by Jason Haslam
October 2012 marked the 100th anniversary of the first publication of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ best known novel, Tarzan of the Apes, in the pulp-fiction magazine All-Story. The complete novel published in the October 1912 issue, was given the cover image shown here (where it was described as “A Romance of the Jungle”), and became an immediate hit among the All-Story’s readers. In the months following Tarzan’s appearance, dozens of readers’ letters were published, many of which asked for (or even demanded) a sequel, a request Burroughs would fulfill, eventually writing over two-dozen Tarzan novels.
When I was editing the novel for publication in the Oxford World’s Classics series, I included a selection of these letters in an appendix, recognizing that the intense reaction to Burroughs’ novel and its eponymous hero is a significant aspect of Tarzan’s history. It may be somewhat trite to say, but is nonetheless true, that Tarzan struck a chord with a large and wide-ranging audience 100 years ago, in ways that transformed the character from just another pulp hero and into an American cultural icon and a global phenomenon. As I write in that introduction, “the significance of the figure of Tarzan cannot be overestimated, certainly in relation to American culture, but arguably to global culture as well, given that the Tarzan novels have been reportedly translated into over fifty languages.” Part of Tarzan’s continued popularity, of course, stretches beyond the printed word, and arises from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ own management of his creation and his recognition of the role to be played by the then new media of film. That note struck by Tarzan’s popularity, much like the sound of his famous yell in the popular Johnny Weissmuller films of the 1930s and 40s, was literally heard around the world.
Tarzan’s translation to a global audience is a complex one, however. While such critics as Gail Bederman and Marianna Torgovnick have discussed the novel’s relations to debates surrounding race, civilization, and imperial politics, Tarzan has had a global impact beyond his original literary incarnation. As early as 1952, Frantz Fanon, in his now classic analysis of racial identity and culture, Black Skin, White Masks, uses Tarzan films as his example of the potential psychological effects Euro-American culture could have on colonized subjects. Arguing that “a host of information and a series of propositions slowly and stealthily work their way into an individual through books, newspapers, school texts, advertisements, movies, and radio and shape his community’s vision of the world,” Fanon then notes,
“We recommend the following experiment for those who are unconvinced: Attend the showing of a Tarzan film in the Antilles and in Europe. In the Antilles the young black man identifies himself de facto with Tarzan versus the Blacks. In a movie house in Europe things are not so clear-cut, for the white moviegoers automatically place him among the savages on the screen. The experiment is conclusive.” (Black Skin, White Masks 131)
While, as many critics have noted, Tarzan’s relationship with Africa and black Africans is not a stable one across all of Burroughs’ novels, still the storyline of a white European boy (Tarzan’s parents were English, not American) being raised in a largely mythologized African jungle has particular resonances that are difficult, if not impossible, to escape, as Fanon details.
Recent scholarship on Tarzan builds on such conclusions, pointing to the rich and complex challenge of analyzing the global popularity of Tarzan and his many offshoots. Notable here is the new collection of essays, Global Perspectives on Tarzan: From King of the Jungle to International Icon, edited by Michelle Ann Abate and Annette Wannamaker. Looking at Tarzan both as a particularly American export, but within other national and temporal contexts, ranging from nearby Canada, to postwar France, to postcolonial India, to Israel and Palestine, the authors whose essays are collected in this study examine not just Burroughs’ work, but also the various Tarzans that have been re-created by international authors and creators, for both entertainment and political purposes.
What does it mean that Tarzan, a figure associated with particular European and American visions of the exotic “other,” has also become a Bollywood musical star, or an Israeli hero? One could assert that this demonstrates the flexibility of the archetypal traits Tarzan embodied, or one can point to the ways in which different audiences can redeploy similar tropes for different purposes (eschewing those who would say a text always carries with it a singular literary or political meaning). But, to recall Fanon, it is also important to recognize that the specifics of Tarzan are not lost in these appropriations, and can create an uncomfortable, at best, relation between the audience and the ostensible hero in front of it, be it on the page or screen.
I pose these questions not to answer them here (this is simply a short entry, after all), but to point to the difficult but valuable discussions a seemingly “simple” artefact of popular culture can raise. One hundred years on, Tarzan’s yell still has a way of echoing with various audiences and in varying ways. To likewise echo one letter writer from Lawrence, Kansas, who wrote to All-Story shortly after the original publication, people have consistently over the past 100 years found a way of transforming Burroughs’ original character, and importing him into their own lives: “he had become my Tarzan.”
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