The following article first appeared in The Burroughs Bulletin, New Series #53, 2003. This version contains images and a format that are not found in the original publication. For subscription information to The Burroughs Bulletin see: tarzan.org.
A-ROVING: An Analysis of Pirate Blood
David Bruce Bozarth
Introduction & Afterword by David Arthur Adams
Copyright © 2002, 2003
Introduction: by Adams
It is unlikely that ERB's 1932 novella Pirate Blood is on many list of favorites, indeed this story which languished in the company safe for fifteen years, has been for the most part passed over in silence. Like many of the non-Tarzan or non-Barsoomian novels, it has received a perfunctory reading at best then was quickly forgotten as an aberration and consigned to the pile of unforgettable scraps of trifles found in the oeuvre of every author. Burroughs readers, for the most part, have viewed Pirate Blood as an unpolished curiosity, and devoted their attention to the remaining body of work.
Pirate Blood, however, is more than a curiosity! John Taliaferro, in his recent biography "Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan" (1999), dwelt on the sub-theme of eugenics found in Pirate Blood, a branch of science—years later proven to be without true scientific merit, yet was generally accepted during the era when ERB was writing. Taliferro, unfortunately, missed the excitement of Pirate Blood by focusing on such a limited examination of the novel.
In 2000, as part of the ERBList Summary Project at http://www.erblist.com, an interesting, and perhaps more valuable, analysis of Pirate Blood was written by David Bruce Bozarth. His views on Pirate Blood are unique and will be welcomed by fans who are curious about the possible reasons for the existence of this wayward manuscript. Any writer of historical fiction might sit down and conjure up a smashing tale based upon the real life of Jean Lafitte, yet this is not the character we meet in ERB's Johnny Lafitte. Bozarth's essay explains this mystery and uncovers the answers to many other questions one might have about this little tale. His comments provide us with an new perspective on Pirate Blood from the viewpoint of a writer, for this Internet ERB guru is the author of a host of extremely well-written pastiches based upon the life and works of the master of adventure. While working with Mr. Bozarth on our ERBlist Summary Project, I have had the pleasure of hearing his enthusiastic conversations about the hidden qualities of Pirate Blood, so when this piece came due for a BB cover, I immediately thought of his good work and am happy to be able to share these comments and ideas with a wider audience.
Preface: by Bozarth
David A. Adams is one of several ERB fans and scholars who find my "between the lines" understanding of Pirate Blood to be intriguing. When I first read Pirate Blood I immediately saw the flaws and weakness in writing. I knew in an instant that the story in hand was not like any other by Burroughs. I, of course, read it in a rush when first obtained as a filler in the Wizard of Venus Ace edition, but almost as soon as I finished reading the story I wondered: Noble Experiment or Desperation? Pirate Blood perplexed me.
I was twenty-one when I first read Pirate Blood. It was not until I was fifty-one and an author just a few years younger than ERB when he wrote the novel that I understood where he wanted to go. I put myself in his shoes: What would I, as an aging writer in 1932 looking back over recently penned tales Jungle Girl, Fighting Man of Mars, Tarzan the Invincible, Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County, Tarzan Triumphant, Tarzan and the Leopard Men, and Pirates of Venus, want to do next?
At the time ERB wrote Pirate Blood there was only "one" which might have taken it. Spicy Tales began in 1928. However, just a few years after Burroughs wrote Pirate Blood, by 1935, there were 36 such pulps... but by then Ed had moved on to other, more certain to sell, stories.
A living would have to be made, so in 1932 Burroughs wrote Lost on Venus, the short piece "Edgar Rice Burroughs Tells All," and a little novella entitled Pirate Blood. Bored with off world stories, bored with Tarzan, Burroughs had an idea to write a South Seas adventure that might sell to the pulp magazine market which was gradually diversifying into more risque titles like "Spicy Tales" if he couldn't sell it to his regular markets. This might be something which went through the mind of Burroughs as he sat again to his typewriter determined to produce something he might sell. Yet there appears to have been a minor perversity during the writing of Pirate Blood—a "let's see how far we can stretch the envelope" attitude.
Burroughs wrote bad boys and bad girls into every novel and this dichotomy of "good or bad" is the bread and butter of the ERB Formula. Pirate Blood, however, started out with the same ERB presentation, then subtly changed. Daisy Jukes, for example, was the not quite nice girl who was Johnny's secret desire, and when young Lafitte, the motorcycle cop pulled her over driving drunk while speeding down a road near Glenora, California, was not quite the hero when he looked the other way. By so little does so much change. The article which follows contains my observations regarding a rough gem in ERB's bibliography which has been overlooked, ignored, and sadly underrated for value and potential.
Pirate Blood - Novel Synopsis
(for a more detailed chapter by chapter synopsis see http://www.erblist.com):
Johnny Lafitte, a descendent of Jean Lafitte, the Corsair of the Gulf of Mexico, is a native of Glenora, California and one of the less socially fortunate in the community. He is always second string in school or the football field, secretly desiring a local girl who does not reciprocate. Later, as a motorcycle cop, there is a robbery Lafitte halts, but he fails in part: the money is thrown from the criminal's dirigible but Lafitte is an unwilling passenger. Thousands of miles later, after storms and the criminal's suicide, Lafitte parachutes to an island in the middle of battle between pirate bands. He survives and joins The Vulture's pirate colony. He rises to the top, becoming a pirate while The Vulture recuperates. Meanwhile, he has a relationship with The Vulture's mistress. Lafitte's piracy and kidnaping continues until The Vulture recovers and suspects the relationship. Lafitte's lover, when faced with exposure, clubs Lafitte to escape The Vulture's wrath. Johnny is placed on a ship to Singapore where The Vulture kidnaps a whore of extraordinary beauty—who turns out to be Lafitte's secret love from Glenora. The girl confesses her excesses and heredity, commits suicide, and Johnny barely escapes death by leaping overboard. He joins up with The Vulture's sworn pirate enemy, makes friends among the crew, and eventually The Vulture's island is stormed. During the battle Lafitte learns his lover actually loves him. The chief pirates (The Vulture and The Portugese) are slain, Lafitte and La Diablessa leave the islands, and the pirates remaining in the South Seas continue to be pirates.
PIRATE BLOOD: An Analysis
Pirate Blood feels like a first draft, particularly the second half which reads like an action-packed outline (ie. Chapters 1-6=40 pages, logical and leisurely paced, Chapters 7-13=60 pages, just short of incoherent and furiously paced). That Ed Burroughs allowed a high action novella with few redeeming characteristics to languish from 1932 until his death in 1950 is not surprising. The premise of heredity vs. environment was valid as a plot device even as recently as the late 1960's, but the sketchy and bare-bones presentation as found in the manuscript offers little to no exploration of the theme. Pirate Blood was obviously written in a rush of passion and Burroughs probably intended to revise and expand entire sections, most especially Johnny Lafitte's second year on the Vulture's island. It is during this period that Lafitte and La Diablessa, the Vulture's unwilling mistress, embark upon their secret love affair. The "romance" of need and carnal desire between these characters would have been the heart and soul desperately needed to endear us to our man with "Pirate Blood" and his ruined woman.
Burroughs apparently realized the near impossibility of setting down the details of that romance without requiring exposition filled with more sexuality than he or his audience—or the censors—might bear. Revision and expansion may have been intended; yet, I feel Ed Burroughs had no heart for the project knowing that few, if any, publishers would be willing to accept such a cold-blooded tale of illicit love. The world that Edgar Rice Burroughs knew was not yet ready for such torrid and steamy tales.
South Seas pirates are not unusual fixtures in Burroughs' stories. Readers were introduced to the profession of cutthroat pirates as early as The Monster Men (1913) and the first part of The Mucker (1914). What makes the pirate lead character in Burroughs' 1932 romp through the waters of the South Pacific different is that Johnny Lafitte, a California motorcycle policeman, enters the pirate society and rapidly rises to the top as The Vulture's second in command. For nearly two years Johnny Lafitte leads raids on shipping in the waters near the pirates' island stronghold, murdering ship crews and stealing women and children who are forced into a life of slavery and breeding farm for the pirates. Lafitte takes goods from the captured ships—or occasionally takes a ship as prize. Why is this distinction important? Lafitte was apparently law-abiding then chose the pirate life!
The descent from Law to Piracy is, of course, the main theme to Pirate Blood. This theme is most recognized by readers; yet, Pirate Blood is a little more complicated than Taliferro's declaration that Burroughs merely implied eugenics to suggest Good Guy Goes Bad Because He Has Bad Genes. Pirate Blood is also a study of Johnny Lafitte having little or nothing as a youth in Glenora, California. He's second best in school and on the football field and after graduation can't find a good paying job. The background offered by Burroughs is a case of Have and Have Not. Most criminals in America's prisons fall into this category because case studies show these criminals say they cannot help their actions because of deprivation of opportunity and advantage as children and because of evil influence by their environment. This is the second theme sometimes recognized by readers of Pirate Blood.
There is a third theme, one more obscure and well in advance of the mainstream writers of the 1960s who would take to that third theme to heart to expand and embellish into a very successful literary genre: Romance; however, Romance with a touch of chili pepper, sex, and dark themes. Burroughs was not above writing about dark cultures such as drugs and sex in early Hollywood or prostitution in Chicago, nor was he above writing a sympathetic viewpoint of those minor characters engaged in such professions, but Pirate Blood is the only time ERB placed a principal character in such a sordid venue and have that character take advantage of the possibilities. Pirate Blood is The Mucker in reverse. Billy Byrne, the burly gangster in The Mucker works to rise above his background and past deeds, Johnny Lafitte turns his back on his upbringing and almost eagerly embraces lawlessness and murder. Pirate Blood is the story of a hero with flaws, serious character flaws!
In the final analysis, Lafitte greatly benefits from his ill deeds. Burroughs purists will cry that "he did only what was necessary to save himself!" and in part that is correct, but few will be able to explain the illegitimate pregnancy of Lafitte's lady friend or the couple's wealthy and comfortable life as enjoyed in Europe at the end of this tale of murder and lust. As written, there is no happy ending, but there is a happy escape.
Burroughs purists might disagree that Lafitte impregnated La Diablesa—The Vulture's unwilling mistress who took the American policeman as a lover while her pirate master was laid up by a long convalescence. The passage below, a passionate dialogue made by the woman to Lafitte, represents the third theme, Likeable Flawed Hero With A Libido, which deals with the pregnancy:
"Before the two months are past he will kill me, for by then he will know. Only yesterday he told me that I should take better care of my figure, that I was getting too fat." (Page 129, Wizard of Venus, Ace 1973)
Burroughs' male characters had sex with their women off page and many impregnated the female characters. For example, Tarzan had a son, Carter had a son and daughter, but these children were conceived under the guise of righteous union between man and woman in the eyes of the readers. La Diablessa's child with Lafitte, however, is not only out of wedlock, the child is produced in dangerous secret from the man who owns the life and body of the woman Lafitte desires—the man who trusted Lafitte to operate the "family business" while he lay on his sick bed.
If one were to come upon this tale cold, not knowing any other writing by a man with the name of "Edgar Rice Burroughs," it might be paged through with amusement at its crudities and be quickly consigned to the dust bin of pulp fiction triviality. Yet, knowing the body of his work, its usual tone and tenor, we realize that Burroughs was saying something different in Pirate Blood.
After a brief Introduction, the story is told in a first-person-singular voice, and to readers of Burroughs the voice is familiar, yet somehow different in its matter-of-fact brevity. Johnny Lafitte sets out to write what he calls his "autobiography" and mentions the fact that he is the great-great-great grandson of the "French corsair of the Gulf of Mexico." In the days of ERB's prime, we might have gotten a yarn of swashbuckling swordplay and high heroics, yet this little story is harsher and grittier than those wonder tales of old. He wrote:
"We slit the throats of those we didn't want and dumped their bodies into the sea. I didn't want to do it, but there was no other way."
And these are the words of the hero of the tale! This was certainly a departure from the man who wrote of the noble and chivalrous deeds of John Carter and Lord Greystoke. He goes on to explain:
"To some it may seem a dirty business, but I am not writing this to win converts or sympathy. I believe that an autobiography should tell the truth . . ."
But what a different kind of truth for Edgar Rice Burroughs! In reality, the truth is ERB did not have a suitable market for Pirate Blood and the themes presented were more dark than what his readers might have accepted from the man who had created Tarzan and Barsoom. Perhaps Pirate Blood should have remained in the company safe. Perhaps the world of literature had to evolve to a more gritty level before Pirate Blood could be published. Answering these questions is reason enough to give this story a much closer reading than has been ventured in the past.
Afterword: by Adams
Jean Lafitte was a real figure in history and was known as "The Corsair," by the poet Lord Byron, "The Buccaneer" by Cecil B. DeMille, "The King of Barataria," "The Terror of the Gulf," and "The Hero of New Orleans." He was an enigma, known for his piracy, yet lauded for his heroism in the Battle of New Orleans. He hated being called a pirate, preferring "privateer," serving a vital economic purpose in a part of the nation that the American government overlooked. As a result, he won the praise of the local people, rich and poor alike.
Jean Lafitte was adored by women, who regarded him as a handsome charmer. His birth place is a mystery even today; he was well read and spoke four languages; he was a master swordsman, taking on duels with an easy smile, and never lost a bout. He was a cultured, placid gentleman with a sometimes ferocious temper and had moves like a loosened panther. In short, he was a John Carter in the flesh. (Geringer)
A particularly entertaining book on pirates was published in 1995 by David Cordingly called Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates. His purpose was "to examine the popular image of pirates today, to find out where this image came from and to compare it with the real world of pirates." In his study Cordingly points out that "there has been piracy since the earliest times" and he mentions Greeks, Romans, Vikings and Danes. His time line for the "great age of piracy" begins in the 1650's and is "brought to an abrupt end around 1725, when naval patrols drove the pirates from their lairs and mass hangings eliminated many of their leaders." Obviously, Jean Lafitte was not one of these golden-age Spanish Main pirates, but rather one of the nineteenth century romantics sung by Walter Scott, Captain Marryat, R.M. Ballantyne, and most notably, Robert Louis Stevenson.
ERB's Johnny Lafitte certainly fits into this pattern of the romantic pirate. He was Byron's "Corsair," described by Cordingly as one who "combined the vices of a Gothic villain with the ideals of the noble outlaw." He relates the story of Byron's dread pirate Conrad as follows:
"Conrad rescues a lovely slave girl from the harem of the Turkish Pacha. She brings him a dagger so that he may kill his enemy the Pacha while he is sleeping. Conrad decides against such a cowardly act, whereupon the slave girl murders the Pacha herself. They escape to Conrad's pirate island. There Conrad learns that Medora, the love of his life, is dead from grief in the mistaken belief that he has been killed. Conrad is in despair. He sails away and is never heard of again."
I would imagine that Byron's epic poem gets about the same number of readers as Pirate Blood does today. As Lord Byron wrote:
"Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we'll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon."
- Bozarth, David Bruce. Pirate Blood, Summarized, http://www.erblist.com/piratesum.html, 2000.
- Bloom, Harold and Trilling, Lionel. Romantic Poetry and Prose, Oxford University Press, 1973.
- Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates, Random House, 1995.
- Geringer, Joseph: Jean Lafitte: Gentleman Pirate of New Orleans. http://www.crime/library.com/americana/lafitte/main.htm