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Hisland and Herland: The Macho Mars of John Carter and Gilman's Feminist Utopia

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This month marks the centennial of Edgar Rice Burroughs's swashbuckling, stilted, lusty, improbable and undeniably influential Princess of Mars, released this month as a Disney movie, John Carter, nudged into respectability with rewriting help from Pulitzer Prize-winning Michael Chabon -- one of the many men whose boyhood fantasies were enlivened by Burroughs's planetary romances.

Other devotees of the John Carter world -- which includes a planet named "Barsoom," a buxom princess named "Dejah Thoris," and a furry creature called a "Woola" -- include James Cameron (spot the "Avatar" similarities) and George Lucas (hear, in the sounds of Burroughs's invented language, the very seeds of "Star Wars" world-building).

No doubt less celebrated three years from now will be another speculative-fiction centennial, the publication of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, a path-breaking feminist utopian fantasy, forgotten for many decades before achieving resurrection in more recent print and e-book editions.

In some ways, the books couldn't be more different. Princess of Mars is violent, action-packed, and unapologetically ridiculous. (John Carter is transported without explanation to Mars; cold-hearted alien females produce eggs and yet still have breasts). It is also, against all odds, intensely beloved.

At the age of ten in 1930, in Waukegan, Ill., Ray Bradbury annoyed every other child for miles by obsessively quoting from the Mars story, a precursor to his own Martian Chronicles twenty years later.

In 1940s New York, another compulsive youngster, Carl Sagan, fell into equally fervent John Carter swoons. Sagan once recalled, "I can remember spending an hour in my boyhood, arms resolutely outstretched in an empty field, imploring what I believed to be Mars to transport me there."

Herland, Gilman's playful novel about three male explorers who stumble upon a peaceful, advanced, women-only society in the remote Amazon, has been admired and kept in circulation as a feminist classic. But it does not inspire the same kind of giddy nostalgia.

Expectations modest, I read Herland anyway--and was unexpectedly charmed by it, just as I was surprisingly disappointed in the testosterone-addled clumsiness of Princess of Mars. For me, the less-loved classic was the nearly forgotten treasure, while the soon-to-be-famous-again classic was laughably bad.

But the two books together add up to a portrait of innovative fiction one century ago. Each novel illuminates the other -- and behind each stand authors whose lives were comparably fascinating as well.

In 1911, Edgar Rice Burroughs -- the future author not only of the John Carter books, but also Tarzan and close to 70 other novels -- was a desperate man.

At 35 years old, a husband and father of two children, Burroughs worked for low wages at a pencil sharpener company. In his free time, he read "rot" in the pulps and assumed that anyone could write better. Scribbling on scratch pads at work, the man who desired escape from earth -- or at least from a salesman's desk -- started on his Mars story, depicting a red planet of canals that owed much to the 1895 speculations of astronomer Percival Lowell.

Burroughs was embarrassed and unsure at least until the midpoint. He kept the story from his wife, and even later, when the novel was accepted for serialization in All-Story magazine (for $400), he intended to write under a sarcastic pseudonym: Normal Bean. (A typesetter's annoying mistake -- to Norman from Normal -- changed Burroughs's mind, and he dropped the charade altogether.)

Burroughs likened his writing of the story to "dressing myself in a boy scout suit and running from home to fight Indians." It was a fitting comment for this time period, less than twenty years after the American frontier had officially been declared "closed," during which old fears and fantasies both sought an imaginative replacement.

How fitting, too, that Princess of Mars starts with one kind of old-fashioned escapism -- John Carter, a Civil War veteran and miner is on the run from murderous Apache Indians -- before launching into another, almost as if Burroughs couldn't imagine his way into a new, still-radical and unnamed genre without getting a running start in an old one. Safe from the Apaches, Carter falls asleep in a cave, wakes up, goes outside, looks at the planet Mars, and -- zing -- he is suddenly there.

Burroughs's original editor cited this as a weak point, calling the Mars transport sequence too casual and vague. (He also said the opening was slow and the entire story was too long-winded, especially when the supposedly taciturn Martians launched into speeches of several thousand words.) Fantasy always requires an immense suspension of incredulity, but usually there is some object or talisman that helps the reader leap: a wardrobe that leads into Narnia, a ring or sword that confers power. How did Burroughs forget such a basic rule?

But the very lack of explanation clearly convinced more readers than it alienated -- convinced them, that they, too, could dream improbable dreams and perhaps, with no more than a longing gaze, find themselves traveling through space. Carl Sagan, grown up and on faculty at Cornell, still had a John Carter poster hanging outside his office.

Like Burroughs's editor, I was put off by this clumsy plot catalyst, and further bothered as the novel proceeds. John Carter lands on Mars, meets various red and green people, and responds to the slightest incident or comment by slaying his planetary hosts on the spot. In the novel, this impulsive behavior, displayed among warrior peoples, earns Carter instant honor, as well as material rewards.

But to insist on reacting (as I did) to the novel's odd and sometimes insensible plot and cardboard characterization is to miss its unique appeal. As Ray Bradbury noted in a 1975 forward to a biography of Burroughs, early readers already had their share of thoughtful, idea-driven adventure writers -- better writers than Burroughs, including Jules Verne and Rudyard Kipling. What Burroughs provided was something altogether more urgent, and also more American: Wildness. Lack of reason. Romance and blood. Stories that informed readers that they "must die in order to live," whether in jungles, on the moon, or on Mars.

Burroughs was an escapist. Upon sitting down to write Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman had already narrowly escaped, and had become a reformer.

Just as Burroughs had found himself almost fatally suffocated by convention and expectation -- the world wanted him to be a typical businessman, something he hadn't managed to succeed at -- Gilman had nearly perished under the constraints of Victorian womanhood.

Following the birth of her daughter Katharine, Perkins had spent three desperate years in the clutches of depression. A specialist in nervous disorders had instructed her in 1887: "Live as domestic a life as possible... Have but two hours' intellectual life a day. And never touch a pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live."

Devastated by that prescription, Gilman rebelled. She left her husband Walter and set about rescuing herself, embarking upon on a new life as a feminist writer and lecturer. A childhood friend of Gilman's, Grace Channing, later married Walter, and Gilman agreed that young Katharine would live with the new couple. The unconventional arrangement seemed to suit everyone.

Gilman later remarried and found success as an author of serious nonfiction books, beginning with Women and Economics. In 1909, she founded a magazine, Forerunner, for which she supplied all the text, including fiction. Three of Gilman's own novels were serialized in the magazine. Herland was the second.

Gilman's work was largely forgotten at mid-century but rediscovered by late second-wave feminists, who revived Women and Economics in 1966. Her most famous, autobiographically-inspired short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper" -- about a young woman being treated for depression by a patriarchal physician-husband whose treatment only makes her more ill -- was reprinted in 1973. The first book printing of the originally serialized Herland followed six years later.

Burroughs's John Carter books celebrate unreason -- the joyful impulsiveness of the adventurer in a world where recklessness is rewarded and where brawn matters more than brains.

Gilman's Herland celebrates the opposite. It is a book of instruction, a political and philosophical argument made more entertaining thanks to its exotic setting and gently satirical humor as the book's three male protagonists (each representing a different male attitude or "type") respond to, resist, and finally learn from the strange world they discover.

In classic utopian form, Herland tries to sketch out new ideas for how a society could be modeled, with an emphasis on freeing women from strictly defined gender roles. The frivolous trappings of Gilman's own Victorian world -- the "cult of feminine domesticity," silly feathered hats and gems and baubles, dresses and uncomfortable shoes -- are unknown in this advanced civilization. The women wear trousers and short hair; they run and climb trees. Freed from physical and cultural limitations, the women enjoy an easy affluence, individual freedom to pursue meaningful work, peaceful vegetarianism, and progressive ideals in a wholesome, natural setting. The male narrator, Vandyck Jennings, marvels: "Everything was beauty, order, perfect cleanness..."

By novel's end, Jennings has become attuned to this radical society: "We were now well used to seeing women not as females but as people; people of all sorts, doing every kind of work."
Different in purpose, tone, and reception, Princess of Mars and Herland nonetheless have much in common.

Both speculative fiction novels convey views on socialism (Gilman: good, Burroughs: bad), and especially about socialist forms of child-raising. Burroughs seemed to think that communal care would turn children into unloved little beasts. Gilman thought it would liberate women who weren't as skilled at mothering and produce superior, happier children.

Both reflect imperialist concerns. In Burroughs's vision, a white man travels to an exotic civilization and saves it. In Gilman's, white men travel to a superior civilization and learn something from it.

Gilman, usually a serious writer, let down her hair in 1915, and Herland is surprisingly funny, giving the best lines to the male characters. (Unfortunately, the perfect women are bland and forgettable.) Burroughs keeps a straight face throughout, but modern-day fans like Chabon read between the stilted lines and find satire, cultural commentary, and dry humor.

Both novels illustrate the power of literature to enlarge public imagination, to conjure different worlds and different forms of cultural problem-solving, whether way off in space, or in hidden places on our own planet. And finally, both novels illustrate what America, through its movies and its proto-genre literary experiments, contributes to world culture: a belief in the power of pure imagination, whether aimed towards escapist or reformist ends. Without Burroughs it's hard to imagine Star Wars; without Gilman, it's hard to imagine Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

While the upcoming release of John Carter will practically guarantee a celebration of Burroughs's influence, some cake and champagne should be saved for Gilman, too. Burroughs was daring and desperate enough to imagine an alien planet. But Gilman, a Victorian-era survivor, imagined something even more bold: a time and place where gender alone would not doom a person to a life of prescribed confinement, drudgery, or madness.