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Volume 7199

The Transformation (and Affirmation) of 
The Mucker
Part 2
by Alan Hanson

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The Transformation (and Affirmation) of 
The Mucker II
by Alan Hanson

On one level, The Mucker is a love story. It’s certainly not a classic one nor is it the main theme of the novel. Still it is an important element in the story, because falling in love was one of motivating factors in Billy’s personal transformation. Once Barbara Harding taught Billy to see other people as individuals, it was natural that he began to see her as most young men, no doubt, saw her. Suddenly, Billy “saw what he had not before seen — a very beautiful girl, brave and unflinching.” He didn’t recognize that he was falling in love — and maybe he wasn’t at this point — but whatever he felt for her caused him to save her life after the wreck of the “Halfmoon.”

Although Billy was not quite certain why he saved Barbara, or Theriere earlier, his newfound process of trying to analyze his actions led him to the conclusion that perhaps he was not entirely as rotten as Barbara had once explained, and so, according to ERB, Billy “wished for an opportunity to demonstrate the fact.” Burroughs obliged by having Barbara captured by the Japanese headhunters on a Pacific island. Driven by love — an emotion he had never felt before and so didn’t recognize at this point — Billy, along with Theriere, set off to rescue the woman he had threatened to kill just weeks earlier.

Before looking deeper into Barbara’s effect on Billy’s transformation, a quick look into Theriere’s role in the same process needs to be understood. Theriere, who had been involved in the plot to kidnap Barbara, came to regret it and sought to redeem himself by rescuing her and returning her safely to her own people. Billy also wanted to do something to redeem himself in Barbara’s eyes for the killing of her friend Billy Mallory, but, while Barbara was his motivator, she could not show him how a man should act. Billy needed a role model, and Theriere’s job in the story was to serve that purpose. Together Billy and Theriere saved Barbara from the headhunters, and during the few days it took them to do it, Theriere, according to ERB, “transferred, all unknown to himself or the other man, a measure of the gentility and chivalry that were his by birthright, for, unrealizing, Billy Byrne was patterning himself after the man he had hated and had come to love.” Once Theriere had played his part in Billy’s transformation, ERB had no further need for him in the story, and so Theriere succumbed to a headhunter’s spear, a final example of self-sacrificing heroism for Billy. Later, Bridge would be another role model for Billy.

After Billy rescued Barbara from the headhunters, Burroughs isolated them together for a period of time, ostensibly so they could hide from the aborigines while waiting for an opportunity to return to their friends on the coast. During this juncture, Billy, for the first time, opened his heart to Barbara. He realized he loved her and told her so. (This newfound ability to express his feelings openly was another gift from Theriere.) Toward the end of the novel, though, Billy would realize that what he felt for Barbara at this point was not really love, since it wasn’t a strong enough emotion to cross what he saw as the “unbridgeable gap” between them socially.

To shield them from the headhunters, Billy built separate huts for the two of them on the small rocky island. That was to be expected, but how Billy jokingly labeled the two domiciles demonstrated his lack of self-worth. Her hut he called “Number One Riverside Drive” and his own “de Bowery.” “De roughnecks belongs on de Bowery, so dat’s wot we’ll call my dump down by de river,” he explained to her. “You’re a highbow, so youse gotta live on Riverside Drive, see?” Barbara responded, “Wouldn’t you rather be a ‘highbrow’ too, and live up on Riverside Drive, right across the street from me?” Billy’s considered response was, “It’s too late fer me ever to belong, now. Yeh gotta be borned to it.” This belief of Billy’s that no matter how much he changed, no matter how honorable and chivalrous he became, no matter how strong his love for Barbara, he would always be a mucker at heart, was the great roadblock in his transformation. It spoke to his lack of self-respect, for until he felt good enough about himself to break through that barrier, there could be no fundamental change in the character of Bill Byrne.

“Fer her sake”

In was not until the final scenes of the novel that Billy found the power within himself to effect his transformation. But back on their island, Billy was not able to summon the strength needed to change. Instead he looked to another for that strength, and in doing so, unknowingly headed down a near fatal road. It was Barbara who first put the thought in his mind. “Won’t you try (to be a gentleman)? For my sake?” she asked him. Billy jumped up at the suggestion. Subconsciously it relieved him of making his own decisions. From then on, his criteria for acting would not be, “What do I think is the best thing to do?” but “What would Barbara want me to do?” He reasoned, “I can’t have her … but if I can’t live with her, I can live fer her as she’d want me to live.” His slogan became, “Fer her sake,” and while it did remind him to do the right thing from time to time, it ultimately almost cost him his life. But that came later.

The first thing Billy agreed to do “fer her sake” was take English lessons. In their first encounter, Billy’s crude slang and Barbara’s refined grammar accentuated the great gulf between them. Later, though, mutual hardship made both willing to narrow that gulf, and language seemed an obvious place to start. “You must, Mr. Byrne, learn to speak correctly,” directed Barbara. “You mustn’t say ‘youse’ for ‘you,’ or ‘wot’ for ‘what’ — you must try to talk as I talk.” It was the first time Billy let Barbara, and later Barbara’s vision, make decisions for him. “All right,” agreed Billy, “youse — you pitch in an’ learn me wot — whatever you want to an’ I’ll do me best to talk like a dude — fer your sake.

With Barbara’s coaching, Billy upgraded his grammar until he could indeed speak like Barbara. However, during the remainder of the novel, Billy’s speech moved back and forth. Sometimes he used Barbara’s English, and at other times reverted back to the Chicago street slang of his youth. Much later in Mexico, the cultured Bridge asked Billy, “Why is it, Billy, that upon occasion you speak king’s English after the manner of the boulevard, and again after that of the back alley?” Billy’s response showed he didn’t understand the real reason for his word choices. “I was born and brought up on ‘dat,” he explained. "She taught me the other line of talk. Sometimes I forget. I had about twenty years of the other and only one of her’s, and twenty to one is a long shot — more apt to lose than win.” In reality, Billy’s outward language was symbolic of the struggle that was going on inside him. Billy was right in noting that the influence of twenty years on the street was a formidable opposition for the changes he desired to make “fer (or for) her sake.” 

As Burroughs pointed out, at the time Barbara was teaching Billy to speak gentlemen’s English, “it seemed that Billy Byrne was undergoing a metamorphosis, and at that instant there was still a question as to which personality would dominate.” For example, on the headhunter island, there was a real struggle within Billy between acting solely by instinct, as learned on the streets of Chicago, and by reason, as Barbara taught him. On one hand, when Barbara was abducted, Billy felt a “mad and unreasoning rage,” which he didn’t stop to reason out, and at the thought that Barbara might have been beheaded, “Something strange rose in the mucker’s breast … He did not attempt to analyze the sensations.” A short time later, though, he did take the time to reason, “wondering why he was risking his life to rescue or avenge this girl whom he hated so.” Again later, after speaking rudely to Barbara, “the mucker read in her expression something of the wound his words had inflicted, and he lay thinking upon the matter for some time.” Much later, in a conversation with Bridge, Billy acknowledged the struggle that started within him at that time. “I began to change then. It was mighty slow, an’ I’m still a roughneck; but I’m gettin’ on.

Billy’s alternate use of street and formal spoken English, then, reflected the struggle inside him between what he was and what he wanted to be. The contest of personalities within and grammar without continued right up to the final page of the novel. When Barbara was present or at other times when gentility and chivalry were called for, he spoke as she taught him. On the other hand, amid the joy of high adventure or the desperation of great stress, Billy called on the strengths of the mucker and so talked like him. Sometimes nostalgia for the old days brought out the peculiar language of Chicago’s West Side. Once Billy thought to himself, “Funny how a girl and poetry can get a tough nut like me. I wonder what the guys who used to hang out in the back of Kelly’s ‘ud say if they seen what was goin’ on in my bean just now.

“Once I aspired”
Part 1 of The Mucker ends with Billy Byrne talking with Barbara Harding in her family’s New York City house. Well along the road to his personal transformation, Billy had learned to care for others, and to care what others thought about him. He had learned how to love and how to be a friend. He told Barbara, “You’ve taught me pride and self-respect.” Billy may have thought so at that point, but if he really had learned true pride and self-respect, he would not have done what he did — walk away from the woman he loved. Billy had changed enough to cross the physical distance between Grand Avenue and Riverside Drive, but he had not yet developed the strength of character to cross the psychological distance between the two lifestyles those streets represented. “I have learned,” he told Barbara, “the unbridgeable chasm that stretches between Billy Byrne, the mucker, and such as you. Once I aspired; but now I know, as you must have always known, that a single lifetime is far too short for a man to cover the distance from Grand Avenue to Riverside Drive.” Billy would be back to claim Barbara only after developing the self-confidence to do so.

Billy, however, left Barbara’s home in New York thinking he had given her up forever. His intention was to live without her, but for her. As Burroughs explained, “He still clung to the ideals she had awakened in him” and “he still sought to be all that she might wish him to be.” His first action in keeping with that creed would show him the folly of trying to live his life by Barbara Hardings’ ideals. She taught him to be honorable, and that took him back to Chicago to clear his name with the law.

It didn’t take long to learn that Barbara’s ideals had led his astray in this case. The regard for law, order, and justice she had instilled in him was shattered when the state used perjured witnesses to falsely convict Billy of murder and sentence him to life in prison. To save himself, Billy called upon the mucker side of his personality, throwing himself and the deputy sheriff handcuffed to him off the train heading to Joliet. The vision of Barbara’s face kept Billy from killing the deputy, but from then on Billy was less willing to trust his fate to what Barbara would have wanted him to do. In the future, he more often turned to the instincts and talents of his street education to guide his actions.

“Whoever tries it gets his, see?”
After being railroad by the justice system, an angry Billy was dangerously close to sliding completely back into his mucker personality. He needed some guidance to keep him on the right path. Barbara was not around, and he longer trusted her judgment in absentia. So Burroughs brought the character Bridge on stage to serve as a role model for Billy. First and foremost, by expressing himself so often with poetry, Bridge taught Billy that common people could appreciate cultured things as well as the high born. In addition, Bridge was an example to Billy that bravery need not be accompanied by great physical strength. Billy acknowledged that Bridge continued the civilizing influence on him that Barbara Harding began. “She helped me most, of course, an’ now you’re helpin’ me a lot, too — you an’ your poetry stuff,” Billy told Bridge.

As the two men crossed the border into Mexico to avoid American lawmen, Billy began the last phase of his personal transformation. He now knew he could never completely become a gentleman of the type who populated Barbara Hardings’ world. The key thing that Billy finally realized, though, was that he need not be ashamed of all that he was as a mucker. In addition to the corrupting influences, his upbringing in Chicago had instilled some admirable qualities in Billy as well. Courage, loyalty, physical aggressiveness, and love of adventure were the positive residue of his criminal youth. In Mexico, Billy learned to stop the struggle between the two personalities within him, and, instead seek a balance between the two. 

First, Billy gave into his youthful love of adventure. He discarded any thoughts of living a gentleman’s life and joined Pesita’s band of Mexican revolutionary bandits. The “wild half-savage life which association with the bandits promised” appealed to Billy, who enjoyed the bandits’ running gun battles. He used his West Side skills to crack a safe and took the money from the bank in Cauivaca. It seemed that Billy had returned to his old criminal ways, and, in fact, Barbara Harding later castigated Billy. “You robbed the bank, Billy?” She asked. “It was you after the promises you made to me to live straight always — for my sake.” Billy had used the reasoning skills Barbara taught him to rationalize all of his activities with Pesita as being honorable. Knowing nothing of the Mexican political situation, Billy believed he had simply joined an army, and his job was to serve his commander, in this case Pesita. As for the money in the bank, it was the enemy’s resources, and it was his duty to deprive them of it.

When Barbara Harding was kidnapped, Billy stopped trying to reason things out and let his mucker personality take control. This was apparent in both Billy’s language and attitude when he arrived at the Harding ranch looking for Barbara. Riding up Billy addressed Eddie Shorter as follows:

I’m tipped off that a bunch o’ siwashes was down here last night to swipe Miss Harding. We gotta go see if she’s here or not, an’ don’t try any funny business on me, Eddie. I ain’t a-goin’ to be taken again, an’ whoever tries it gets his, see?

Wounded by Indians during his search for Barbara, Billy went into what Burroughs called a very ungentlemanly like “berserker rage.” Burroughs conveyed his resulting actions in language descriptive of a Chicago slaughterhouse. Billy “stood there pumping lead into his assailants — not hysterically, but with the cool deliberation of a butcher slaughtering beeves.

While allowing the mucker in him to dominate his emotions, Billy nevertheless was guided by chivalrous motives throughout the rescue and defense of Barbara. At the time, Billy thought Barbara and Bridge loved each other, and during the fight, Billy had a chance to stand by while Bridge was in danger. However, the thought of abandoning his friend for his own advantage never crossed his mind. Instead, amid a hail of gunfire, Billy went out to rescue the wounded Bridge. Facing death again, Billy rode through the attacking Mexicans to bring American troops to the rescue.

This time it was a fully transformed Billy Byrne who rescued Barbara Harding and took her for his own. He had taken control of his own life, becoming the man he wanted to be, and not what others wanted him to be. He had found the proper balance between the mucker and the gentleman in him. Once he had wondered how he could cross the unbridgeable gap between Barbara and himself; now he knew the answer was not to cross it, but to eliminate it. And now he was ready to do so.

And as they went there grew in Billy’s breast a love so deep and resistless that he found himself wondering that he had ever imagined that his former passion for this girl was love. The new thing surged through him and over him with all the blind, brutal, compelling force of a mighty tidal wave. It battered down and swept away the frail barriers of his new-found gentleness. Again he was the Mucker — hating the artificial wall of social caste which separated him from this girl; but now he was ready to climb the wall, or better still, to batter it down with his huge fists.

I wont’ give you up again”
It was an assertive and confident Billy who took Barbara Harding roughly into his arms and declared, “I gave you up once when I thought it was better for you to marry a man in your own class. I won’t give you up again … if anyone tries to keep me from taking you they’ll get killed.” Although most of this statement is proper English, it ends with a decidedly ungrammatical clause. Perhaps Burroughs purposely structured it so to show the mixture of values the fully transformed Billy Byrne had become. In any event, in the end Burroughs presented Billy Byrne as a distinctly American example of a self-made man. With no help from the government (some interference, instead) and a little help from his friends, Billy raised himself from a life of poverty and crime to one of self-respect and dignity.

Of course, Edgar Rice Burroughs himself traversed a similar road from failure to respectability. It is known Burroughs, as a successful writer, tapped into many of the experiences and lessons of his own unproductive youth. Perhaps, the transformation of Billy Byrne was a reflection of how Edgar Rice Burroughs saw himself — minus the muscles, of course.

— The End —

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