Official Edgar Rice Burroughs Tribute and Weekly Webzine Site
Since 1996 ~ Over 15,000 Web Pages in Archive
Volume 7181

Part One: Moods, Characters, and Themes
by Alan Hanson

Click for full-size promo splash bar

 Smoking in ERB’s Fiction I
by Alan Hanson
Harold Bince had a fatal habit. Oh sure, the immediate cause of his death was a sudden meeting with the concrete of a Chicago sidewalk. The evening edition of the Chicago newspapers had all the details. Bince, having just been exposed as the murderer of his boss, walked briskly across the courtroom and leaped through an open window to his death four stories below. In doing so, though, he was merely choosing his own form of execution. For the real cause of Harold’s demise, we have to go back to the night of the murder. Having just shot his employer to death, Bince descended the stairway to the street level. Prior to stepping out of the main entrance, however, Bince felt the fatal urge. He struck a match on the door panel to light a cigarette, and the light revealed his features to another man hiding in the stairwell. When this witness identified Bince in court, the murderer gave up his smoking habit and his life in a final leap.

Harold Bince was just one of about 100 characters with a smoking habit in the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs. From heroes like Barney Custer and Gordon King to villains like Achmet Zek and Wilson Crumb to colorful characters like “Gunner” Patrick and Dopey Charlie, ERB’s stories are laced with characters who used tobacco, whether it be cigarettes, cigars, pipes, or chew.

In real life, Burroughs was a smoker himself. In the Porges biography, Hulbert Burroughs reminisced about his father’s tobacco habit. “He used cigarettes most of his life, yet strangely he never inhaled. For many years, he rolled his own, using the little booklets of cigarette paper and drawstring pouches of Bull Durham tobacco. He took pride in being able to roll a cigarette with one hand. Later he switched to Prince Albert. With the advent of factory-made cigarettes he gave up rolling his own.”

It is not surprising, then, that ERB used tobacco often in establishing moods, developing characters, creating themes, and even moving plots along, such as in the case mentioned above from The Efficiency Expert. Another example of Burroughs using the smoking habit as a plot devise occurs in the second half of The Mucker. After being convicted of murder, Billy Byrne was being taken by train to Joliet. When the deputy sheriff escorting him decided he would like to go to the smoking car, Billy took the opportunity to escape by pulling the deputy off the train with him as they passed between cars on the way to the smoker.

Only occasionally, however, did Burroughs use smoking in his plotting. Much more often he used it to build his settings and develop his characters. For instance, in The Mad King, ERB used Barney Custer, a Nebraska evening, and a good cigar to create a quiet, peaceful mood. “After the other members of his family had retired, Barney sat smoking within a screened porch off the living room. Barney’s cigar, long since forgotten, had died out. Not even its former fitful glow proclaimed his presence upon the porch, whose black shadows completely enveloped him.” This gentle scene led up to Captain Maenck’s attempt to firebomb Barney’s house.

Another example of smoking being involved in the creation of a mood, this time a happy one, is in The Son of Tarzan, when a French army officer gave his men a break. “Lazily he puffed upon a cigarette and watched his orderly who was preparing the evening meal. Captain Armand was well satisfied with himself and the world. A little to his right rose the noisily activity of his troop of sun-tanned veterans, released for the time from the irksome trammels of discipline, relaxing tired muscles, laughing, joking, and smoking as they, too, prepared to eat after a twelve hour fast.”

Another mood that Burroughs often used tobacco smoke to create is relaxation. Lost in Caspak in The Land That Time Forgot, Thomas Billings found he could still relax as long as his cigarettes held out. “After dinner I rolled a cigarette and stretched myself at ease on a pile of furs before the doorway, with Ajor’s head pillowed in my lap and a feeling of great content pervading me.” Another person who knew that feeling was Gordon King in “Jungle Girl.” He needed something to help him relax after his first night in the Cambodian jungle. “His position, well above the floor of the jungle, imparted a feeling of security; and the quiet enjoyment of a cigarette soothed his nerves.”

Contemplation was still another mood the slowly rising smoke of a cigarette helped Burroughs create. In Tarzan and the Leopard Men, Old Timer sat by the fire musing about the woman in the nearby tent. “The man’s mind was occupied with thoughts of her, thoughts that hung with bulldog tenacity despite his every effort to shake them loose. In the smoke of his pipe he saw her, unquestionably beautiful beyond comparison.” Then, in the Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County, Buck Mason, posing as the dude Bruce Marvel, sorted his thoughts in trying to determine the real murderer of Ole Gunderstrom. The other guests had retired for the evening, but “on the ranch house veranda Marvel had stamped out the fire of his last cigarette and was sitting with his feet on the rail thinking.”

While Burroughs portrayed a smoke as a pleasant thing in certain circumstances, he made it equally clear that it could be most unpleasant to be caught smoking on other occasions. In The Oakdale Affair, Soup Face discovered the peril in being surprised while one is smoking. After hearing some information that could make Soup Face and his band of hoboes rich, “Soup Face opened his mouth, letting his pipe fall out on his lap, setting fire to his ragged trousers.”

Burroughs also used smoking to create a feeling of conviviality between two characters. In fact, on a couple of occasions, the fictional Edgar Rice Burroughs himself was able to coax a story from a friend as they shared a smoke. In The Moon Maid, Burroughs reported that after meeting Julian 3rd in the dining room of the Transoceanic Liner Harding, “We found my room and there we had a bottle of wine and some little cakes and a quiet smoke and became better acquainted.” By the following morning, Julian 3rd had told the author the story of his grandson, Julian 5th.

Tobacco in Character Development
In addition to creating moods, Burroughs often used the smoking habit to develop characters. For instance, the chain-smoking habit of Eddie the Dip in The Girl From Farris’s was basic in building his image as an unsavory character. “At Twenty-Fourth Street a pimply faced young man boarded the car. As he walked forward toward the front platform, a lighted cigarette in his nicotine-stained fingers, he turned to stare into the face of every woman in the car.” In Eddie’s (and ERB’s) defense, it should be noted that in this story, as well as in other Burroughs stories, unsavory appearance and unsavory habits were not necessarily signs of unsavory character. It was Eddie who hocked his jewelry to buy June Lathrop some nice clothes so that she could apply for a job.

ERB was often fond of using smoking as a sign of how his characters reacted when under pressure. Among those who lit up when the going got tough was Ferdinand in The Lad and the Lion. When faced with having to tell his mistress that his father, the King, was requiring him to marry another woman, “Ferdinand looked very uncomfortable. He lit a cigarette and threw it away; then he drank a cocktail at a single gulp and lighted another cigarette.” Then, in Tarzan and the Forbidden City, while Gregory was waiting for word about his kidnapped daughter, “he commenced to pace the floor, smoking one cigar after another.”

At the other end of the spectrum are those characters whose smoking reflected an inner courage while under pressure. Tarzan’s father is an example. As the Fulwalda mutineers went about their grisly work of butchering their officers in Tarzan of the Apes, Lord Greystoke calmly watched. “Through it all John Clayton had stood leaning carelessly beside the companionway puffing meditatively upon his pipe as though he had been watching an indifferent cricket match.” Barney Custer was another man for whom smoking was a sign of inner strength. Upon hearing himself condemned to die as a Serbian spy, Barney “mechanically drew a cigarette from his pocket and lighted it. There was no bravado in the act. On the contrary, it was done almost unconsciously." Later, “the American walked silently toward his death, puffing leisurely at his cigarette.” Another who calmly faced death with a cigarette in his mouth was Bridge in The Oakdale Affair. Sitting in a jail cell waiting to be lynched, Bridge coolly rolled a cigarette, while his partner in crime, The Oskaloosa Kid, trembled in his (or rather her) boots.

Between the cowardly and courageous smokers are those who smoked to create the image of calmness, while, in fact, the strain inside was great. Take the reaction of Albert Werper as he sat one evening in his tent fondling his newly acquired jewels of Opar. In a mirror he saw Achmet Zek watching him, and the Belgian knew his life depended on his acting cool at that fateful moment. “Without haste, he replaced them in the pouch, tucked the latter into his shirt, selected a cigarette from his case, lighted it and rose slowly toward the opposite end of the tent.” Thinking himself unseen, Zek withdrew and Werper got his opportunity to escape. 

Tobacco Themes in ERB’s Fiction
Romanticizing cigarette smoking in the media was in vogue in Burroughs’ time, and he certainly did his share of it, especially in his Western novels. However, he was also aware of the unpleasant side of smoking. In Beware! Euphonia Thorn called smoking “a filthy habit,” and in The Efficiency Expert, the Lizard referred to a cigarette as “a coffin-nail.” There are even a few Burroughs characters who were clearly addicted to cigarettes. Neal Brown was one of them in Tarzan’s Quest. The pilot from Chicago was at the controls of a flight from London to Nairobi, carrying Jane Clayton, Kitty and Alexis Sborov, and others, when the airplane went down in an African forest. As the survivors prepared to walk out to civilization, each had to decide what to carry. Although he “knew the bitterness of heavy packs,” Brown crammed the contents of a carton of cigarettes into various pockets and the inside of his shirt.” While Brown proved fearless in the jungle, he apparently could not face life without a cigarette.

One Burroughs character that literally could not live without a smoke was Billy Ferry in Pirate Blood. “Mother!” he screamed. “Mother I am coming!” cried Billy just before leaping into the Pacific Ocean from the gondola of a tiny blimp he had built. It could be argued that Billy took the final plunge because he could no longer could handle the stress of battling Johnny Lafitte for control of the blimp, but more likely that stress was due more to a lack of nicotine. You see, just as the blimp was rising from the ground at the Glenora, California, airport, Johnny threw over the suitcases he supposed were all filled with the money Billy had stolen from the Glenora National Bank. However, there was something of greater value than money to Billy in one of those suitcases, as Johnny was to find out. “Occasionally (Billy) would get to thinking about the fortune I dumped overboard and then he’d be pretty glum for awhile, but what really griped him more than the loss of the swag was the fact that there had been twelve cartons of cigarettes in one of the suitcases I had jettisoned.” Johnny and Billy had just thirty-two cigarettes left between them and although Billy got the all and cut himself down to three a day, they eventually were gone and Billy’s composure began to deteriorate. In the case of Billy Perry, as with Harold Bince, surely smoking was a major factor in, if not the clinical cause of, his death

Before closing this general discussion of smoking in ERB’s fiction, let’s travel to another world. There was no smoking on Barsoom or any other of his extra-terrestrial worlds, but that does not mean the urge to do so didn’t reach across the void from Earth. In Carson of Venus, when Carson Napier and Duare tried to walk away from the warrior women of Houtomai without being noticed, Carson’s nerves cried out for a remedy available only on a neighboring planet 26 million miles away. “Right then I would have given a lot for a rear-sight mirror,” recalled Carson. “I wanted to see what was going on behind us, but I didn’t dare look back for fear of suggesting we were doing something we shouldn’t be — it was a case of nonchalance or nothing, and not a cigarette of any brand among us.”

— The End —


From Our ERB Online Bibliography
A Collector's Hypertexted and Annotated Storehouse of Encyclopedic Resources
The Efficiency Expert
The Mucker
Mad King
The Son of Tarzan
The Land That Time Forgot
Tarzan and the Leopard Men
Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County
The Oakdale Affair
Moon Maid
The Girl From Farris’s
The Lad and the Lion
Tarzan and the Forbidden City
Tarzan of the Apes 
Tarzan’s Quest
Pirate Blood

Guide to the Alan Hanson Appearances in ERBzine

Visit our thousands of other sites at:
ERB Text, ERB Images and Tarzan® are ©Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.- All Rights Reserved.
All Original Work ©1996-2020 by Bill Hillman and/or Contributing Authors/Owners
No part of this web site may be reproduced without permission from the respective owners.