Edgar Rice Burroughs rendered a particular construction of womanhood as a remedy for national degeneration and neurasthenia. Progressive-era Americans like Burroughs wondered whether the developmental forces that shaped industrial society might also threaten the character and institutions upon which they believed American society and civilization functioned. Middle-class American observers worried that the character traits responsible for the rise of American greatness were undermined by that very success. In particular, they thought the demands of urban life resulted in neurasthenia, the loss of “nervous energy.” Burroughs employed the powerfully symbolic Pocahontas narrative to construct a vision of womanhood that offered the possibility of redeeming a degenerate and neurasthenic civilization. Burroughs’s construction of womanhood shares much with the traditional ideology of domesticity, yet at the same time challenged Progressive notions of femininity. Burroughs’s female characters are muscular and beautiful, aggressive and independent, and able to handle themselves in dangerous situations. For all of their independence, however, they ultimately perform the traditional roles of wife and mother. Burroughs women fulfill a domestic role, but their muscularity, self-assurance, and independence are seen as a panacea for the perceived problems of degeneration and neurasthenia, not as a threat to gender identity and roles.
"Degeneration, Gender, and American Identity in the Early Fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs,"
LUX: A Journal of Transdisciplinary Writing and Research from Claremont Graduate University:
1, Article 2.
Available at: https://scholarship.claremont.edu/lux/vol3/iss1/2