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‘My Man’
The Mucker by Edgar Rice Burroughs
1914, All-Story Cavalier Weekly, reading from the 1974 Ace edition paper back of 190 pages, with the Frank Frazzetta cover of the white trash hero standing on a pile of slain samurai with an upper-class big-assed brunette slung over his right shoulder, his left hand in a bloody claw and his face blazing and a-snarl.
Thanks to Electric Dan for the gift of this book, which is being donated to the library of Buffalo Bob.
The original title of this review was, “Fate…Heeding Her Call”
Billy Byrne grew up under a single mother who was a brutal alcoholic, failing to endear him to the ivory goddess that was the center of so much earlier 20th Century fiction, forever being courted and rescued and edified by the roughshod or dapper hero. He was a Chicago alley kid, who gained his place in the bottom pool of a gang by taking the empty beer bucket behind the feed store to the bar and getting it refilled while the crude knights of his criminal world held rude court. One day, at about 12, he fought another boy and was beaten until he bricked the kid and nearly killed him. He was an enemy of the police, of other gangs and of the hated upper class elites with their phony pretensions.
Billy Byrne lived in the brutal World of Could in the shadow of the affected World of Should, inhabiting reality at the feet of fantasy.
One day a policeman was being beaten in the night-shrouded street by three criminals of another gang. Billy snuck up on the criminals and used at-hand weapons to dispatch them—and after being shot in the shoulder—was pulled off by the cop, who wanted enough left of the thugs to be indicted for a crime. This saved him, when the grateful cop later told him he was going to be arrested and be charged for a crime committed by another and Billy fled for a life of adventure, being shanghaied in San Francisco and embarking on a typical Edgar Rice Burroughs Lost World yarn.
The setting of the story is during the boxing reign of “The Big Smoke” Jack Johnson, and Billy, as a heavyweight boxer ends up one step from being the next “white hope” for the recapture of the heavyweight title from the black Champion, but will step back from the limelight and retreat from an induction into the upper class won by his heroics in saving some rich folks from pirates and headhunters. The boxing scenes were well done. Billy Byrne is “The Mucker” an insult for low class criminals of the time, men like Jack Black, Carl Panzram and many of the warf rats, boxers and criminals of the day.
The story gives realistic insights into the extant oppression and suppression of lower class whites and the reciprocal animosity in American life on the eve of the Great War that would erase such perspectives from the collective American mind. Most telling was Billy bristling at the term, “My man,” and the proffered alliance extended to him by a ship’s officer trying to gain his loyalty. The implication is a direct and savage reminder that men of Billy’s class had once been owned outright as chattel by such aristocrats and moneyed men and working class men were yet regarded as morally owned by their betters.
Interestingly, while this was a grave insult echoing earlier slavery and current poverty to the ears of a European American in 1914, to the ears of the African American of 2014, the term “My Man” echoing down from slavery is interpreted as a positive statement of solidarity, which whispers keenly of a time when the Master and the African slave were the allied enemies of the European slave and freedman. The work of Herbert Asbury draws from a life lived and interviews made during the period in which Burroughs wrote this adventure yarn for low-class American men who would have chaffed at false pretensions. Burroughs’ fiction and Asbury’s histories are in perfect agreement as to class politics being far more important than racial distinction in the late 19th and early 20th century. “Blanco, the gigantic black cook,” is a sympathetic criminal character who Billy gets along with.
His narrative does eventually elevate Billy in action, distinction and even diction and offers class distinction. But he declines to join the upper-ups and remains a man of action instead of pretension.
Some of the many choice quotes from the story are:
Page 17
“He never had squealed on a pal, and never had left a wounded friend to fall into the hands of the enemy—the police.”
Page 52
“He knew that she looked down upon him as an inferior being. She was of the class that addressed those in his walk of life [slave sailor] as ‘my man.’ Lord how he hated that appellation!”
We are reminded here that many American men served as slaves in prison, on plantations and on ships as unpaid forced labor—slaves by any rational definition—well into the 20th century.
Page 66
“The very idea of saving the life of a gink who, despite his brutal ways, belonged to the much-despised ‘high-brow’ class…”
The Mucker is a fun read and imparts a taste for the legacy of American Classism which was later artificially replaced with the notion of racism, exactly 30 years after this book was written.
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