‘Tarzan of the Apes,’ reconsidered on his 97th birthday

Oct. 20, 2009 | 3:00 p.m.

Tarzan cover

It was 97 years ago this month that the Frank Munsey-owned pulp called All-Story Magazine introduced the world to a vivid new character with an especially memorable name: Tarzan of the Apes. A book (one of its many, many editons is shown here at right) followed two years later in 1914. The jungle hero would become an icon and, like Sherlock Holmes or Dracula, he became a persistent figure of interest to film and television producers.

In 1918, Elmo Lincoln was the first to portray in him in film but Olympian Johnny Weissmuller, who swung on the vine for 12 films and 16 years, inhabited the character most successfully. Many others followed: Ron Ely was a more erudite Tarzan for 57 episodes of the 1966-1969 television series; the glowering Christopher Lambert took the character back to his feral roots in “Greystoke” in 1984; and Tony Goldwyn gave us singing Ape Man in Disney’s 1999 animated hit “Tarzan.”

Considering Hollywood’s relentless recycling, how long before we see a new Tarzan film? Don’t be surprised if next time the mythology is transferred to a setting with more special effects opportunities; we might see a spaceship crash leave an orphaned infant alone on a jungle planet with talking apes, or perhaps a post-apocalyptic Earth where the jungle is the ruins of Manhattan.

The ruler of the jungle has a pulp heritage and, just like with his loincloth, he gets very little coverage when it comes to literary academia. Even the less-judgmental scholars of pop culture don’t seem to dwell on Tarzan much these days. But here in his anniversary month, I thought it would be nice to present an excerpt from one especially memorable appreciation of Tarzan and his creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs; this essay was written by Gore Vidal for Esquire magazine and published in December of 1963. I’ve added images from Tarzan’s long swing through popular culture. — Geoff Boucher

Tarzan poster

When I was growing up, I read all twenty-three Tarzan books, as well as the ten [John Carter, Warlord ofMars books. My own inner storytelling mechanism was vivid. At any one time, I had at least three serials going as well as a number of old faithful reruns. I used Burroughs as a source of raw material. When he went to the center of the earth a la Jules Verne (much too fancy a writer for one’s taste), I immediately worked up a thirteen-part series, with myself as lead, and various friends as guest stars. Sometimes I used the master’s material, but more often I adapted it freely to suit myself. One’s daydreams intended to be Tarzanish post-puberty (physical strength and freedom) and Martian post-puberty (exotic worlds and subtle combinaziones to be worked out). After adolescence, if one’s life is sufficiently interesting, the desire to tell oneself stories diminishes. My last serial ran into sponsor trouble when I was in the Second World War and was never renewed.

Until recently I assumed that most people were like myself: daydreaming ceases when the real world becomes interesting and reasonably manageable. Now I am not so certain. Pondering the life and success of Burroughs leads one to believe that a good many people find their lives so unsatisfactory that they go right on year after year telling themselves stories in which they are able to dominate their environment in a way that is not possible in this overorganized society.

“Most of the stories I wrote were the stories I told myself just before I went to sleep,” said Edgar Rice Burroughs, describing his own work. He is a fascinating figure to contemplate, an archetype American dreamer. Born 1875, in Chicago, he was a drifter until he was thirty-six. Briefly, he served in the U.S. Cavalry; then he was a gold miner in Oregon, a cowboy in Idaho, a railroad policeman in Salt Lake City; he attempted several businesses that failed. He was perfect in the old-American grain: The man who could take on almost any job, who liked to keep moving, who tried to get rich quick, but could never pull it off. And while he was drifting through the unsatisfactory real world, he consoled himself with an inner world where he was strong and handsome, adored by beautiful women and worshipped by exotic races. Burroughs might have gone to his death, an unknown daydreamer, if he had not started reading pulp fiction. He needed raw material for his own inner serials and once he had used up his favorite source, Rider Haggard, he turned to magazines. He was appalled at how poor the stories were. They did not compare with his own imaginings. He was like a lover of pornography who, unable to find works which excite him, turns to writing them. Burroughs promptly wrote a serial about Mars and sold it to Munsey’s. His fellow daydreamers recognized a master.

Tarzan DC

In 1914 he published his first book, “Tarzan of the Apes” (Rousseau’s noble savage reborn in Africa), and history was made. To date the Tarzan books have sold over twenty-five million copies in fifty-six languages. There is hardly an American male of my generation who had not at one time or another tried to master the victory cry of the great ape at one time or bellowed forth from the androgynous chest of Johnny Weissmuller, while a thousand arms and legs were broken by attempts to swing from tree to tree in the backyards of the republic. Between 1914 and his death in 1950, Burroughs, the squire of Tarzana, California (a prophet honored by his own land), produced over sixty books, while enjoying the unique status of being the first American writer to be a corporation. Burroughs is said to have been a pleasant, unpretentious man who liked to ride and play golf. Not one to disturb his own unconscious with reality, he never set foot in Africa.

With a sense of recapturing childhood, I have just reread several Tarzan books. It is fascinating to see how much one recalls after a quarter century. At times the sense of déjà vu is overpowering. It is equally interesting to discover that one’s memories of Tarzan of the Apes are mostly action scenes. The plot had slipped one’s mind. It is a lot of plot, too. The beginning is worthy of Conrad. “I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other. I may credit the seductive influence of an old vintage upon the narrator for the beginning of it, and my own skeptical incredulity during the days that followed for the balance of the strange tale.” It is 1888. The young Lord and Lady Greystoke are involved in a ship mutiny (“there was in the whole atmosphere of the craft that undefinable something which presages disaster”). They are put ashore on the west coast of Africa. They build a tree house. Here Burroughs is at his best. He tells you the

Tarzan disney

size of the logs, the way to hang a door when you have no hinges, the problems of roofing. All his books are filled with interesting details on how things are made. The Greystokes have a child. They die. The “man-child” is taken up by Kala, a Great Ape, who brings him up as a member of her tribe of apes. Burroughs is a rather vague anthropologist. His apes have a language. They are carnivorous. They can, he suspects, mate with human beings. Tarzan grows up as an ape; he kills his first lion (with a full nelson); he teaches himself to read and write English by studying some books found in the cabin. The method he used, sad to say, is the currently fashionable “look-see.” Though he can read and write, he cannot speak any language except that of the apes. He gets on well with the animal kingdom, with Tantor the elephant, Ska the vulture, Numa the lion (Kipling has added grist to the Burroughs dream mill). Then white people arrive: Professor Archimedes Q. Porter and his daughter Jane. Also, a Frenchman named D’Arnot who teaches Tarzan to speak French, which is confusing. By coincidence, Jane’s suitor is the current Lord Greystoke, who thinks the Greystoke baby is dead. Tarzan saves Jane from an

Ron Ely as Tarzan

ape. Then he puts on clothes and goes to Paris where he drinks absinthe. Next stop, America. In Wisconsin, he saves Jane Porter from a forest fire; then he nobly gives her up to Lord Greystoke, not revealing the fact that he is the real Lord Greystoke. Fortunately, in the next volume, “The Return of Tarzan,” he marries Jane and they live happily ever after in Africa, raising a son John, who in turn grows up and has a son. Yet even as a grandfather, Tarzan continues to have adventures with people a foot high, with descendants of Atlantis, with the heirs of a Roman legion who think that Rome is still a success. All through these stories one gets the sense that one is daydreaming, too. Episode follows episode with no particular urgency. Tarzan is always knocked on the head and taken captive; he always escapes; there is always a beautiful princess or high priestess who loves him and assists him; there is always a loyal friend who fights beside him, very much in the Queequeg tradition which Leslie Fielder assures us is the urning in the fuel supply of the American psyche. But no matter how difficult the adventure, Tarzan, clad only in a loincloth with no


weapon save a knife (the style is contagious), wins against all odds and returns to his shadowy wife.

These books are clearly for men. I have yet to meet a woman who found Tarzan interesting: no identification, as they say in series-land.

Stylistically, Burroughs is—how shall I put it?—uneven. He has moments of ornate pomp, when the darkness is “Cimmerian”; of redundancy, “she was hideous and ugly”; of extraordinary dialogue: “Name of a name,” shrieked Rokoff. “Pig, but you shall die for this!” Or Lady Greystoke to Lord G.: “Duty is duty, my husband, and no amount of sophistries may change it. I would be a poor wife for an English lord were I to be responsible for his shirking a plain duty.” Or the grandchild: “Muvver,” he cried, “Dackie doe? Dackie doe?” “Let him come along,” urged Tarzan. “Dare!” exclaimed the boy turning triumphantly upon the governess, “Dackie do doe yalk!” Burroughs’ use of coincidence is shameless even for a pulp writer. In one book he has three sets of characters shipwrecked at exactly the same point on the shore of Africa. Even Burroughs finds this a bit much. “Could it be possible [muses Tarzan] that fate had thrown him up at the very threshold of his beloved jungle?” It was possible, or course; anything can happen in a daydream.

Though Burroughs is innocent of literature and cannot reproduce human speech, he does have a gift very few writers of any kind possess: he can describe action vividly…




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13 Responses to ‘Tarzan of the Apes,’ reconsidered on his 97th birthday

  1. Hector says:

    I picked up the first Tarzan book at the library just a couple of years ago and I was surprised that it was such a fun read. Burroughs knew how to write an action story and the book speeds along like the best modern-day action film script.
    I tried reading some of the following books, but for me, none of them were nearly as compelling as the first novel, with Tarazan's birth and origins.
    I've seen a few of the Tarzan movies and none has come close to the vision Burrough's had in the book.

  2. christy says:

    I, too, read the Tarzan series when I was younger, and enjoyed many of them. But even as a child I was disturbed by the complacent, and overt, racism of many of the stories. It seemed that a the series progressed they became ever more formulaic and offensive it that regard.
    As an adult (I'm a woman, by the way – you need to get out more Gore) I've never re-read the Tarzan books as my lingering distaste for the remembered racism keeps me away. But despite the books many faults, I do remember being thrilled by the them and I enjoyed being taken away to mythic Africa for many a thrilling adventure.

  3. yogesh says:

    Tarzan is one of my absolute favorites. It was spectacular and enthralling. As adolescent it was one of the most cherished possessions and one that brings back great memories from childhood.

  4. Bear says:

    I am still waiting for the definitive Tarzan movie. The most resent was a joke. Jane was again portrayed as a demure british female. Read the books. She anything but demure, and she wasn't tarzans cousin. She was a blond, blue eyed American. I just wish some one like, oh J.J.abrams would do the definitive Tarzan movie.

  5. Spaceman Spiff says:

    OH…MY…GOOOOD! JJ Abrams!! Oh please dear god do NOT let that Hack JJ Abrams get a hold of Tarzan. Tarzan is my favorite series from my favorite author and his version would be anything but definitive. If Abrams were aloud to make a Tarzan movie I think I might move to the jungle myself and give up on movies.

  6. […] hero to today’s moviegoers. The character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs (who also created a certain jungle hero) has never really gone away but Disney knows one challenge for the expensive new fantasy epic is to […]

  7. […] hero to today’s moviegoers. The character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs (who also created a certain jungle hero) has never really gone away but Disney knows one challenge for the expensive new fantasy epic is to […]

  8. Bear says:

    I wish someone would make a definitive Tarzan movie, and fololow the first two books.

  9. blackhat says:

    Helpful info. Fortunate me I found your site by chance, and I am surprised why this twist of fate did not came about in advance! I bookmarked it.

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