeakable monsters with an adolescent purity and a Galahad-like innocence. It is their very goodness and nobility of character that brings them through to the end. It is a black and white world of pulp fiction where daring acts count for more than complexity of character. The sudden thrust of a sword clears the passageway. We tiptoe past the sleeping monster, holding our breath until the next turn in the labyrinth where another poisonous fang or toothed feline is dispatched with another jab from a muscled arm. Dragons drag us under the slime, but we arise victorious until the next turn in the tunnel of an unconscious morality play without end.
Sequels follow sequels. Chapter by chapter the hero plunges through the swamps of the Burroughsian mind. He is captured and escapes; he rescues and is rescued. Every woman is a beautiful princess or a princess in disguise. They all love the hero, the perfect adolescent boy, the beloved Child of the Mother, and he chastely loves them back for as long as the monsters last. He raises them upon his pedestal of dreams; they are all goddesses, incomparable, lovely, without blemish, beyond the blinding light of lust or ravishing.
Burroughs provides us with a method of escape -- a place to go to in our darkest hours. We open the pages of his unending book, and a black tunnel suddenly reveals a bright point of light. We step naked, newly born into an amazing glow -- be it jungles that spread forever before us with beasts and men and strange cities filled with golden towers and sparkling jewels of wonder -- be it the dome of everlasting light of a sun that rolls across the heavens of the center of the earth -- be it a dusky red planet where everything moves within a dream of a dream. We face the madness of Burroughs with confidence that we will indeed live into another day. This enigma of a man has given us a precious key to worlds we have shared together.
We are all “normal beans’ who share the mystery of a glorious madness. Perhaps we will never really know the man who created these worlds, but we live in his creations freely with a strength we trust during these uncommon hours. We slip through the shadows with a power we know is there despite our own failures in ordinary life.
At times I wish I knew Burroughs’ secret life, the facts that drove this enormous engine of creative energy, but most often I don’t really care about the hidden forces that gave us adventures I can so carelessly live and live over again with each reading. All great artists have personal flaws that seem minute compared with the glories of their work. We immerse ourselves in the ninth symphony, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the dungeons of Monte Cristo where we are transformed beyond the shadows we once were. No one is a “Normal Bean.” We are all madmen at these moments, partaking of the vision of the cannibal feast. We can climb, and soar, and love with the dark secret intact despite the feathers that are slowly shed from our wings as we approach closer and closer to that raging sun.
Mad Men, Mad Women, Mad Beasts, O My!
How often we come across madness in these works of fantastic madness. Hardly a novel passes without a character who is unhinged from his or her mind. One could make a study of the great mad personalities of Edgar Rice Burroughs and come up with a book as thick as McWhorter’s or Brady’s.
There is Esteban Miranda, who thought he was Tarzan, not to mention the frequent bouts of amnesia suffered by the long-suffering Ape-Man himself. While amnesia is not madness or insanity per se, the actions of the persons under these delusions are often torn from the pages of abnormality.
How many of the cities and kings and queens of these sad realms are mad? Nemone, the Queen of Cathne, is surely insane, or at least deluded enough to commit suicide. How many mad scientists are found within these pages?
The dangers of living in a mad world are a constant theme in the works of ERB from the madness of the Dum-Dum in Tarzan of the Apes to Caligula in I Am A Barbarian. Often the hero driven nearly mad by anxiety must face mad personalities by the score. They shuffle, and mumble, and come suddenly from the darkness with frightening screams and murder in their hearts.
I wonder if there are many novels by Burroughs without the attendant mad personality? Some of his titles even reflect this penchant for insanity -- The Mad King, Tarzan and the Madman ; others mention monsters, terror, the abyss, yet these are only a hint of what lies between the pages of every novel.
Being a writer of pulp fiction with clearly defined lines of black and white, goodness and badness, normalcy and madness, Burroughs seems to enjoy placing his heroes against the the most degenerate sort of characters or madmen. Sometimes the madness displayed is a moral madness, an evil of the heart without a trace of human compassion, yet the cases of clinical insanity in his works are frequent and often terrifying because of their intensity. There is a whole mad city of Xuja in the last part of Tarzan the Untamed, which is as frightening as Bedlam.
The more I read Burroughs the more I have the feeling that his work should be placed in the genre of fantastic literature or in the realm of fairy tales. To me this is an elevation of his work, placing it in the category of classic folk literature rather than pulp fiction. Burroughs certainly has the strength of a natural teller of tales, and I believe that part of his enduring quality is his ability to touch the basic cores of themes found in the best folk literature. The real cleverness of Burroughs is his ability to span both worlds, the real and the fantastic. La of Opar is a witch, yet he does not call her one directly, so she can do witchy things without resorting to magic. She can appear and disappear behind doors and shutes and crumbling walls. Secret panels can open and close with unreal monsters that are terrifyingly real. The world of Barsoom is amazingly rich with creatures and characters taken from mythology and reformed by Burroughs’ ferile brain into solid worlds that slip away into fantasy only as far as his twists and turns of his reformed science will allow. Burroughs is a sort of Lewis Carroll with Popular Mechanics rolled in his back pocket.
If I ever find the time, I will explore these themes of madness further. For now I invite anyone who is interested in constructing a list of mad characters without hammering out my lowermost bolts on this cliff wall. I realize there are many routes to climb on this mountain.
(I began this essay as a companion piece or introduction to my most recent article in ERBapa called (pause for a long breath) “A Structural Analysis of the Expositions of Edgar Rice Burroughs: A “Work-In-Progress” on the Opening Motifs of the Novels Part One: The Motif of Anxiety and Loss.” I did not use it there, so I finished it today for my “Nkima Speaks” site when Tangor mentioned that I have not posted anything new for some time. I’m sorry to have neglected this site, but my duties on the job and my heavy reading schedule has precluded writing in my life. I hope this offering will get the wheels turning again and perhaps churn up more words from the bog of my mad mind to uncover some of the murky depths of the madman I most admire—Edgar Rice Burroughs.)
October 24, 1999