Books: March-April 2006

March 31, 2006

Brother Men: The Correspondence of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Herbert T. Weston
Brother Men: The Correspondence of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Herbert T. Weston
By Edgar Rice Burroughs and Herbert T. Weston. Edited by Matt Cohen.
Duke University Press, 2005. 310 pages. $21.95, paper.

This correspondence traces the history of a friendship. Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) and Herbert T. Weston (1876-1951), both youngest sons of wealthy Midwestern businessmen, met as cadets at Michigan Military Academy in Orchard Lake, probably in the autumn of 1893, when Burroughs was eighteen and Weston seventeen years old. Once graduated from MMA, Burroughs balked at remaining in the family business, American Battery Company in Chicago. Instead, after a brief stint in the Army, he bounced from minor job to job for more than a decade.

Then, in 1911, when he was thirty-five, he discovered his extraordinary gift for popular writing and launched the John Carter stories and Tarzan adventures that made him one of the most widely read authors of the twentieth century. At last a success on his own terms, in 1919 he slammed the door on his Chicago past and moved to the San Fernando Valley in southern California, where he gave his most famous character's name to a ranch, now the Los Angeles suburb of Tarzana. Weston, by contrast, after graduating from Yale's Sheffield Scientific School, dutifully took up his post in the family bank in Beatrice, Nebraska, and started Nebraska Corn Mills, staying in Gage County, albeit with frequent travels, the rest of his life.

"I have a recollection of the day I arrived" at Michigan Military Academy, Weston recalled in a 1927 letter, "and you hard-boiled up to me and asked if I had ever played football. I blushingly replied that I had played two games as end on the Nebraska 'Varsity [sic], and you almost kissed me!" Their correspondence might be seen as a continuing effort to sustain this youthful affection despite physical separation, pressures of work and family, and other divergences in their lives. Even though the letters continued to flow between them for four decades, sometimes frequently, at others, desultorily, and with silences lasting as long as five years, the period of their most intense friendship was, from the outset, far behind them, encased in the glowing amber of youth. Already by the time of the Great War, when they were in their early forties, they speak of themselves as "old" and "decrepit," and receding hairlines and expanding waistlines are a staple of their humor.

Burroughs was a disciplined professional author, yet news of his actual writing plays little part in these letters. When he does mention his work, it is often in the jocular pose of "poor, struggling young author" to Weston's "poor man" in banter that they kept up for decades. "Everything is moving about the same here," Burroughs wrote in a typical exchange in 1928. "I am trying to work hard on new stories in the constant battle against the wolf of which you plutocrats know nothing." Nonetheless, Weston's admiration for Burroughs' gift emerges unmistakably: "You know, and I well know, that you have something which make [sic] a tremedous [sic] popular appeal," Weston wrote in 1933. "You have had many immitators [sic], as I well know, and not one of them has got to even First Base. There is some g-d----d spark which you possess which just bars competition."

Yet apart from Burroughs' own work, the two ignore literature. Instead, seasoned with frequent damns and exclamation points, their topics are the standard businessmen's clubroom and parlor-car fare of the period: family, football, photography, animals, automobiles, old school chums, investments (including joint, ill-fated speculations in a proposed Los Angeles airport and an airplane engine, two Burroughs enthusiasms), illness, death, taxes, politics (both were lifelong Republicans), prohibition, drinking, gambling, travel, the weather, and the relative advantages of the Nebraska and Southern California climates. They revered Theodore Roosevelt and admired Charles Lindbergh and Wendell Wilkie.

By 1940, when the U.S. was teetering on the brink of another war, Weston excoriated the "scum of Middle Europe" he saw in New York City. In reply, Burroughs propounded his own ruthless updating of the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. Within the Western hemisphere, he fulminated, "If we discover that fifth column infiltration has made any country a menace to us, we shouldn't stand on ceremony or international law or ethics--we should just wipe that country off the face of the earth."

After such armchair aerobic exercises, Burroughs and Weston cooled down with nostalgic recollections. In the same letter in which Burroughs imagined wholesale extermination, he added, "You're goddam right, the horse-and-buggy days were the best! What we didn't know about, we didn't miss. We didn't have Brain Trusters, New Deals, Hitlers, Stalins, Mussolinis, Jim Farley, or FDR. We didn't know when we were well off. We got along very well with one horse open sleighs, Annie Rooney, Anna Held, E.H. Sothern, Lillian Russell, Charles Dana Gibson, Graustark, and Jerome K. Jerome. Twenty-five miles an hour was too fast and Western Union was fast enough."

Matt Cohen, an assistant professor of English at Duke and a great-grandson of Herbert Weston, provides helpful notes. His critical introduction, however, is addressed to the relative handful of cultural historians immersed in debates "about the nature of male subjectivity and the uses of homosocial intimacy," and his critical jargon will baffle most readers. Certainly, he provides an informative historical context for Burroughs and Weston's lives, but his cultural analyses often seem labored, and his generalizations about the broader significance of this correspondence unsupported.


Sermons from Duke Chapel: Voices from "A Great Towering Church"Sermons from Duke Chapel: Voices from "A Great Towering Church"
William H. Willimon, editor.
Duke University Press, 2005. 384 pages. $34.95.

Can you remember your first glimpse of Duke Chapel? Mine was as a young teenager. The spectacular scene as my father's car turned onto Chapel Drive made a strong impression on my adolescent psyche: Something was quite significant about this university. While I might wish to think my decision to enroll was fully intellectual, I cannot deny the emotional hook set that day.

Many a guest speaker also has felt a degree of awe from the Chapel pulpit. Former Dean of the Chapel William Willimon notes that the cavernous edifice can challenge preachers. Lighting makes it difficult for speakers to see their audience and to be seen.

Willimon relates that once after he "had preached as well as I knew how, a woman grasped my hand as I stood at the door and said, 'Would you please tell the lady who preached this morning that I thought she had a thoughtful sermon?' "

"I prayed that she had been seated in the last row," he deadpans.

To commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of Duke Chapel's groundbreaking, Sermons from Duke Chapel assembles fifty-eight notable sermons delivered there. The collection reflects diversity in theme and viewpoint. Speakers from Paul Tillich to Billy Graham have addressed war, racism, forgiveness, gender equality, literature, joy, the afterlife, and more. Willimon, now Methodist Bishop for North Alabama, notes that the Chapel has hosted "just about every prominent woman preacher in American Protestantism," around a dozen Catholics, four rabbis, and numerous African-American preachers.

Snapshots of several recurring themes can give a preview of the collection. Race relations figure prominently. In 1956, Duke religion professor Shelton Smith lamented the "anti-Christian assumption" that "the Negro is humanly inferior to the white man. In the final analysis, our dual racist structure in the South rests upon that belief." Smith advocated a biblical position: "There is neither Jew nor Greek... neither slave nor free; ... for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).

By 1978, Clarence G. Newsome '72, M.Div. '75, Ph.D. '82, then an instructor in the Divinity School and one of Duke's first African-American doctoral candidates, was expounding from the Chapel pulpit on God's nature and modern times. Newsome, now president of Shaw University and a Duke trustee, concluded that "in a society where permissiveness is the rule ... this God of love and righteousness is still the standard."

The need for forgiveness, which defines many human relationships, is another sermon theme. In 1963, German pastor Martin Niemˆller told of imprisonment by Nazis in the Dachau concentration camp. From his solitary-confinement cell, he could see the gallows on which his comrades were hanged and imagined invoking God's wrath should executioners come for him. Then he reflected gratefully that Jesus "died a different way," praying "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!" Niemˆller said he needed inner strength from a relationship with God--not merely Christian principles--to have such an attitude.

Several sermons highlight coping with disappointment and difficulty. In 1957, Divinity School ethics professor Waldo Beach noted that in a success-driven culture, universities "need also to educate for failure, for tragedy, for the perversities of human nature, the letdowns of human existence...." In 1994, Divinity School preaching professor Carol Marie Noren compared a biblical storm at sea with storms of life that can test faith. She said the story of Jesus' disciples' fear during a storm held good news for those who, like her, could identify more closely with the fear of the "fainthearted followers ... than with the courage of modern martyrs." Human weakness, she maintained, can be a channel for divine power.

I laughed aloud as sociology professor Tony Campolo described entering a crowded New York skyscraper elevator, facing the sophisticated but joyless strangers, and suggesting they all sing "You are My Sunshine" to pass time on the lengthy ascent. They sang. This evangelical social activist's sermon deftly blends the social imperative of Jesus' mission with the spiritual emphasis on knowing God personally as he focuses on childlike joy.

In discussing important social issues and ultimate questions, the collection provides reactions to history as it happened. June 9, 1968, four days after Robert F. Kennedy's assassination, Duke theology professor Thor Hall scrapped his planned sermon to speak about killing. In September 1973, Billy Graham told his audience "There's a little bit of Watergate in all of us." He called on the entire nation, both Republicans and Democrats--his own party, he noted--to turn to God to restore the nation's soul.

These sermons evoked in me reflection, inspiration, occasional disagreement, and applause--as one might expect of oration emanating from a spiritual centerpiece in a marketplace of ideas. Reading and following text written for auditory rather than visual consumption can be challenging, however. Imagining speakers I had heard delivering their lines orally became my communication facilitator as I read.

In the book's final sermon, which he himself delivered in 2003, Willimon noted that his Chapel audience routinely rated music higher than the sermons. "I try not to take it personally," he quipped. "We have spent years educating you into the conceit that you have all you need to grasp the world ... to get the truth ... to ... make money off of your knowledge," he told students. Yet the Chapel, Willimon continued, explores truth that is larger and difficult to grasp. "I am the way, the truth, and the life," he said, quoting Jesus. "You don't grasp him; he grasps you."