I have a scholarly interest in the historical roots of science fiction and related genres. For this reason, I sometimes seek out and read late 19th and early 20th-century fiction, both classic and “pulp”, that I have reason to believe was formative for these genres. Nowadays I read such books critically, trying to understand what they reveal about the assumptions and world-views of the authors as well as appreciating what the authors were intending as artists.
My recent readings in this category have have included some rediscovery of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs (which I read much less critically as a child). I’m presently reading for the first time the Cossack stories of Harold Lamb, rousing tales of battle and derring-do set in Russia and India and Northern Asia around the turn of the 17th century that are at least as well constructed as anything Robert Louis Stevenson or Alexandre Dumas ever wrote. As I’ve been reading, I’ve been comparing Burroughs and Lamb to Rudyard Kipling’s tales of India, and H. Rider Haggard’s lost-worlds tales of Africa, and to Talbot Mundy’s adventure stories also set in India.
One of the obligatory features of modern reactions to these books is to tut-tut at racist and colonialist stereotyping in them. This Wall Street Journal review of Lamb is typical, waxing a bit sententious about “brushes with anti-semitism” in the Cossack stories. But I’m learning to be critical about that sort of reaction, too — because, in rereading Burroughs, I began to understand that ascriptions of “racism” are an oversimplification of Burroughs every bit as crude as the stereotypes he’s often accused of trafficking in. And now, reading Lamb, I find that these “brushes with anti-Semitism” are raising more questions in my mind about the comfortable prejudices of my own time than they are about Harold Lamb’s.
The skepticism I’m now developing about ascriptions of racism in pulp fiction really began, I think, when I learned that it had become fashionable to denigrate Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and other India stories as racist. This is clearly sloppy thinking at work. Kim was deeply respectful of its non-European characters, especially the Pathan swashbuckler Mahbub Ali and Teshoo Lama. Indeed, the wisdom and compassion of Kipling’s lama impressed me so greatly as a child that I think it founded my lifelong interest in and sympathy with Buddhism.
But I didn’t begin thinking really critically about race in pulp fiction until I read Tarzan and the Castaways a few years ago and noticed something curious about the way Burroughs and his characters used the adjective “white” (applied to people). That is: while it appeared on the surface to be a racial distinction, it was actually a culturist one. In Burroughs’s terms of reference (at least as of 1939), “white” is actually code for “civilized”; the distinction between “civilized” and “savage” is actually more important than white/nonwhite, and non-Europeans can become constructively “white” by exhibiting civilized virtues.
Realizing this caused me to review my assumptions about racial attitudes in Burroughs’s time. I found myself asking whether the use of “white” as code for “civilized” was prejudice or pragmatism. Because there was this about Burrough’s European characters: (1) in their normal environments, the correlation between “civilized” and “white” would have been pretty strong, and (2) none of them seemed to have any trouble treating nonwhite but civilized characters with respect. In fact, in Burroughs’s fiction, fair dealing with characters who are black, brown, green, red, or gorilla-furred is the most consistent virtue of the white gentleman.
I concluded that, given the information available to a typical European in 1939, it might very well be that using “white” as code for “civilized” was pragmatically reasonable, and that the reflex we have today of ascribing all racially-correlated labels to actually racist beliefs is actually unfair to Burroughs and his characters!
And now we come to Harold Lamb. As with Kipling, he is routinely respectful of his Tatar, Indian, Afghani, and Chinese characters. Much of the overplot of his tales of Khlit the Cossack is concerned with his discovery that he is partly of Mongol blood, and his rise to become Ka Khan of the Jungars. Throughout his books, his characters form strong personal loyalties that cross racial and cultural lines. No good sword-arm is to be despised on account of the color of its skin.
Indeed, Lamb’s religious prejudices are more obtrusive than any racial ones. Christianity, Islam and to a lesser extent Hinduism get respect, but not so Mongol shamanism — and Lamb’s slant on Tibetan religion is so thoroughly nasty that it reads oddly to a modern eye. To be fair, Lamb was writing before the Western discovery of Buddhist thought in the 1930s, and his understanding of even the Bon/animist tradition is obviously minimal to nonexistent. He may simply not have had the information to do any better.
The “brushes with anti-Semitism” lie in Lamb’s portrayal of the Jewish merchants of the time. They sell the Cossacks clothes, weapons, food, and gunpowder and turn the freebooters’ loot into cash. They are depicted as avaricious, cowardly, mean, and quite willing to toady to the warriors and princes they serve. How are we to interpret this in light of Lamb’s sympathetic portrayals of a dozen other races and cultures?
Of course it’s possible Lamb was simply replaying anti-Semitic attitudes he had absorbed somewhere. But in reading these stories I had another moment like the one in which I understood that Burroughs was using “white” as culturist code for “civilized”. It was this: the behavior of Lamb’s Jewish merchants made adaptive sense. Maybe they were really like that!
Consider: The Jews of Lamb’s milieu lived under Christian and Islamic rulers who forbade them from carrying weapons, who despised them, who taxed and persecuted them with a heavy hand. If you were a Jew in that time and place, exhibiting courage and the warrior virtues that Lamb was so ready to recognize in a Mongol or an Afghani was likely to earn you a swift and ugly death.
Under those conditions, I’m thinking that being cowardly and avaricious and toadying would have been completely sensible; after all, what other options than flattering the authorities and getting rich enough to buy themselves out of trouble did Jews actually have?
Lamb seems to have have mined the historical sources pretty assiduously in his portrayals of other cultures and races. Rather than dismissing Lamb’s Jews as creatures of his prejudices, I think we need to at least consider the possibility that he was mostly replaying period beliefs about Jewish merchants, and that those beliefs were in fact fairly accurate. He certainly seems to have tried to do something similar with the other flavors of human being in his books.
Nowadays we tend to interpret Lamb’s Jewish merchants through assumptions that read something like this: (1) All racial labels are indications of racist thinking, and (2) all race-associated stereotypes are necessarily false, and (3) all racial labels and race-related stereotypes are malicious. But it seems to me that, at least as I read Burroughs and Lamb, all these assumptions are highly questionable. As long as you hold them, you can’t notice what “whiteness” in Burroughs really means, or account for the genuine multiculturalism of Lamb’s books.
I am not aiming to completely clear Kipling, Burroughs, or Lamb of every charge of racial or cultural particularism. What I am trying to show is that our modern, “enlightened” leap to judgment on these issues is itself a form of prejudice that oversimplifies the way these authors (and their characters, and their readers!) thought about race and culture. This prejudice enables us to feel comfortably superior to them and to our ancestors in general, but it is unjustified.
Consider Kipling’s famous lines: “But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!” It’s a sentiment that breathes from every page of the Lamb novels. If we persist in imputing racism to these authors, I suggest that is not their fears and faults and obsessions we are discovering, but rather our own.