Most cultures have respect for and respond positively to individuals who make significant literary contributions to the way that people understand life and society. While the impact of literature may vary widely, those individuals deemed to have added important perspectives through their writing are often elevated to positions of high regard and influence. Thus, their work becomes important to our understanding of the human condition, including the meaning of disability.
In the field of intellectual and developmental disabilities, there have been numerous individuals who have intentionally or inadvertently had a significant impact on our understanding of individuals with these characteristics as well as on the way they are viewed and treated. Examples abound and certainly include the eminent novelists Pearl Buck, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, and Joseph Conrad, each of whom published important works that included characters with disabilities. These writers and others in the last century were influenced by other historical works that argued that the harmful impact of “idiocy” on families and societies posed a significant threat to the cultural well-being of their eras (McDonagh, 2008).
Two other writers who have achieved renown in contemporary Western culture are Ayn Rand and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Rand was a novelist and self-described philosopher. She spoke with evident passion regarding the need for individualism and self-interest in a world she saw as threatened by collectivism. Burroughs, in addition to being the creator of Tarzan, was an ardent eugenicist. He asserted through his fiction and journalism that there was a pressing need for the control of human reproduction to achieve racial and social excellence. The purpose of this paper is to examine some of their works as they exemplify their conceptualizations of persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The paper concludes with a discussion of utopia and dystopia as viewed through the lens of their writings. This analysis provides a unique opportunity to consider people with intellectual and developmental disabilities within this literary context.
Stamps of Approval
In 1999 the United States Postal Service issued a stamp dedicated to the philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand, the author of works such as Atlas Shrugged (Rand, 1957) and the Fountainhead (Rand, 1943). According to a press release from the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, the honor was bestowed on her because she achieved success through her works that encompass the philosophy of objectivism. More recently, Rand's work has generated renewed attention due to the favorable political and social stances regarding her philosophy taken by highly visible public figures. For example, during his campaign for the vice presidency, Congressman Paul Ryan became publicly associated with her work due to his own statements as well as his later disclaimers of her influence on his political thought (Mayer, 2012). As Lizza (2012) pointed out in a biographical profile of Ryan, in 2003 he gave copies of Atlas Shrugged to his staffers for presents and urged his interns to read Rand's writings. He is quoted as saying “if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand… . The fight we are in here … is a fight of individualism versus collectivism” (Lizza, 2012, p. 2). The same source documents her influence on the political philosophies of Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, although they later distanced themselves from her because of her atheism (Leibovich, 2010).
In 2012, similar recognition from the United States Postal Service was awarded to the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The announcement by the Postal Service explained that the issuance of the stamp coincided with the 100th anniversary of the publication of Burroughs' first Tarzan story (Burroughs, 1912). The statement went on to say that “we are proud to honor wonderful writers like Mr. Burroughs … these creative geniuses make lasting contributions to our cultural heritage” (Valera, 2012, p. 1). The Postal Service Governor, who chaired the dedication of the stamp further said, “everyone has a favorite author when they are growing up … for me that writer was the man we honor here, Edgar Rice Burroughs. I am very happy to see the legacy [of his work] … endure” (Bilbary, 2012, p. 1).
Burroughs, Rand, and the Concept of Supermen
In 2009, at the opening of an exhibition of Tarzan artifacts and media memorabilia in a Paris museum, the curator Roger Boulay described Tarzan as the first superhero. “Tarzan was a superhero two decades before Superman, Batman, or Spiderman were first drawn” (Lichfield, 2009, p. 3). He went on to explain that Tarzan was not superhuman by means of genetic mutation or technology but through his superior and innate intelligence. Burroughs would likely have been very pleased with this characterization of his creation.
Burroughs (1912) crafted the character Tarzan as a philosophical messenger for eugenics. In Burroughs' story, an orphaned human infant is raised in the jungle by a family of apes. He grows strong in spite of his precarious status in the primate community in which he finds himself. He thrives and becomes the absolute “master” of his environment. According to Burroughs' narrative, Tarzan had been prepared by millions of years of evolution to be superior to all other creatures, including humans of other races and people of lower social classes.
Burroughs was fascinated with eugenics. He believed that human heredity had reached its zenith in the British aristocracy. Both of Tarzan's murdered parents were of English nobility. He was born Lord Greystoke, the title that he would eventually claim. Tarzan first recognized his superiority over the animals of the jungle, and then in regard to other humans he encountered. He observed a group of African warriors, and studied their skin color and other physical features. Burroughs described in detail Tarzan's thoughts about what he perceived to be their humanlike characteristics and yet Burroughs wrote that Tarzan believed that they were not fully humans. When he killed one of them, he sensed a relatedness but knew that this was a creature of some other kind (Burroughs, 1912). Tarzan announced himself when other Caucasians arrived near his jungle home by leaving them a printed message (it is noteworthy that somehow he had taught himself to read and write while completely isolated from other literate humans). His message was: “This is the House of Tarzan, The Killer of Beasts and Many Black Men. Do Not Harm the Things Which Are Tarzan's” (Burroughs, 1912, p. 170). Tarzan, Lord Greystoke, was indeed Burroughs' eugenic avatar of a superman of a superior class.
Ayn Rand also celebrated and advocated the concept of individual superiority in her work. She was an admirer of Friedrich Nietzsche and she embraced his belief that the future of humanity depended on the emergence of the Ubermensch (the Above-Human or Superman). He had posited the importance of Ubermensch in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Nietzsche, 1961). Through several of her fictional characters, Rand gave personification to the Ubermensch as someone who is removed from social consciousness and who is unapologetically egoistic. This belief of Nietzsche's is woven throughout her writing and reaches its ultimate portrayal in the protagonist John Galt in the novel Atlas Shrugged (Rand, 1957). He is exalted as heroic in the book because of his radical individualism and extreme self-interest.
Throughout her work, Rand's Ubermensch excelled by his focused rationality. Being rational is the greatest human good and anything that detracts from rationality is “evil.” In contrast she referred to unfocused thought as the primary attribute of “mental parasites,” who constituted the ultimate threat to human society (Rand, 1961).
The Untermensch and Intellectual Disabilities
While it is important to understand the concept of Ubermensch in the thinking of Burroughs and Rand, it is also critical to have an understanding of the opposite concept of Untermensch regarding intellectual and developmental disabilities. Although this concept or term likely may have developed as the antithesis of Ubermensch as argued by Nietzsche, this possibility is not historically evident. It is clear, however, that it was used for this purpose by the American eugenicist Lothrop Stoddard in his 1922 publication, The Revolt of Civilization: The Menace of the Underman. In this monograph, Stoddard, writing at the time of the apex of the eugenics movement (e.g., Goddard, 1912) warned that the people he described as the “underclass” were an eminent threat to society and that they must be controlled both socially and reproductively by the Ubermensch (Stoddard, 1922). The term Untermensch was also used by the Nazis to justify their program of what they termed Race Hygiene (Himmler, 1942).
Burroughs, Rand and “Defectives”
Edgar Rice Burroughs continued to be intrigued by eugenic ideas and proposals. His belief in their importance was expressed in a number of Tarzan sequels including Tarzan and the Lost Empire (Burroughs, 1929). In this book, he created a city (founded by Honus Hasta) overrun with degeneracy until a new leader establishes a strict eugenic policy of genetic control. According to the story, the emperor
made laws so drastic that no thief or murderer lived [long enough] to propagate his kind … the laws of Honus Hasta destroyed not only the criminal but all members of his family, so that there were none to transmit to posterity the criminal inclinations of a depraved sire. (p. 53)
In an unpublished manuscript, Burroughs (cited by Porges, 1975) presented a vision of an ideal eugenic future. In the article that he titled “I See a New Race,” he described an imagined civilization that had adopted policies of mandatory intelligence testing and sterilization. As he wrote:
The sterilization of criminals, defectives and incompetents together with wide dissemination of birth control information and public instruction on eugenics resulted in a rapid rise in the standards of national intelligence after two generations … prizes went to families that produced the most intelligent children. Stupidity became unfashionable. (cited in Porges, 1975, p. 461)
Ayn Rand was also concerned about the existence and social drain of people with disabilities. She felt that people who could not fend for themselves in society were the parasites that Nietzsche spoke of throughout his work. Rand held that even the mere presence of people with intellectual and other disabilities had a degrading effect on others. In a question and answer period following her lecture with the title “The Age of Mediocrity” at the Ford Hall Forum in Boston in 1981, she expressed her distaste for inclusive education for children with disabilities as follows:
[F]or healthy children to use handicapped materials … I think it is a monstrous thing—the whole progression of everything they're doing—to feature, or answer, or favor the incompetent, the retarded, the handicapped … including the kneeling buses and all kinds of impossible expenses. I do not think the retarded should be allowed to come near children. Children cannot deal, and should not have to deal, with the very tragic spectacle of a handicapped human being. When they grow up they may give it some attention, if they're interested, but it should never be presented to them in childhood, and certainly not as an example of something they have to live down to. (Rand, 1981, p. 12)
In 1973, she had answered a question from the audience at Ford Hall about whether individuals who were “profoundly and severely retarded” should have civil rights. She responded by saying:
[N]ot the same rights as they would apply or belong to a normal individual. They would have the right to be protected as perennial children, in effect. Just as children are entitled to protection, so do retarded people, simply on the very distant possibility that since they are human they may be cured and they may become, uh, at least partly able to stand on, on their own, or partly, uh, conscious. So that their rights is a courtesy extended to them for the fact that they are human beings, even if botched ones. (Rand, 1973, p. 17)
Although these two speeches could be seen as not representative of her overall beliefs and focus, certainly two quotations stand out from the speeches, as excerpted above. The first is the implication that educational inclusion results in typical children being exposed to “something they have to live down to.” Second, the reference to individuals with disabilities as being “botched” is disturbing today and perhaps also to many of the people who heard those words in 1973.
William Hickman: Imbecile or Ideal Man
Burroughs' (1929) inspiration for the eugenic laws in his fictional empire of Honus Hasta appears to have been, at least in part, from a non-fictional source. A month before he began work on Tarzan and the Lost Empire, Burroughs reported on a 1928 murder trial for the Los Angeles Examiner. The defendant, William Hickman, was charged with the brutal murder of a 12-year-old girl. In his accounts of the trial for the Examiner, Burroughs ridiculed the defense argument that Hickman was insane. He countered this defense by writing that:
Hickman is not normal. But abnormality does not by any means imply insanity. Hickman is a moral imbecile and moral imbecility is not insanity. [The abnormality is genetic—an] inborn brutality of will … If we hang him we have removed … a potential menace to peace and happiness and safety of countless future generations, for moral imbeciles breed moral imbeciles, criminals breed criminals, murderers breed murderers just as St. Bernards breed St. Bernards. (cited in Taliaferro, 1999, pp. 229–231)
Burroughs (1928, cited by Taliaferro, 1999) further argued that the Hickman case should be an alarm bell for needed changes in social policy regarding “mental defectives.” He wrote that
[T]he city has plenty of moral imbeciles that we might well dispense with … a new species of man has been evolving through the ages and only when society awakens … will it realize that the members of this new species may not be judged by the same standards that hold for us … Destruction and sterilization are our only defense and we should invoke them while we are yet numerically in the ascendency. (cited in Taliaferro, 1999, p. 230)
Burroughs (1929) was likely encouraged in his claims about imbecility by testimony during the trial documenting that there were epileptics, imbeciles, and “constitutional inferiors” in Hickman's family history. A pattern consistent with perceptions of dysgenic trends clearly emerges from this analysis. It reinforces a perspective that ultimately came to a legal conclusion in that decade with the Supreme Court decision on involuntary sterilization in the Buck v. Bell (1924) case (see Smith & Nelson, 1989).
Rand (as cited by Harriman, 1997) also found in Hickman an example of a new species of man, but a desirable and needed species. In contrast to the disdain she had for people with intellectual disabilities, she had admiration for the brilliance and independence she perceived in Hickman. In one of her journal entries following his murder trial, she expressed appreciation for his self-confidence, “his strength as shown in his unprecedented conduct during his trial and sentencing; his calm, superior, indifferent, disdainful countenance, which is like an open challenge to society—shouting to it that it cannot break him” (cited by Harriman, 1997, p. 37).
Hickman wrote letters from prison while awaiting execution. He signed them as “The Fox” and he boasted that “if you want help against me, ask God, not men.” Rand wrote approvingly of his utter remorselessness and his pride in other crimes he had committed (cited by Harriman, 1997). In explaining her admiration for Hickman, she wrote that she found that the public outrage against him was based not on his crime but on his independent spirit and exceptional intellect.
This is not just a case of a terrible crime. It is not the crime alone that has raised the fury of public hatred. It is the case of a daring challenge to society. It is the fact that a crime has been committed by one man, alone; that the man knew it [to be] against all the laws of humanity and intended it that way; that he does not want to recognize it as a crime and that he feels superior to all. It is the amazing picture of a man with no regard whatever for all that society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. A man who really stands alone, in action and in soul. (Harriman, 1997, p. 37)
Utopia, Dystopia, and the Future of the Concept of Intellectual Disabilities
Utopian proposals that narrowly define the ideals of human and social perfection usually exclude or may harshly control people who do not fulfill their visions. Whether in Brave New World (Huxley, 1932), Walden Two (Skinner, 1948), or other descriptions of utopian states, they are presented as a means of escaping from or avoiding social dysfunction and degradation, dystopia.
Burroughs' work consistently presented the worldview that a truly utopian society can only be achieved by eliminating the “unfit.” Only by freeing the world from the dangers posed by defective people will a new level of human happiness be achieved. Rand however believed that a dystopia had already been created. Only by the elevation of a superior class could dystopia be eclipsed and utopia be achieved. She detested the concept of “ordinary” people. Only through excellent and independent minds, even those that were brutal in their independence, could the dystopia of contemporary civilization be eliminated.
Alternative futures for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities were embodied in different ways by Burroughs and Rand. They held in common, however, that what they saw as deficiency, whether individual, social, or both, must be prevented or removed. While the concerns that these two writers communicated may be expressed in more moderate and careful terms by others today, the central question remains the same. Is there a humane and inclusive place for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in human society.
As genetic manipulation and control become increasing influences on issues of parental choice and responsibility, disability in general—and perhaps more so intellectual and developmental disabilities in particular—may be a crucible for addressing broad questions of diversity and the value of individual differences. As the political debates in the United States in this decade concerning health care and who deserves it intensify, decisions about the worth of the people who have disabilities must in our view be a focus of our field's engagement in both the science of and advocacy for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Editor-in-charge: Glenn Fujiura
J. David Smith (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org), University of North Carolina, Greensboro. 3010 Calabria Ct., Glen Allen, VA 23059, USA; Edward A. Polloway, Lynchburg College.