Tarzan of the Apes

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When Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875–1950) submitted the story "Tarzan of the Apes: A Romance of the Jungle" to the pulp magazine All-Story in 1912, he was desperately lacking money and confidence. At that time Burroughs was an inexperienced fiction writer struggling to support his wife and two small children. Burroughs had graduated from Michigan Military Academy, had failed entrance examinations to West Point, was discharged from the army due to a heart murmur, and was rejected as a volunteer for Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. He then failed as a storekeeper; worked in his father's battery company; served as a railroad policeman; dredged for gold in Idaho; and sold lightbulbs, patent medicines, and salesmanship courses. While checking ads for pencil sharpeners that he had placed in pulp magazines, Burroughs began reading the fiction published there and decided that he could write just as badly and more entertainingly. In October 1912 "Tarzan of the Apes" appeared in All-Story. Fan letters poured in, and Tarzan was published in book form in June 1914.

Escape was a prime ingredient of Tarzan's appeal. Readers living in an increasingly dehumanizing and regimented world could live vicariously through this English lord who solved problems instantly with muscles and a knife. As Roderick Nash and Gary Topping have noted, books such as Tarzan became popular at a particular time in U.S. history. In 1893 the historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1861–1932) wrote his influential essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." Turner's essay centered on data from the 1890 census that suggested that the American frontier no longer existed. Turner asserted that the wilderness had fashioned those who lived among it into an American prototype—hardy, independent, resourceful, self-reliant, democratic. Without the frontier, America was still a man's world, but it was a world that entrapped and emasculated the man. The option of escaping into the wilderness, such as was available to James Fenimore Cooper's fictional character Natty Bumppo and Mark Twain's Huck Finn, was lost to history. The American Adam was dead, the Garden of Eden subdivided. Topping suggests that one manner by which Americans attempted to compensate for this loss of frontier was to re-create it in popular fiction, and he identifies Tarzan as a prime example. Indeed, Burroughs creates the ultimate frontier, as Tarzan is orphaned at age one on a deserted jungle coast and is raised by a female ape. Through crude naturalism, Burroughs also recreates the corollary identity of the ideal man; however, this identity and its role in the world are troubling constructs built upon Social Darwinism, colonialism, racism, and gender selection.

Nature and heredity provide Tarzan the physical, mental, and moral powers necessary to dominate. Nurtured beyond the realm of corruption and mechanization, Tarzan by age ten "was fully as strong as the average man of thirty, and far more agile than the most practiced athlete ever becomes" (Burroughs, p. 40). His genetics act as an evolutionary sieve through which only superior traits filter, and he evolves from ape to aristocrat in one generation, complete with noble brow, well-shaped head, and majesty of carriage. Heredity is responsible for Tarzan's natural attraction to the artifacts of civilization left behind by his dead father, his desire to read and write, and his ability to do both with no knowledge of phonetics. Heredity also accounts for his English bravery, the chivalry he displays to Jane, his affinity for upper-class whites, and his refusal to eat human flesh. In the end, these naturalistic forces create an individual who could serve as the ideal fantasy self for American males who were increasingly fettered and controlled by the demands of the modern world.

Even though Tarzan is a physically superior human, he cannot match the brute strength of the apes and is viewed by them as an inferior being. Yet Tarzan's genetics make him lord of any society in which he is placed by providing him the bravery and reasoning to apply such technologies as his lasso and hunting knife. A pivotal scene in which he socially ascends is during the apes' "Dum-Dum" ritual. The tribe gathers to celebrate their killing of a member of a rival tribe, and they pound drums, dance, and devour the corpse of their foe. During this feast Kala, Tarzan's ape mother, is viciously attacked by Tublat, Tarzan's ape father, and Tarzan intervenes to protect her. Tublat is a giant bull ape, and Tarzan is still a boy. But Tarzan is not a passive recipient of technology, for he has made the knife part of his person by creating a sheath like one pictured in his father's books. Tarzan kills Tublat, and the Dum-Dum ritual suddenly serves as Tarzan's initiation ceremony. While battling Tublat, Tarzan exhibits the viciousness and bravery the tribe had gathered to celebrate, and by killing Tublat, Tarzan earns the acceptance and respect of the apes. Tarzan takes a significant step here toward humanness—he must become an ape to become a man. He is also now symbolically poised to become human, for he has vanquished the ape father so that his lineage to a human father can later be established.

Tarzan's social ascent may be read as an allegory asserting that the upper classes of white civilization are capable of being perfected and that they have an inherent right to colonize other societies. Soon after validating himself as a member of the ape tribe, Tarzan encounters the black Africans through whom he will demonstrate his superiority among humans. Described with the conventional racist rhetoric of Burroughs's era, these blacks are shown to be not only Tarzan's inferiors but also to be his absolute others. To create an idealized self, such as Tarzan, a totally abhorrent other must be created—and these blacks are everything Tarzan is not. They are identified by their kinky hair, bulging eyes, protruding lips, large noses, and ebony darkness, and this caricatured exterior is used to signify their darker interiors as they are immediately shown to be violent and cowardly as they kill Kala and flee from the vengeful Tarzan. At the plot level, the killing of Kala provides Tarzan a righteous motive for slaughtering the blacks; however, as a cultural act, this killing reinforces their otherness. Tarzan, as a symbol of perfected white civilization, must have no biological link to this tribe of darkness. Burroughs's description of the blacks' physical appearance make it almost inconceivable that they are humanly related to Tarzan, and their killing of Kala disallows any connection to Tarzan through the tribe of apes. Tarzan performs the ultimate act of domination and colonization by lynching the warriors responsible for Kala's death. He then colonizes the blacks further by haunting their village. He plays pranks on them and steals their weapons, prompting them to worship this unseen, yet white, visitor as a forest god.

Tarzan's reaction to the blacks is a frightening reflection of the violence perpetrated against African Americans. His lynching of the warriors calls to mind similar attacks in the southern United States, which had increased sharply in the early decades of the twentieth century. Yet perhaps an equally insidious example of racism is the depiction of Jane's servant, Esmeralda. This character becomes the stereotypical "mammy" figure depicted in countless works of minstrelsy when she is introduced as a huge black woman dressed in bright colors and fearfully staring at the jungle with large, rolling eyes. She is condescendingly cast as the devoted servant who has "earned" the trust of the whites she serves, and she is intended to be a source of comedy with her exaggerated dialect and animated fear. Yet even with these examples it is difficult to discover Burroughs's true views on race. In Tarzan, Burroughs points out that the blacks had entered the jungle to escape the abuse of white soldiers, and in his poem "The Black Man's Burden" (c. 1898) Burroughs condemns white culture for its abuse of the African race; however, these egalitarian views are placed aside throughout most of Tarzan.

Tarzan's entrance into Western civilization allows him to make his final evolutionary strides. In a matter of weeks after his first contact with whites, Tarzan speaks French and English, acquires the dress and manners of an English gentleman, and learns to drive a car. This rapid evolution was due in part to Tarzan's natural aversion to lower-class whites and their influence; for example, he immediately recognizes the inferiority of the mutineers abandoning Jane and her companions on the beach of his jungle. His evolution also involves the establishment of his superiority over Jane. In their first face-to-face encounter, he rescues her from Terkoz, a bull ape who was planning to make Jane the mother of his own tribe. As Tarzan slays Terkoz, Jane is shown helplessly and sexually pressing herself against the phallic form of a tree with her bosom heaving in excitement. Tarzan carries Jane into the middle of the jungle, where her dependence upon him becomes absolute. She is placed in a protected but dependent position as he brings her fruit, builds her a hut, gives her his knife to hold while she sleeps, and stations himself outside the door of the hut. In this scene the giving of the phallic knife emphasizes that his role as her protector is a sacrificial role—he relinquishes the symbol of his gender superiority for her welfare. Jane is reduced to a dependent object that provides the man with the identity of sacrificing protector.

Another stride in Tarzan's social evolution is his dominance over white males. While in the jungle he rescues several civilized whites from the beasts and cannibals. After entering civilization, he defeats a giant, drunken black man with one blow, wins a bet of ten thousand francs by killing a lion with only a rope and a knife, rescues Jane from a forest fire when all other men proved ineffectual at saving her, and lifts an unscrupulous suitor of Jane's by the throat to convince him to release Jane from a promise of marriage. Tarzan makes his final stride when it is confirmed that he is Lord Greystoke. Although he chooses not to capitalize upon this fact in the conclusion of the novel, it provides him an identity to reveal at will.

Burroughs and Tarzan have been largely ignored by scholars; however, an increasing number of social critics are recognizing that popular literature's mass appeal makes it a relevant source of cultural expression. In his essay "The Tarzan Theme" (1932) Burroughs observed that Tarzan was popular because he provided wish fulfillment and escape by allowing readers to turn from the complexities and demands of modern society. Burroughs maintained that such entertainment was the sole intent of his fiction, and he added that he found it almost impossible to take his Tarzan stories seriously and that he hoped no one else would. Unfortunately, as Tarzan illustrates, writings that have been dismissed as harmless entertainment may have been potent forces by which minorities, women, and entire cultures were stigmatized and marginalized.

See alsoDarwinism; Genteel Tradition


Primary Work

Burroughs, Edgar Rice. Tarzan of the Apes. 1914. New York: TOR (Tom Doherty Associates), 1999.

Secondary Works

Berglund, Jeff. "Write, Right, White, Rite: Literacy, Imperialism, Race, and Cannibalism in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes." Studies in Fiction 27, no. 1 (1999): 53–76.

Esscoe, Gabe. Tarzan of the Movies: A Pictorial History of More Than Fifty Years of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Legendary Hero. New York: Citadel Press, 1968.

Fenton, Robert W. The Big Swingers. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967.

Heins, Henry Hardy. A Golden Anniversary Bibliography of Edgar Rice Burroughs. West Kingston, R.I.: D. M. Grant, 1964.

Holtsmark, Erling B. Edgar Rice Burroughs. Boston: Twayne, 1986.

Holtsmark, Erling B. Tarzan and Tradition: Classical Myth in Popular Literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Lupoff, Richard A. Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure. New York: Ace Books, 1968.

Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. 3rd ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982.

Porges, Irwin. Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1975.

Taliaferro, John. Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan. New York: Scribners, 1999.

Topping, Gary. "The Pastoral Ideal in Popular American Literature: Zane Grey and Edgar Rice Burroughs." Rendezvous: Idaho State University Journal of Arts and Letters 7, no. 2 (fall 1977): 11–25.

Utz, Richard J., ed. Investigating the Unliterary: Six Essays on Burroughs' "Tarzan of the Apes." Regensburg, Germany: Verlag Ulrich Martzinek, 1995.

Phillip Howerton