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“He had become my Tarzan”

By (March 1, 2011) 3 Comments

October 2012 will mark the one-hundredth anniversary of the first appearance of the eponymous hero of Tarzan of the Apes, written by Edgar Rice Burroughs and originally published as a complete novel in that month’s issue of the well-known pulp publication, All-Story Magazine. Tarzan of the Apes, Burroughs’ second publication with All-Story, would rocket him to fame, especially after an expanded version was published as a book (Burroughs’ first) in 1914 by McClurg.

More than any other of Burroughs’ many creations, Tarzan has become a staple of popular culture, a process which began almost immediately: 1918 marked the first version of the novel in the relatively new forum of popular cinema, a film that would be one of the first to gross over one million dollars. Beyond film, Tarzan would form the basis of a radio show in the 1930s, and would spawn one of the first serial dramatic comic strips, the other being “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” both of which debuted on the same day in January 1929. As the twentieth century steamed ahead, Tarzan found fame in television, comic books, cartoons, songs, lunchboxes, and even on the map: Burroughs bought a ranch and named it after his character, and over the years it developed into the town Tarzana, California. All of this is not to forget that Burroughs eventually published twenty-six Tarzan books, to which other authors (both authorized and not) added after Burroughs’ death in 1950.

It would be a daunting, and likely pointless, task to try to explain the why of Tarzan’s popularity. I say “pointless” (even though I venture into an explanation below) because, while many of us will have a clear picture of Tarzan in our heads, the character is in fact more slippery than one may first think. Burroughs’ own Tarzan moves from being the superman who was raised by “anthropoid apes” after being orphaned on the shores of equatorial western Africa, to being more or less an international gentleman spy, to being briefly replaced by his son, to exploring the underworld of Burroughs’ other series set beneath the Earth’s crust. Beyond Burroughs’ version, while most popular culture Tarzans share the heritage of being raised in Africa by apes and being suspicious of civilization, the similarities between Burroughs’ original creation and its cultural descendants often end there. Tarzan’s well-known clipped speech pattern, for example, is the creation of the films; by the end of the original novel, Tarzan speaks flawless English and French, and had earlier taught himself how to read and write in English.

So the “why” of Tarzan’s appeal is less of a concern, it seems to me, than the “how”: the character functions almost as a cultural prism, in which the concerns, anxieties, desires, and tastes of particular times and places are encapsulated, only to be refracted in such a way as to make us look at that context in a different perspective. When I think of Tarzan, I often think of one of his later, perhaps distant descendants: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. At the beginning of each episode of that television series, the voiceover intones that “Into every generation a slayer is born”; well, into every generation, or location, a Tarzan likewise seems to be born.

Burroughs’ original Tarzan, as he appeared in that first novel, embodies several of the aspirations, tensions, and failings of the early twentieth-century Unites States. Born to Lord and Lady Greystoke after they were marooned on the shores of equatorial western Africa by a group of cutthroat mutineers, the rightful inheritor of the title ‘Lord Greystoke’ is orphaned and subsequently raised by apes in the jungle. His struggles to survive, combined with what Burroughs describes as his “heredity,” lead Tarzan to develop into a “god-like” specimen of humanity, who, when confronted with members of “civilization” is left agog at their weakness and stupidity. Like Eliot’s also popular (though not quite as popular) “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Tarzan of the Apes bemoans the stultifying effects of modern civilization.

Written at roughly the same moment when Baden-Powell was forming the Boy Scouts, the American government was setting aside lands for national parks, and the Audubon Society was created, the novel refracts a national longing for an unspoiled nature, one that will, nearly mystically perhaps, save the nation from the corruption and decadence of a newly urban lifestyle. Like the Boy Scouts’ retreat to nature, Tarzan’s is also a gendered one, an attempt to recapture a masculinity that was supposedly disappearing beneath the left-over Victorian niceties of nineteenth-century America and the excesses of the early twentieth.

Burroughs makes this argument for nature and manliness explicit in a set of comparisons between Tarzan and his cousin, who had unwittingly usurped Tarzan’s aristocratic title. After watching the first human he sees cook meat, Tarzan, who “would not ruin good meat in any such foolish manner,”

gobbled down a great quantity of the raw flesh, burying the balance of the carcass beside the trail where he could find it upon his return. And then Lord Greystoke wiped his greasy fingers upon his naked thighs and took up the trail of Kulonga, the son of Mbonga, the king; while in far-off London another Lord Greystoke, the younger brother of the real Lord Greystoke’s father, sent back his chops to the club’s chef because they were underdone, and when he had finished his repast he dipped his finger-ends into a silver bowl of scented water and dried them upon a piece of snowy damask.

A similar comparison is made when Tarzan kills Sabor, the lioness (who was Sabor, the tiger, in the magazine publication, which Burroughs changed after readers pointed out that there were no tigers in Africa…):

With swelling breast, he placed a foot upon the body of his powerful enemy, and throwing back his fine young head, roared out the awful challenge of the victorious bull ape. The forest echoed to the savage and triumphant pæan. Birds fell still, and the larger animals and beasts of prey slunk stealthily away, for few there were of all the jungle who sought for trouble with the great anthropoids. And in London another Lord Greystoke was speaking to his kind in the House of Lords, but none trembled at the sound of his soft voice.

The tie between Tarzan, the natural world, and manliness became one of the most enduring of the character’s associations. This “back to nature” movement and its various cultural connections to Tarzan are perhaps best exemplified in the famous experiment undertaken by Joseph Knowles. In his Alone in the Wilderness, published in 1913, the year after Tarzan’s appearance in All-Story, Knowles describes how he lived alone in the woods with no civilized accoutrements–he even entered the woods naked. Knowles, like the Scouts and others in the various streams of the “back to nature” movements, thus echoes Tarzan of the Apes’ statements about the threat posed to manhood by civilization: Knowles was called by some the “Maine Tarzan.”

Of course, the other central cultural association of the original Tarzan is even more pernicious – and vicious. The novel has been read, as have the later films, as lauding not just a general “manliness,” but specifically one that at the least flirts with an Anglo-Saxon, white supremacist masculinity, as many critics have noted. “Tarzan” in Burroughs’ invented ape-language does mean “white skin,” and Tarzan describes himself to the first white people he sees as “the killer of many black men.” Tarzan is here again serving as both a receptacle of and lens for reading his historical context: Tarzan’s violence towards black Africans finds its echoes in the racism and violence directed at African Americans at this time. The NAACP was formed shortly before the publication of the novel, and was actively engaged in the opening decades of the century with combating the massive number of lynchings taking place across the US, and certainly the notion of white supremacy was explicit in the then-popular eugenics movements and associations.

I mention these contexts explicitly not to excuse the racist characterizations that find their expression in Burroughs’ novel (as Tarzan apologists would do), but to show the ways in which the original character both provides the foundation for, and stands against, his appropriation as a–perhaps the—modern popular embodiment of the archetype of the hero. Instead of my prism metaphor, we could read Burroughs’ Tarzan as an ideological shell, into which many different historical specifics have been poured. And this makes him a fluid figure, who can be (partially) emptied of that history and refilled in different contexts. Even Burroughs’ drawing of the character would change over the several decades of his writing (writing that was contemporary with many of the other cultural Tarzans), and while the first novel does contain certain racist stereotypes in abundance, it also makes an anti-imperialist argument.

While I would (and have) argued that Tarzan–in what we can call generally “cultural memory”–never manages fully to escape his historical origin (and his racist and sexist connotations), over the decades-long course of Burroughs’ series and in the wider realm of popular culture the character has refracted the light of many different periods and places. Tarzan has looked forward to certain environmentalist causes, fighting against illegal hunters in, for example, the 1958 film Tarzan and the Trappers, and in both the novels and the films he has responded to global political turmoil, including fighting in WWII and battling communists during the Cold War. In the film Tarzan Triumphs (1943), for example, the most famous screen Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller, trounces the Nazis who have invaded the jungle, at one point uttering the famous line, “Now, Tarzan make war!” Released two years after America’s entry into the war, the film offers comedic propaganda, with Tarzan’s robust masculinity once again pitted against a decadent civilization, but this time that antagonist is represented by the Nazis, who are both vicious and ridiculous (at the end of the film, Tarzan’s chimp, Cheeta–who does not appear in the novels–manages to contact a Nazi unit over the radio, and a German officer mistakes Cheeta for Hitler).

Other versions of Tarzan have appeared around the globe. Eli Eshed has documented the popularity of Tarzan in Israel, where a series of pulp pamphlets featuring variations on Burroughs’ figure was published between the 1930s and 60s. And James R. Nesteby has traced Tarzan’s appearance in several Arabic publications. He’s also been a romantic lead in Bollywood productions.

One can certainly read into the proliferation of Hollywood Tarzans both in North America and around the globe a form of American pop-culture takeover, where American film and other mass-marketed icons force out local traditions. Others may see the development of multiple global Tarzans as a form of pop-culture transcendence, where Tarzan can escape his background and seamlessly fit into other situations. I would argue, instead, that the “origin myth” that Burroughs gives to Tarzan–an orphaned child, raised outside of human contact–lends a certain emptiness to the figure that allows him to be filled in with a variety of both political and personal fantasies. This theory is being tested again, with a new series of young adult novels scheduled to begin publication in 2011, in which Tarzan is reportedly recast as a young environmentalist: quite the transformation from the first screen Tarzan, Elmo Lincoln, who killed an actual lion on set.

But can Tarzan ever escape his own origins in early twentieth-century America, a creation soaked in the racial, gender, and other politics of its time? When Disney recreated Tarzan for an animated film in 1999, they tried to avoid the issue of race by simply avoiding the representation of black people living in Africa altogether, an erasure that brought condemnation from many. The continual reproduction of Tarzan can allow us to trace the similarities and differences between different cultural traditions around the globe, or to examine the social changes in Western cultures over the course of the twentieth century, even as it speaks to the dominance of American popular culture. Tarzan can also, though, remind us of the ways in which those cultural differences are still too often ignored or attacked, or that the changes to North American society since Tarzan’s creation, while undeniably great, have not been as thorough as they may at first appear. But what the popularity of this character undeniably shows us is the way in which such pop-culture icons can become a part of a wide variety of people’s intellectual and emotional lives. As one reader wrote to All-Story Magazine after the novel’s first publication: “When I had finished the article I felt the keenest sorrow for Mr. Burroughs’s ‘Tarzan of the Apes.’ No–he had become my Tarzan.”

Jason Haslam is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Dalhousie University, and current President of the Canadian Association for American Studies.  His research interests include prison writing, science fiction, and the gothic, among other topics.  He is the author of Fitting Sentences: Identity in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Prison Narratives, and has edited Constance Lytton’s 1914 suffragette autobiography, Prisons and Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes.