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Volume 7198

The Transformation (and Affirmation) of 
The Mucker
Part 1
by Alan Hanson

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The Transformation
(and Affirmation) of 
The Mucker
Part 1
by Alan Hanson

The Mucker — what a lifeless title for a work of fiction, at least from today’s perspective. It may have had some pizzazz in 1921, when the story was first published in book form, but today hardly anyone knows what the title means. “The Microsoft Encarta College Dictionary,” billing itself as, “The first dictionary or the internet age,” defines “mucker” only as “somebody whose job is to remove rocky mine waste.” The word, then, as Edgar Rice Burroughs knew it and used it, has disappeared from the English language.

In reality, though, it doesn’t matter if the enigmatic title puts off modern readers, since The Mucker is essentially out of print for any readership wider than the ERB faithful. The novel survives today as merely an obscure entry on the list of “other works” by the author of Tarzan. That is unfortunate, since The Mucker is a story of value on several levels. Richard Lupoff in his Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure, rated The Mucker the best among ERB’s non-series efforts. As a period piece, the novel provides an interesting viewpoint on American society both during and after the Progressive Era. Stressing personal responsibility and initiative as he did when writing The Mucker from 1913 to 1916, ERB’s message ran counter to that of the Progressives, who dominated the social climate of the day in calling for government action to improve the lives of the working class. However, by the time The Mucker saw book publication in 1921, the Progressives’ heyday had passed, and the notion that an individual could and should achieve self-improvement through his own efforts was back in vogue in America.

It is this process for self-improvement, modeled by Billy Byrne, that is the mostly interesting element of The Mucker. Certainly, it is a process that Edgar Rice Burroughs believed in, and probably took, in large, from the road he traveled himself from repeated failure to successful author.

Billy was a mucker, a hoodlum, a gangster, a thug, a tough.” Thus did ERB describe his lead character in the opening pages of The Mucker. By the end of the novel, however, Billy was a self-sacrificing hero with a firm sense of honor and chivalry. It was a favorite theme for Burroughs in the early years of his writing career. In 1913 alone ERB wrote three novels — The Cave Girl, The Monster Men, and The Mucker — in which the lead characters underwent great personal change. Even Tarzan of the Apes, written the previous year, transformed the ape-man from a savage to a civilized man. In 1921, Burroughs again used the transition theme in The Girl From Hollywood

In his Burroughs biography, Irwin Porges calls this recurring Burroughs theme “redemption.” However, “transformation” is a better word, not only because Burroughs used it himself, but also because it better describes what happens to the protagonists. Although, along the way, the character may be required to redeem himself for some misdeed, it usually is only one of several causes of a larger, life-altering, fundamental change in character. In Billy Byrne’s case, he needed to redeem himself in Barbara Harding’s eyes for the beating he gave Billy Mallory, but that was not enough to win her love. To do that he had to become a completely different person from the one who hit Mallory below the belt.

Before taking a closer look at Billy Byrne’s metamorphosis, it should be noted that Burroughs clearly did not believe all degenerate people had the ability to reform themselves. “Inherent chivalry is as difficult to suppress or uproot as is inherent viciousness,” ERB explained in The Mucker. As degenerate as he was, Billy Byrne had that “inherent chivalry,” although for a while he didn’t understand it. When he first encountered Barbara Harding, Billy threatened to strike her, but “something unknown held his hand.” Several other times in The Mucker Billy acted heroically without knowing why. In contrast to Billy would be a Burroughs character like Nikolas Rokoff in The Return of Tarzan. In his dealing with Lady Greystoke, Rokoff obviously had no inner voice tempering his “inherent viciousness.” Obviously, ERB believed that to effect a character transformation, nature must first have the proper clay to mold. It is time, then, to examine the clay that was Billy Byrne of Chicago’s West Side

"I didn’t want to be decent"

From early childhood, Billy Byrne was steered down an immoral path. There was no mention of his father, but ERB painted a brief but clear picture of his mother. She was a “foul-mouthed and quarrelsome” alcoholic who never spoke a word of endearment to her son, and worse, abused him as a little boy. Billy never attended a day of school. Instead his mother “started him on a life of crime at an age when most boys are just entering grammar school.” His education was of the street variety, beginning in an alley behind a feed store where a gang of older boys and men gathered. The result was that Billy grew up less a man of intellect and more a man of nerves. The obvious outward sign of his lack of formal education was the crude street dialect he used to express himself.

He grew up to and through adolescence dodging all forms of honest labor, making a living instead through crime. Like the other members of Kelly’s gang, he plied his trade by night, picking pockets, stealing from vacant buildings and freight cars, and fencing the take. As he got older, he got more brazen in his crimes, like the night he emptied “the cash drawer of old Schneider’s saloon and (locked) the weeping Schneider in his own ice box.” Schneider was probably well-acquainted with Billy, as, according to ERB, “From Halsted to Robey, and from Grand Avenue to Lake Street there was scarce a bartender whom Billy knew not by his first name.” From a very early age, alcohol was a part of Billy’s street education. As a child he carried the tin bucket back and forth between a saloon and the feed-store behind which the gang spent their daylight hours drinking beer. As an older boy and young man, Billy drank his daily portion, no doubt. Fittingly, it was Billy’s weakness for alcohol that later got him shanghaied in San Francisco.

Billy enjoyed street fighting, the tricks of which he learned from his fellow gang members. That meant he “hit oftener from behind than before.” The police were the “enemy.” In fact, Billy grew up hating all forms of authority. Even when he saved Patrolman Lasky from getting his head bashed in, he was not motivated by respect for the law, but by the need to teach a lesson to the rival gang members who were doing the beating.

ERB gave no details of Billy Byrne’s sex life, but he did hint at it, noting that, “Chastity in women was to him a thing to be joked of.” What Burroughs was clear about was that Billy had no respect for women. He judged them all based on the standard set by his abusive mother. Not only was he quick to insult a decent woman who passed by, but he also enjoyed threatening them for the thrill of seeing fear in their eyes.

Burroughs spent the first chapter of The Mucker explaining how these influences — his mother, lack of education, crime, alcohol, gang activity — gave Billy the impression that manliness consisted of “displaying as much brutality and uncouthness as possible.” It must be noted up front, though, that Burroughs did not buy into the Progressive belief of the day that poor urban people had no chance when faced with overwhelming perverse influences. ERB believed that even when faced with such deplorable conditions, people still had a choice in how they lived their lives, and he had Billy Byrne confess as much later in the story.

I could have been decent, though, if I’d wanted to. Other fellows who were born and raised near me were decent enough. They got good jobs and stuck to them, and lived straight … I didn’t want to be decent.

Subtly, but crucially, ERB played out this theme of personal choice and responsibility throughout the remainder of the novel. As we’ll see, although Billy continually credited Barbara Harding for motivating him to change his evil ways, in the end his transformation did not occur because of what she wanted for him, but rather because of what he wanted for himself

"The meager ethics of his kind"

On first reading, Burroughs’ apparent purpose in Chapter 1 of The Mucker was to establish Billy Byrne as a completely degenerate human being prior to bringing him in contact with the person who would spark his transformation — Barbara Harding. However, a closer look reveals that during Billy’s rough upbringing, he actually developed several admirable character traits, as well, which helped direct many of his later actions. The first was courage. As Burroughs added, after listing many of Billy’s unfavorable traits, “and yet, notwithstanding all this, Billy Byrne was no coward.” Physically, Billy loved to fight in his Chicago days. He never avoided a fight, apparently never lost one, and was willing to take on uneven odds, such as when he thumped the three 12th Street gangsters attacking Patrolman Lasky.

Perhaps courage was something inherent in Billy and not something instilled by the street environment in which he was raised. If so, at least that inherent courage was tested and found to be true over and over again as Billy grew up. When faced with the choice of “fight or flight” in his later adventures, Billy, thanks to his rough upbringing, always chose the former. For example, when the “Halfmoon” seemed destined to crash on the rocky shore of a Pacific Island, it was Billy who took the wheel and steered the ship toward safety while his fellow sailors were cringing in fear.

Loyalty was a second admirable character trait instilled in Billy by his street education.  As a gang member he learned and lived by a strict code. “Whatever the meager ethics of his kind he would have lived up to them to the death,” ERB explained. “He never had squealed on a pal and he never had left a wounded friend to fall into the hands of the enemy — the police.” As Billy formed friendships later with men like Theriere, Bridge, and Eddie Shorter, his loyalty to them was unshakeable. Add his extraordinary courage to that sense of loyalty, and Billy Byrne became capable of acts of self-sacrificing heroism. He twice put his life in jeopardy to save Theriere, once keeping the French count from being swept off the deck of the “Halfmoon” and again on land when Billy ran back into the face of pursuing Japanese head-hunters to retrieve the wounded Frenchman. Later, in Mexico, Billy did the same thing for a wounded Eddie Shorter, carrying his friend to cover amid a hail of gunfire from Piman Indians. Whatever else she aroused in him, Barbara Harding certainly cannot be credited with instilling courage and loyalty in Billy Byrne. That credit goes to the rough streets of Chicago’s West Side.

One last feature of Billy’s character needs to be mentioned before Barbara Harding arrives on the scene. As Bill admitted, he could have chosen to lead a respectable life in Chicago, but instead chose to embrace a life of crime. He made that decision, according to ERB, because crime satisfied a “yearning for excitement and adventure.” Consciously, Billy may not have sought life aboard ship or on a Pacific island inhabited by headhunters or with a band of murderous Mexican bandits, but he embraced such experiences because they satisfied his yearning for adventure. Barbara Harding stirred a reordering of values in Billy’s mind, but she had nothing to do with the smile seen often on his face during the heat of battle. Billy Byrne was a man of action long before he met Barbara Harding.

"The physique of a prize bull"

To begin Billy Byrne’s transformation, ERB first removed him from the environment that had shaped his unsavory character. This was done through a murder accusation, which sent Billy fleeing from Chicago. In San Francisco he was quickly shanghaied as a sailor on the freighter “Halfmoon.” In was in this role that Billy first crossed paths with his personal catalyst, Barbara Harding. Before he met her, though, Burroughs made an alteration in Billy’s appearance. Billy was naturally muscular. “From a long line of burly ancestors he had inherited the physique of a prize bull,” the author explained. In Chicago, although his muscles came in handy during street fights, Billy squandered some natural strength through the use of alcohol and the avoidance of honest labor. Aboard the “Halfmoon,” to win the respect of his shipmates, Billy continued fighting, but no longer was he able to use alcohol or avoid physical labor. To Billy’s surprise, he found himself enjoying deck work, and that, coupled with forced abstinence from alcohol, improved his physical appearance.

All traces of alcohol had long since vanished from the young man’s system. His face showed the effects of his enforced abstemiousness in a marked degree. The red, puffy, blotchy complexion had given way to a clear, tanned skin; bright eyes supplanted the bleary, bloodshot things that had given the bestial expression to his face in the past. His features, always regular and strong, had taken on a peculiarly refined dignity from the salt air, the clean life, and the dangerous occupation of the deep-sea sailor.”

Unaccompanied as it was at this point by an improvement in Billy’s character, this physical improvement was included by ERB surely to make more believable Barbara Hardings’ later affection for Billy. In Burroughs’ fiction, “beauty and the beast” relationships were not countenanced. No matter how noble his actions, no Burroughs heroine could have fallen for a man with the “bestial” appearance Billy Byrne possessed prior to his health-improving experience on the “Halfmoon.” And, in fact, Barbara was impressed by Billy’s appearance long before she was impressed by his courage. Aboard the “Halfmoon,” she “noted for the first time the lionine contour of his head, and she was surprised to note that his features were regular and fine.

Having established Billy Byrne, then, as an uneducated criminal, a dirty fighter, a hater of women and police and all else respectable, and yet possessing bravery, loyalty, and physical vitality, Burroughs was ready to bring Billy into contact with the woman destined to spark his personal transformation.


Burroughs originally painted Billy Byrne and Barbara Harding as complete opposites, he a low-born, uneducated mucker from Chicago’s seamy Grand Avenue — she a high-born, cultured young lady from New York City’s Riverside Drive. In Burroughs’ concept of society in those days, such as Barbara never could have lowered herself, and so bridging the gap would be Billy’s job alone. In the final three quarters of the novel, ERB repeatedly portrayed Billy’s desire to make himself acceptable to Barbara as the inspiration for a series of personal changes leading to his transformation from gangster to gentleman.

To create an even wider breach between them than that opened by birth and upbringing, in their first meeting Burroughs had Billy display the most repulsive aspects of his character. First, sent by the “Halfmoon’ captain to fetch the girl from her father’s pirated yacht, Billy felled her defender, Billy Mallory, by kicking, gouging, and punching him to death (or at least so thought both Billy and Barbara at the time). Then he roughly grabbed Barbara, giving “her arm a sudden twist that wrenched a scream of agony from her white lips.

Burroughs made it clear that, at first, his two lead characters passionately hated each other. “How he hated her!” ERB declared of Billy’s initial feelings for Barbara. “Not that she had ever done aught to harm him, but rather because she represented to him in concrete form all that he had learned to hate and loathe since early childhood.” Billy threatened to blacken Barbara’s “lamps” and at one point even threatened to kill her with “a wallop to de solar plexus dat would put youse to sleep for de long count.” For her part, Barbara never knew “a thing so devoid of honor, and chivalry, and fair play” such as Billy could exist. “So vivid an impression had his brutality made upon her,” explained ERB, “that she would start from deep slumber, dreaming that she was menaced by him.

At the start, then, Billy certainly did not want to please Barbara — far from it — and Barbara had no thought of reforming this repulsive mucker. That slowly began to change, though, the day after their first conversation. Barbara called him a “coward.” Billy hated Barbara not because of anything she had said or done, but because he hated all people of her “class.” One of the great lessons of Billy’s youth was to hate all people of certain groups. He learned to hate all rival gang members, to hate all police, to hate all women, and to hate all respectable people. One day on the deck of the “Halfmoon,” Billy gazed at Barbara Harding standing nearby. ERB explained what Billy was feeling at that moment.

Her soft, white skin; her shapely hands and well-cared-for nails; her trim figure and perfectly fitting suit all taunted him with their superiority over him and his kind. He knew that she looked down upon him as an inferior being. She was of the class that addressed those of his walk of life as, ‘my man.’ Lord, how he hated that appellation!

Barbara turned to face him, and their short confrontation marked the first step in the transformation of Billy Byrne. To him she said only one word — “Coward!” — and she said it twice, but it was not so much that she said it as it was her attitude when she said it that had an effect on Billy. After the first “Coward!” he raised his fist to strike her, but he got an unexpected response. “He had looked to see this girl of the effete and effeminate upper class swoon with terror before him,” explained Burroughs, “but to his intense astonishment she but stood brave and erect before him, her head held high, her eyes cold and level and unafraid.” Billy almost struck her, but something he did not understand held his hand. Second Officer Theriere interfered to end Billy’s first conversation with Barbara. As brief and benign as it was, however, it caused a fundamental change in Billy Byrne’s outlook on the world.

After that incident, Billy still hated Barbara Harding, but he now hated her for her attitude, not her social class. As ERB explained, “Formerly he had hated her for the things she stood for, now he hated her for herself.” It may seem like a subtle difference, but for Billy it represented a major change in how he related to other people. At that moment, Billy saw Barbara Harding not as a woman or as an aristocrat, but as an individual. From this point on, Billy began to treat not only Barbara as an individual, but others as well. This new point of view allowed Billy, for the first time, to form strong relationships with people like Barbara, Theriere, Bridge, and Eddie Shorter.

"Do you think I fear a thing such as you?"

In a later encounter on the deck of the “Halfmoon,” Barbara, without intending to do so, built on the first lesson she taught Billy by forcing him to see himself as an individual. On that occasion, Barbara, who previously had only spoken two words to Billy, voiced a relatively long diatribe, highlights of which included the following:

You coward! To insult and threaten a woman! You are nothing but an insufferable bully, and cowardly murderer … You are only fit to strike from behind, or when your victim is unsuspecting … Do you think I fear a thing such as you — a beast without honor that kicks an unconscious man in the face? I know that you can kill me. I know that you are coward enough to do it, because I am a defenseless woman; though you may kill me, you never can make me show fear for you … I had never imagined that such as you lived in the guise of man.”

Billy did not grow angry and strike Barbara, as those who knew him would have expected. Instead, he listened quietly to the entire lecture, and, according to Burroughs, beneath his narrowed eyes he was thinking for the first time of how he appeared in the eyes of others. Many times back in Chicago people of his kind had called him profane names, but Barbara was the first to give him examples of his brutality and reasons for her contempt. At that moment, Barbara suddenly became Billy’s reflection, a mirror for him to see inside himself. And although Billy didn’t reason it out just then, he realized he didn’t like what he saw. For the first time, he knew he wanted to change how other people saw him.

He made one change immediately. After Barbara’s lecture, he realized he could never strike her any other woman again. He didn’t understand why he came to that conclusion, but what was important was that he wondered why. No longer reacting solely to instinct, Billy actually began trying to understand the reasons for his actions, both before and after the fact. Far from easy, it was a frustrating transition for Billy, who in the past had “reacted more quickly to instinct than do the process of reasoning.” After Billy saved Theriere from being swept overboard, he couldn’t figure out why he did it, and, in fact, was a little disappointed in himself that he had done it. The same can be said or his rescuing Barbara Harding after the wreck of the “Halfmoon” threw her into the swirling ocean water. With practice Billy would get better at analyzing his actions, but understanding how other people judged him and trying to understand how his actions would mold that judgment was the first major step in the transformation of Billy Byrne.

— The End of Part 1 —

Special Edition art by Lovern Kindzierski ~ Map Graphic by Jeff Long

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The Mucker
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