Updated: Sep 7, 2022
Edgar Rice Burroughs never would have looked upon himself as a social mover and shaker with social obligations. But as it turns out — and I love to say it because it upsets everyone terribly — Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world. … By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go out and decide to become special.
— Ray Bradbury
I fell passionately in love with Tarzan — this glorious creature living out in the jungle doing all the things I wanted to do, and what did he do? He married the wrong Jane.
— Jane Goodall
At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes . . . will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.
— Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man
I can close my eyes and easily conjure the feel of the creaky wooden floors and gluey, book-spine smell of the Saskatoon News Agency, the rickety downtown book/magazine/
newspaper store that Paul and I used to frequent at every opportunity.
We were nine years old and the president had just been shot and the Beatles had been on Ed Sullivan (twice!) and we were mad about Tarzan, both at the movies and in the pulpy Ballantine Books series of Edgar Rice Burroughs novels then retailing for 50 cents apiece.
Like both our dads, my mother worked outside the home, so it was Paul’s homemaker mom who usually took us both to the store and to the movies. If there was a lineup outside a theatre (the one for A Hard Day’s Night that summer wrapped itself around the block), Mrs. Weiss (not her real name) would exercise her self-conferred prerogative as an adult and unabashedly butt in at the front of the ticket queue. No kids from that era dared question this entitlement, least of all Paul or me.
Mrs. Weiss had grown up in a comfortable Sudeten German family in Czechoslovakia. More than three million ethnic Germans were living in the country when the Second World War began and the great majority welcomed the Nazi invasion of 1939; almost all were expelled to Germany and Austria at the end of the war, Mrs. Weiss among them.
I’m unclear as to the details, but somewhere in the post-war chaos, she met Mr. Weiss, a Pole with German ethnicity who had been pressed into service as a Nazi soldier after the German invasion that triggered the war 83 years ago this month. He was injured and hid in a barn for days en route to surrendering to the Allies five years later.
Sometime in the mid Fifties, the two landed in Canada as what my parents darkly referred to in whispers, when they thought I couldn’t hear, as DPs: Displaced Persons.
They ended up in Saskatoon, in a small bungalow two doors down from our even smaller bungalow, because Mr. Weiss knew a few people (Germans, Poles and Russians) who had already settled there. He trained as an accountant and soon had a thriving business, largely thanks to his connections, friendly personality and ability to converse in multiple languages.
Mrs. Weiss never liked the place, which she considered to be in the middle of nowhere because, in truth, it was. The winters were long and unbearable. The people mostly came from rural roots (behind the wheel, she often railed at “stupid farmers”) and lacked the urban sophistication, tastes and prejudices she had acquired in her girlhood in Prague.
On visits to our house, she was unable to resist the urge to straighten out the vapid pictures hanging on our walls. It left my mother feeling like a hillbilly.
The isolation, the severance from what remained of her faraway family and, though no one called it that at the time, the PTSD from which Mrs. Weiss was clearly suffering, left her subject to bouts of depression, an obsession with cleanliness and a limited tolerance for the antics of noisy young boys.
Fearing a spill on one of the chairs in the living room to which we were never officially granted admittance, she kept them covered in the packing plastic in which they’d arrived. If she caught us sitting on the sidewalk outside her house, she would scream in a pronounced German accent: “Powell, people spit there!”
It’s a good thing she never spotted us in the back alley, walking daily on the gravel with our shoes and socks removed in an attempt to toughen our feet for tree-climbing like you know who.
Even better that she wasn’t there the time Paul fell out of a tree (a tall cottonwood, if memory serves) we had shimmied up in a nearby park, scraping his bare chest and bare legs all the way down. We would ascend to such heights, on such precarious branches, that I would sometimes be paralyzed with fear and unable to stir for what felt like hours (but was at the most a minute or two) before finally regaining the courage to descend.
What Mrs. Weiss also didn’t know — none of our parents did — was that we had eaten raw hamburger from her fridge to taste meat the way we imagined Tarzan must have dined on gnu or wildebeest or zebra. Chewy and not very tasty, as I recall. Not recommended, but neither of us suffered food poisoning. As an adult, I have never been tempted to try steak tartare.
It wasn’t just Tarzan we loved. It was our romantic vision of Africa and all the wondrous creatures in it, particularly orphaned lionesses named Elsa. Mixed in among my Beatles 45s, I still have the 1966 Matt Monro recording of the theme from Born Free (a sentence likely unprecedented in the annals of English-language confessions). Dunno what’s on the B side, but I’m quite certain it has never been played. No point messing with more than a half-century of history at this point.
After seeing the movie Daktari when we were 11 and really should have known better, it was decided that Paul would adopt the tree-swinging, apeman lifestyle and I would become a veterinarian ministering to the likes of cross-eyed lions named Clarence and chimps named Judy. But first, there would be Hockey Night in Canada games and episodes of Hogan’s Heroes to watch, Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin LPs to groove to.
The dream dissipated, in the manner of most childhood career tracks, when Mrs. Weiss finally persuaded her husband to ditch the five-month, 40-below winters with a move in the early Seventies to the more civilized West Coast, taking Paul and his brother with them.
Paul smoked a ton of dope, dropped acid and became an excellent artist, though he remains uncelebrated because he doesn’t have a self-promotion bone in his body. (Even when we were preschoolers, his jungle scenes had been sophisticated triptychs and such while mine featured stick people in stick forests. I never got the least bit better. He turned into a cross between Albrecht Dürer and Picasso.)
I smoked a bit of dope and actually did take two years of pre-veterinary courses at the University of Saskatchewan, switching over to the arts not because my marks weren’t good enough to get into the vet college (they were) but because staring at a cow’s eye in a petri dish made me puke. For whatever reason (psychological or not), I developed a strong allergy to dog and cat dander and was rendered near anaphylactic in the proximity of horses and cows. I would never examine a leopard with a stethoscope or be licked by the purple tongue of a giraffe.
Besides, given what we had learned about the realities of the Dark Continent in the interim — particularly Angola, where Tarzan had thrived in the novels but which was embroiled in a civil war stoked by the broader international Cold War through much of the 1960s and ’70s — it was beginning to look like we might need a Plan B.
Which brings us back to Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose Plan B (or rather, C, D or E, depending on how you calculate it) turned out to be a doozy.
I’d always assumed that he was a Brit because of his sycophantic toadying to the aristocracy.
Remember, before being raised as a feral child by fictional Mangani great apes after the deaths of his shipwrecked parents, Tarzan was born John Clayton II, Viscount Greystoke (not to be mistaken with feral adult Conrad Moffat Black, Baron Black of Crossharbour KCSG. There are abs and then there are abstruse absurdities. Reductiones, ahem, ab absurdum?)
But no. Born in 1875 and raised in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, a Sundown town that excluded non-whites from living there through the usual heady mixture of discriminatory laws, intimidation and violence (an arrangement known today as having “very fine people on both sides”), Burroughs hit a few potholes before becoming a prolific and fabulously wealthy author of adventure, science fiction and fantasy stories.
After failing the entrance exam for the United States Military Academy at West Point and briefly serving as an enlisted soldier with the 7th U.S. Calvary in what was then Arizona Territory, he was diagnosed with a heart problem and discharged.
He spent half a year as a cowboy at his brother’s ranch in Idaho, drifted for a time, toiled at his father’s battery factory in Chicago and married his childhood sweetheart, all before turning 25.
He then managed his brothers’ ill-fated, bucket-line gold dredge operation in Idaho, which proved that old apothegm about all that glitters not being profitable. He caught on for a while for the Oregon Short Line Railroad before spending seven years — seven years! — eking out a living as a pencil-sharpener wholesaler, the creative writing workshop of its time.
In 1911, by now the hard-pressed father of a boy and a girl (a second son would be born in 1913) and an avid consumer of escapist pulp-fiction magazines, Burroughs had a revelation. As he explained two decades later in an article he wrote for the Washington Post and the New York World, it occurred to him that:
… if people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines, that I could write stories just as rotten. As a matter of fact, although I had never written a story, I knew absolutely that I could write stories just as entertaining and probably a whole lot more so than any I chanced to read in those magazines.
In 1950, with almost 80 novels to his credit, Burroughs would suffer from multiple health problems and succumb to a fatal heart attack at age 74. But not before:
• Becoming an amateur pilot.
• Divorcing his wife and marrying a beautiful actress (the ex-wife of the co-founder of Burroughs-Tarzan Enterprises).
• Adopting the children of said actress and then divorcing her seven years later, which proved that old apothegm about seven years with the wrong woman being more than an ape-man can, ahem, bare.
• Seeing his biological daughter marry early Tarzan film actor James Pierce and voice the role of Tarzan flame Jane in a 1930s Tarzan radio series.
• Becoming, in his sixties, America’s oldest war correspondent after witnessing the attack on Pearl Habor while in Honolulu in 1941.
• Buying the huge ranch that became the centre of the Tarzana neighbourhood in Los Angeles.
• Creating, in addition to the Tarzan franchise, the popular John Carter of Mars, Pellucidar and Amtar series, not to mention the Caspak trilogy.
At the time of his death, Burroughs had received more than $2 million US in royalties (the equivalent of more than $25 million today) from 27 Tarzan films alone, more than any previous author had ever earned in film receipts. Not a succès d’estime, perhaps, but by any measure a crazy succès fou.
Aside from the voluminous sales of more than two dozen Tarzan books, many of which remain in print today, he had also received a cut from comic strips, two popular radio programs and a Broadway stage production.
The ape-man lived on after the author’s death in more movies, comics (Marvel and DC both spun out Tarzan issues in the Seventies), Japanese manga, animated cartoons, the 1960s television series starring Ron Ely that Paul and I especially adored, colouring and activity books, video games, ebooks, audiobooks, stories and novels by other writers around the world (including Israel, Argentina and assorted Arab countries).
Then there were (and are) the action figures, View-Master reels and more cultural references, parodies and dirty jokes than you can shake a spear at, from a memorable 1990s hit by the Crash Test Dummies to the ape-woman call that made Carol Burnett even more excruciating to watch (or endearing, depending on the fragility of your tympanic membrane) on her variety series in the late Sixties and Seventies.
So what is it about Tarzan, essentially a grown-up Mowgli from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, transferred from India to Africa, that has made the character so iconic since his 1912 birth in the serialized All-Story Magazine version of the novel Tarzan of the Apes, first published in book form two years later?
Right off the top, we can rule out Burroughs’ skill, or lack thereof, as a stylist. Doing a quick spin through some of the Tarzan books I still possess — at our peak, Paul and I had at least 20 between us — it’s easy to see that the characters are predictably two-dimensional (or “flat,” as E.M. Forster would have put it), the dialogue clunky, and the reliance on fantastic coincidences ridiculous and risible.
Kipling’s amused (and maybe a little jealous?) verdict was that Burroughs had written Tarzan of the Apes, unsurpassed in the increasingly formulaic sequels, to “find how bad a book he could write and get away with it.”
Still, if you bought into the sci-fi superpowers of the character as we did wholeheartedly as kids, Burroughs had an undeniable ability to tell a cracking story.
The inarticulate “me Tarzan, you Jane” image of the rough but chivalrous protagonist presented in 12 classic movies from 1932-1948 featuring Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller in the title role (backed mostly by a supporting cast featuring Cheeta the chimp, an adopted son named Boy and Mia Farrow’s lovely mother, Maureen O’Sullivan, as Jane) was as much a departure from the books as was Boris Karloff’s dimwitted Frankenstein’s monster from the intelligent and expressive creature Mary Shelley brought back from the dead in her 1818 novel.
Rather than being limited to broken English, full-throated ululations and skilled animal impressions, Burroughs’ Tarzan teaches himself to read as a teenager while uncannily deciphering books left helpfully behind by his deceased parents. In the process, he acquires a knowledge of history, geography and his own prestigious family tree.
Upon being discovered by wandering Frenchman Paul d’Arnot, who teaches Tarzan how to translate the written words to human speech, he first explains (in writing, which he’d also casually taught himself to do): “I speak only the language of my tribe — the great apes … and a little of the languages of Tantor, the elephant, and Numa, the lion, and of the other folks of the jungle I understand.”
The hardcover copies of Tarzan of the Apes that Paul and I both possessed presented a helpful glossary at the end that translated ape words into English. Mine disappeared into the sucking bogs of the forest many moons ago, but whenever the need arises, I can still summon: “Kreegah bundolo! White men come with hunt sticks. Kill!”
I can’t tell you how many times that little mantra has come in handy as an editor. Or while shopping at Costco.
Besides English and the ability to talk to more animals than Dr. Doolittle ever dreamed of, Tarzan also becomes easily fluent in French, German, Dutch, Finnish, Swahili, Arabic, Mayan, ancient Greek, Latin and, my favourite, the languages of the Ant Men and of Pellucidar, a land 500 miles beneath the Earth’s crust populated by prehistoric civilizations, dinosaurs and other creatures long extinct on the surface. (The Turok, Son of Stone comics you might remember from the Fifties and Sixties ripped off the idea without acknowledging the debt to Burroughs — just as he stole it from Jules Verne’s 1864 sci-fi classic, Voyage au centre de la Terre. Plenty of, um, inspiration going down.)
Tarzan would have put Chomsky, who never learned to speak chimp, to shame as a linguist. But Paul and I couldn’t have cared less.
What thrilled us to the blunt rubber tips of the suction-cup arrows of our toy archery sets was how he could run up trees in his calloused bare feet, swing from vines with reckless abandon, track animals and humans for miles (the word “spoor” must appear a thousand times in the ERB corpus), and — above all, for this was literally the meat of the matter — armed only with a knife, a bow and arrow and his wits, always prevail in plucky wrestling matches with menacing lions, leopards, tigers, sharks, dinosaurs, gorillas, hippos, pythons, rhinos, crocodiles and, let’s see, have I left anyone out? Oh yes. Giant seahorses.
Might have been the dashing loincloth that threw the beasts off their game, as it did Jane.
There are no tigers in Africa, of course, at least not wild ones. Lions live on the savannah, not in the forest. Giant seahorses? Well. Attention to scabrous, squamous, unavailing facts — the whole quivering caboodle — was not within the remit of the bulging-eyed, sagging-mouthed readership.
Remember those exciting, fighting scenes? It was enough to make kings and vagabonds believe the very best. Given the dizzying flurry of all the clawing and biting gambols, it was beside the point that the author couldn’t write for taffy. Can you feel the love tonight?
But now we come to the sobering part of Earl and Paul’s excellent adventure. And you surely know what’s coming.
Even by the standards of his time, Edgar Rice Burroughs was thoroughgoing racist, sexist and classist white supremacist whose influence on impressionable young minds for more than a century has caused incalculable harm, particularly to Black children inevitably exposed to the derring-do of a white demigod among “jabbering” (another Burroughs staple), ignorant, superstitious, cowardly savages who, oh yeah, physically resemble them.
“This is the house of Tarzan, the killer of beasts and many black men,” Tarzan boasts upon meeting Jane Porter, the 18-year-old Baltimore girl marooned with her father on the same coast where Tarzan’s parents had washed up 20 years before. (And no, Burroughs didn’t capitalize the “b” in “Black” as newspapers and magazines began to do a few years ago in a cost-free concession to the Black Lives Matter movement.)
Tarzan — whose very name means “white skin” in ape — is not only the killer of many Black men in books filled with use of the N-word and every heinous racist stereotype you can imagine, but he sometimes makes a point of prominently hanging cannibals with vines around their necks to strike fear into the hearts of their compatriots.
Gee, what does that remind you of? Did I mention that Burroughs grew up in a Sundown town?
Tarzan of the Apes climaxes, so to speak, with our hero boldly rescuing Jane from a black-ape racist. When he leaves the jungle for the first time and sees Black people farming, his first instinct, notes historian Gail Bederman in her book Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917, is to slay them:
Like the lynch victims reported in the Northern press, Tarzan’s victims — cowards, cannibals, and despoilers of white womanhood — lack all manhood. Tarzan’s lynchings thus prove him the superior man.
And what a man among women!
Jane, his one true love and the beautiful blonde bride with whom he lives in England for a time in The Return of Tarzan before the hypocrisy of high-society life drives them back to the jungle, is initially a helpless damsel in distress, simultaneously repelled by and hopelessly attracted to the bad boy built like a Greek god. She gets spunkier as the series goes on.
Although Tarzan — the King of All the Apes, a Bwana among Bwanas who once “suckled at the hairy breast of his foster mother, Kala the great she-ape” — never rapes or has consensual sex with a Black woman (boy, that would have made our little bare toes curl and our parents blanch 50 shades of white), he’s not above helping a fictional tribe of Alali men gain social dominance over their feisty, independent, proto-feminist women by providing them with weapons in Tarzan and the Ant Men:
To entertain Tarzan and to show him what great strides civilization had taken — the son of The First Woman seized a female by the hair and dragging her to him struck her heavily about the head and face with his clenched fist, and the woman fell upon her knees and fondled his legs, looking wistfully into his face, her own glowing with love and admiration.
Now that’s entertainment. And great strides for civilization. How did Sylvia Plath put it in her poem Daddy? Oh yeah:
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
While Paul and I were busy absorbing these positive, life-affirming messages, British authorities were hiring mobile cinemas to show Weissmuller-era Tarzan movies — perfectly faithful to the Burroughs canon in their depictions of native savagery — throughout colonial territories in Africa and the Caribbean as a way of countering the Black nationalist, liberation ideology promulgated by the likes of Frederick Douglass and Marcus Garvey. After all, who wouldn’t want to be colonized by a superior race if you sprang from a bunch of jabbering criminals and imbeciles?
How had Kipling put it in a poem whose title you can probably guess? Oh yeah:
Take up the White Man's burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.
Criminals and imbeciles, sullen peoples half devil and half child — not all of them Black — were a consistent bugbear for Burroughs, inordinately proud of his English ethnicity and a lifelong subscriber to the bogus ideology of eugenics, scientific racism and the creation of better humans through social engineering. This is from the Wikipedia article about the all-American, bullet-headed, Saxon mother’s son:
(Burroughs’) views held that English nobles made up a particular heritable elite among Anglo-Saxons. Tarzan was meant to reflect this, with him being born to English nobles and then adopted by talking apes (the Mangani). They (the apes) express eugenicist views themselves, but Tarzan is permitted to live despite being deemed "unfit" in comparison, and grows up to surpass not only them but Black Africans, whom Burroughs clearly presents as inherently inferior, even not wholly human.
In one Tarzan story, he finds an ancient civilization where eugenics has been practiced for over 2,000 years, with the result that it is free of all crime. Criminal behaviour is held to be entirely hereditary, with the solution having been to kill not only criminals but also their families. Lost on Venus, a later novel, presents a similar utopia where forced sterilization is practised and the "unfit" are killed.
Burroughs explicitly supported such ideas in his unpublished nonfiction essay “I See A New Race.” Additionally, his Pirate Blood, which is not speculative fiction and remained unpublished after his death, portrayed the characters as victims of their hereditary criminal traits.
It was part of the zeitgeist, I suppose, that Lost on Venus was published in 1933, the year the Nazis took power in Germany and justified their pernicious racial policies by citing tenets of eugenics and Social Darwinism. Wikipedia again:
Adolf Hitler had praised and incorporated eugenic ideas in Main Kampf in 1925 and emulated eugenic legislation for the sterilization of “defectives” that had been pioneered in the United States once he took power.
Some common early 20th-century eugenics methods involved identifying and classifying individuals and their families, including the poor, mentally ill, blind, deaf, developmentally disabled, promiscuous women, homosexuals, and racial groups (such as the Roma and the Jews in Nazi Germany) as “degenerate” or “unfit,” and therefore led to segregation, institutionalization, sterilization, and even mass murder.
The Nazi policy of identifying German citizens deemed mentally or physically unfit and then systematically killing them with poison gas, referred to as the Aktion T4 campaign, is understood by historians to have paved the way for the Holocaust.
How do you get rid of crime? Stain human history forever with the Shoah, the most monstrous crime in history. If that doesn’t make sense to you, maybe you aren’t cut out to be a Nazi scientist. Or an innocent child inhaling this poison.
The sour sustenance Paul and I and millions of other impressionable readers derived from the hairy breast of Kala, the great she-ape, and the other exhilarating inventions of Burroughs’ fertile mind was in fact the milk of human blindness.
Paul and I don’t talk much anymore because we can’t go for more than five minutes without his getting into what I consider a conspiracy-theory-driven Trumpist, fascist, antivaxxer, pro-Putin, antisemitic rant. He thinks I’m a liberal sheep who naively believes the lies of the mainstream media, which everyone knows are controlled by Jews.
He calls himself a “Commie” and is a devoted online consumer of RT, the Russian state-controlled international news television network that overlaps so closely with supposedly anti-Communist Fox News on major issues that one would now sit comfortably atop 90 per cent of the other if you did a comparison with Venn diagrams.
I’m afraid to broach the topic of eugenics, preferring to stick to our childhoods and the Beatles if we can, but it doesn’t feel like the dial has shifted very far from the German occupation of the Sudetenland, when the region was one of the most pro-Nazi regions in Europe.
Hey. It’s a jungle out there. Burroughs’ bequest to the universal vale of tears was ultimately minuscule. But on the whole, I’d say his contribution to the great strides of civilization hasn’t been salutary. Did Tarzan inspire schoolgirl crushes or make coddled white boys feel special? Shame on us.
How did that haunting Billie Holliday song go, released as the war was breaking out and written by Russian Jewish immigrant Abel Meeropol (aka Lewis Allan), a high school English teacher who had James Baldwin as a student and actually was a member of the American Communist Party for a time? Oh yeah:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.