An unfortunate byproduct of much of the racially focused commentary triggered by the release of David Yates’ Legend of Tarzan is the wholesale trashing of the reputation of one of the most beloved and unique pop culture figures of the last century — Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan, John Carter, and a half dozen other mythic heroes. Is this fair criticism? Are Burroughs’ novels the blatantly racist claptrap that this new avalanche of criticism claims they are? The answer is no. Burroughs’ actual writing in the totality his literary output proves it.
Legend of Tarzan and the Charges of Racism
In the aftermath of the release of Legend of Tarzan, a great wave of commentary has questioned whether the film, based on characters and situations created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in the early part of 2oth century, can escape embedded racism that is alleged to exist in the film in spite of efforts to excise it. The criticism ranges from rational commentary that questions whether Tarzan, a creation of 1912 thinking at a time when Britain held sway of 23% of the world, can be adapted for 2016 audiences, to strident accusations such as this over the top review from Linda Stasi in the New York Daily News: “What year is this again? The new “Legend of Tarzan” is such a crazy racist movie that it makes 1915’s “Birth of a Nation” look like a civil rights epic.”
Contextualizing the Source Material
Let’s look at the source material. First of all, consider the scope of Burroughs’ achievement and pop culture impact. During the period in which he wrote novels from 1912 until he became the oldest war correspondent in history, serving in the Pacific during WWII as he neared 70 years old, his books sold 35 million copies and were translated into 31 languages. He was J.K. Rowling before there was a J.K. Rowling. Tarzan became the best known and most loved literary character of the century. His 24 Tarzan novels led to the first surge of pop culture licensing — there was Tarzan bread, Tarzan sweaters, Tarzan ice cream, many dozens of Tarzan movies, Tarzan lunch boxes, and for a while the Tarzan Clans of America rivaled the Boy Scouts. All of this happened, by the way, in the face of implacable opposition by critics during Burroughs lifetime. An example from 1915: “flap doodle… wild, utterly preposterous, utterly meaningless and humorless… long-winded and repetitious… sheer bumble puppy.” Burroughs was a hugely successful folk author, his writing hard-wired into the psyche of readers. As sociologist/psychologist Sarkis Atamian notes in his book Origins of Tarzan:
“Tarzan is the archetypal man in all of us. Imperceptibly, vaguely, we sense him in ourselves every time he moves. He releases our own archetypes of which we are unaware. That is the grip he has on us. He tells us of the mystery of who we are. . . . The critics cannot understand because they have opted for intellect over soul. It is precisely the lack of ERB’s “literary sophistication” which lets him grasp instinctively this truth and reality unencumbered by an obstructing modern intellectualism. This is what his critics cannot understand, while the common man, the average human being who is in touch with his spirit, immediately grasps what Tarzan’s humanity is all about.”
Lack of critical acceptance did little to slow down the Burroughs juggernaut. Even in death Burroughs’ popularity wasn’t done — not by a long shot. Let’s flash forward to November 29 1963, thirteen years after Burroughs’ death. The Beatles were just getting ready to invade America — but another British invasion of America was well under way. The English aristocrat raised by apes, John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, aka Tarzan, ruled the shelves of bookstores and newstands, courtesy of savagely popular reprints issued by Ace and Ballantine books. The November 29, 1963 edition of Life Magazine, in an article entitled Tarzan, Lord of the Paperbacks, reported:
The Tarzan books, along with other works of their author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, are runaway best-sellers today and have been ever since they began to come out last year. They have sold something more than 10 million copies, almost one thirtieth the total annual sales of all paperbacks in the U.S. Their resurgence has outraged some publishers whose pet books have been rudely elbowed off the display racks, but has brought a gush of renewed nostalgia to at least two generations who remember and revel in the days of Burroughs’ first triumphs and are delighted to see them recur.
To read many of the reviews of Legend of Tarzan, you’d think that “ERB” as we called him was some kind of white supremacist wingnut spewing racism and hatred. Okay,we’ll get to that and break it down in a minute, but first let’s talk broadly about how influential these books were. James Cameron read them and would later say“With ‘Avatar,’ I thought, forget all these chick flicks and do a classic guys’ adventure movie, something in the Edgar Rice Burroughs mold, like John Carter of Mars.” (The New Yorker, October 26, 2009). Carl Sagan said: “I can remember as a child reading with breathless fascination the Mars novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I journeyed with John Carter, gentleman adventurer from Virginia, to ‘Barsoom,’. . . . I can remember spending many an hour in my boyhood…imploring what I believed to be Mars to transport me there.” (“Cosmos” 1980). And Ray Bradbury said: “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.” (Listen to the Echoes, 2010)
One Reader’s Takeaway
I was one of the generation who found Tarzan and “ERB” as we called him in the 1960s. I read all 24 Tarzan books, all twelve John Carter of Mars books, all four Carson of Venus Books — in sum, I read it all, multiple times. As Bradbury suggests, I formed values based on my reading of these books — values that impacted me as a child and a youth and have shaped me as an adult. What values am I talking about? Let’s focus mainly on Tarzan, since he’s the one in the critics crosshairs at the moment.
- Tarzan was abandoned as an infant when his parents died, and as a result, was subjected to an extraordinary arduous upbringing among the apes. As a result of this unique and arduous upbringing, he became stronger than other men, his senses of smell and hearing were more acute — and all of this happened through the hard work of his existence. The takeaway: Work your butt off and you can transform yourself into something special.
- Society and the cultured life weakened people, made them soft, brought out their baser instincts. The rough, physical life of Tarzan brought out the best in him, and produced a better human being, free of the ugliness that society created. Tarzan was more pure, a noble savage who was eventually able to move among men and “pass” as civilized, but whose inner natural state made him better than “civilized” men.
- Tarzan fell in love with Jane and was faithful to her, without exception, for the rest of his life. He loved with complete conviction; he was faithful; he believed in Jane and the power of their love and would do anything to preserve her, and the love, against any danger that would manifest itself.
Notice there is nothing in there about me learning that I was superior because I was white; nothing about learning from the books that it was because of my whiteness that I could prevail. That wasn’t the takeaway; that wasn’t the main lesson from the books.
As a result of the “main lesson” that I did get from the books, I did what Ray Bradbury said so many of us did. I went out into the world with enthusiasm and confidence; I set out to do great and mighty things; I believed in myself and was unafraid; I wasn’t timid; I challenged myself and tried to create a bio worthy of a Burroughs character; I took on major challenges and genuine adventures; I searched for an extraordinary woman to love and when I found her, I cherished her. If there was something negative that I derived from the books, it wasn’t about race. Perhaps, as a result of my intense reading of the books, my inner narrative of my life took on a certain grandiosity–I was, after all, the ERB-like hero of my own inner narrative but in the end I wasn’t Tarzan and my efforts to fly through the middle terraces like Tarzan didn’t always work out. I crashed. But I picked myself up and kept going, and I’m grateful to Burroughs for giving me the gift of confidence and a spirit of adventure and a belief in the power of love. When they throw some dirt over me, I know that at a minimum the word will be that I went out into the world and tried to get the most out of life, and Burroughs was a big part of the reason I lived that way. I am not alone in this. This is the impact that Burroughs had on many of us.
The Charges Against Burroughs
Burroughs is charged with racism and the prosecution typically cites the followng, which has appeared in at least fifty reviews and critical piece of commentary in the ten days since Legend of Tarzan came out. The first piece of evidence is a note that Tarzan left on the cabin (not a treehouse by the way) saying that he was Tarzan, the “killer of beasts and many black men.” It is then stated that in Tarzan of the Apes, the young Tarzan tormented the tribe of Mbonga killing many of them,which is true. And finally it is stated that Tarzan is depicted as succeeding over all Africans because his whiteness makes him superior.
These factors are all present. I do recall that when I finally got my hands on book one Tarzan of the Apes (which due to availability was the tenth or fifteenth Tarzan book I read, not the first) I noted these things and was aware of a racial component. But even then, as a pre-teen in the 1960’s, I was able to make some allowance for the fact that Burroughs had been writing a half century earlier. Women didn’t even have the right to vote at that point. Institutionalized discrimination had been the norm. Reading it was a little like simply growing up around elders — my father, for example, who was no racist but who every once in awhile said things that made me feel a little uncomfortable. I knew that overall he had outgrown the racial attitudes that his childhood in Alabama in the 1930s had given him — but once in awhile it would reassert itself, only to go back into remission. He wasn’t a racist, but he was capable of saying things occasionally which could, if taken out of context, give rise to a misimpression. ERB was like that.
In any event — the prosecution case rests on the casual killings by the young Tarzan of the tribe of Mbonga, his pride in those killings, and on the fact that he was white and succeeded in Africa, ergo “proving” that whites are superior, a narrative that reinforces colonialism/imperialism concepts that are built on the foundation of white racial superiority.
The Evidence That Burroughs Was Not a Racist
I will limit the presentation of evidence to passages from the books themselves — the reason being, the words written by the author are what’s important. All of the words — not just the few passages cherry picked for the purposes of proving a point or supporting a narrative. (And thank you to Norman Ray, Rick Barry, Scott Tracy Griffin, Thomas Simmons, Demos Sachlas, and others for digging these out.)
Consider these passages and ask yourself — are these the words of a blatant racist with a white supremacy agenda?
The Return of Tarzan (1914)
It was now a beautiful, moonlit night. The air was crisp and invigorating. Behind them lay the interminable vista of the desert, dotted here and there with an occasional oasis. The date palms of the little fertile spot they had just left, and the circle of goatskin tents, stood out in sharp relief against the yellow sand—a phantom paradise upon a phantom sea. Before them rose the grim and silent mountains. Tarzan’s blood leaped in his veins. This was life! He looked down upon the girl beside him—a daughter of the desert walking across the face of a dead world with a son of the jungle. He smiled at the thought. He wished that he had had a sister, and that she had been like this girl. What a bully chum she would have been! (Chapter 10)
At dawn the hunters were off. There were fifty sleek, black warriors, and in their midst, lithe and active as a young forest god, strode Tarzan of the Apes, his brown skin contrasting oddly with the ebony of his companions. Except for color he was one of them. His ornaments and weapons were the same as theirs—he spoke their language—he laughed and joked with them, and leaped and shouted in the brief wild dance that preceded their departure from the village, to all intent and purpose a savage among savages. Nor, had he questioned himself, is it to be doubted that he would have admitted that he was far more closely allied to these people and their life than to the Parisian friends whose ways, apelike, he had successfully mimicked for a few short months. (Chapter 15)
The Lad and the Lion (1914)
Nor had the lionman’s perspicacity been one whit at fault in its estimate of the bronze maid of the desert. Far above the average of her sisters, was Nakhla-not only in personal beauty, but in virtue, goodness, character and intelligence as well. A girl in a thousand, was she-yes, in ten thousand, in whom race or complexion might bear no slightest place in the estimate that was her due. Nakhla of the Sahara was a daughter of the races. (Chapter 18)