Monday, February 3, 2014

Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs & "Tarzan Revisited" by Gore Vidal

I first read Tarzan of the Apes, the first Tarzan book, while I lived in New York, probably over ten years ago. I don't recall what edition I read, maybe one my brother loaned me. I thought it was a great novel. Soon after I read it my wife (then my girlfriend) and I went with my father to the Botanical Gardens in the Bronx, one of the many fascinating attractions which abound within the confines of NYC. I got on my wife's nerves by pretending I had lived my early life as had Lord Greystoke, and kept looking at a tree or flower and observing, "Ah, yes, it was in just such a tree that I lay in wait that time I ambushed a ferocious jaguar," or "It was into a patch of aromatic orchids such as these that one of my rivals among my tribe of apes threw me that time, into the path of a stampeding herd of elephants." The more annoyed she became, the funnier these ridiculous jokes seemed to me. Perhaps it is surprising that she married me.

Anyway, in the last two years I bought a copy of Tarzan of the Apes from a Goodwill a short distance from where I now live, the Signet Classic paperback edition from 1990.  The publisher, trying to class up this pulp action adventure, chose as a cover painting a 19th century depiction of Victoria Falls by Thomas Baines (which I believe is printed in reverse, to put the negative space on the back) and includes an "introduction" by Gore Vidal.  The publisher's scheme seems to have worked; my copy was at one point purchased from a University bookstore.  The cover painting choice does make the print on the back cover hard to read, though.  Well, there probably aren't many people who see the front cover and say, "What the hell is a tarzan?" 

Burroughs's novel first appeared in magazine form in 1912.  British aristocrats Lord and Lady Greystoke are marooned in West Africa by pirates, and struggle to survive.  They are killed shortly after giving birth to their son.  In a bizarre turn of events, a female ape, bereft after the death of her own son, takes up little Lord Greystoke, suckles him and raises him.  Given the name of Tarzan, which means "white skin," by the tribe of apes, Lord Greystoke grows up to be a skilled jungle hunter with animal-like senses and reflexes.  At the same time, Tarzan is able to take advantage of the books and other artifacts his parents left behind, and the weapons of a native tribe which moves into the area, so that his human cunning, knowledge and tools make him more than a match for the dangerous primates and felines who inhabit the savage jungle.

Burroughs' Africa seems to resemble the Africa of real life little more than his Mars (of the John Carter books) resembles the Mars of real life.  The apes who adopt Tarzan are a fictional species of relatively high intelligence who have a language and use crude musical instruments, for example, and I am skeptical that coconuts and pineapples grow in the wild in the real West Africa.  Still, if we suspend disbelief, as we do when reading so many other science-fiction and fantasy stories, we find that Burroughs' Africa is a thrilling setting for an adventure story.

I found the story of Tarzan's growth, both as an ape (he fights his way from strange interloper to leader of the tribe) and as a human (he gradually learns about his true heritage, how to read and how to use weapons) satisfying, and Burroughs has a good writing style that carries you forward smoothly; I was truly curious to see what would happen next to Tarzan, even though, of course, there is no chance Tarzan is going to get killed or humiliated.  Burroughs' speculations about how an intelligent ape or a man raised by apes would respond to human beings, their behavior and artifacts, are convincing and entertaining.  I don't understand how Tarzan learns to write his name in English, though, as he doesn't know what sounds correspond to what letters.

The story suffers a bit with the introduction of Jane Porter and her party in the second half of the book.  The American Porter, her academic father and his equally well-educated assistant, Porter's black servant Esmeralda, and English nobleman Clayton, are marooned by (a different set of) pirates in the same spot Tarzan's parents were marooned like 20 years before.  Besides the distracting coincidences (Clayton is Tarzan's cousin, for example), Professor Porter and his assistant, and Esmeralda, are all distracting comic relief characters.  The academics are caricatures of absent-minded professors (they are so busy arguing over the merits of Muslim civilization in the 15th century that they don't notice a lion creeping up on them) and Esmeralda is an hysterical "mammy" figure who faints when there is danger and says things like "Fo de good Lawd's sake, ain' Ah daid?" when she wakes up.

Strange to relate, the apes who adopt and raise the baby Tarzan: his loving foster mother, his put upon and jealous step father, and Tarzan's rivals for leadership of the tribe, are more compelling characters than the civilized humans in the novel.

The second half of the novel is also inferior plotwise to the struggles and education of Tarzan in the first half; Tarzan rescues the members of the Porter party, and a French naval officer, again and again, and there is a love quadrangle, Jane being pursued by Tarzan, Clayton the nobleman, and Canler, a rich American businessman.  I actually liked the scenes between Tarzan and Jane, the way each thinks the other is so beautiful and falls in love in a flash (we have all felt this way, or at least dreamed of feeling this way, right?) and how each fears that their being from different worlds makes a lasting relationship impossible.  The scenes with Clayton and Jane are not very well done and the scenes with Canler and Jane are worse.  Burroughs has reasons for including these characters, among them pointing out that the primitive man of action is more attractive to women than the traditional aristocrat or the modern bourgeois, but, looking at the book as a piece of entertainment, sometimes Clayton and more so Canler feel like needless complications that slow the book down and dilute the feelings of the reader. 

There are hundreds of interesting things to say about Tarzan of the Apes related to imperialism, racism, social class, nature vs nurture, the noble savage vs debased decadent civilized man, American perceptions of Englishmen and Frenchmen, Darwinian evolution and religious skepticism, but I'm sure they have all been said already.  Suffice to say that as well as being a good adventure story Tarzan is interesting as a view into the attitudes and beliefs of people a century ago.

The first half of Tarzan of the Apes is very good, the second half just OK.  We'll see what I think of the second Tarzan book soon enough.   

I read "Tarzan Revisited," the article by Gore Vidal that serves as introduction, after I had read Burroughs'  novel (and drafted all the paragraphs above), as I wanted to go into the book without any kind of preconceived notions, and because I figured it might be full of spoilers.  I've never read any fiction by Vidal; his books always seem to be about topics which don't interest me, like satires of Hollywood or fictionalized biographies of American politicians.  If I wanted to know about Aaron Burr wouldn't I just read a legit biography of him, or a history of the early American Republic, by a serious historian?

It could be that by avoiding Vidal I'm making a mistake and I'm missing out; this essay by Vidal, which first appeared in a magazine in 1963, is pretty good.  It is definitely better than what I have written here.  C'est la vie.  Vidal talks about his own relationship with Burroughs' books, compares Tarzan and John Carter to James Bond and Mike Hammer, criticizes Burroughs' style and praises Burroughs' action sequences, and laments that modern society increasingly stifles and bores the individual.  I think anybody interested in  Burroughs and genre fiction would enjoy it. 


  1. Speaking of Tarzan, I weirdly want to read Philip José Farmer's Lord Tyger (1970) -- a somewhat new wave metafictional pastiche of Tarzan.... A wealthy Englishman wants to have a personal Tarzan in a jungle. Looks fun!

  2. I think we have both had hit or miss experiences with Farmer, but I would definitely try that.