Tarzan: Racist Savage or First Eco-Warrior?

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan, Tarzan of the Apes, The Tarzan Files

The issue of whether or not Edgar Rice Burroughs put forward racist ideas and subtext in Tarzan and his other novels, including the Barsoom novels, is something that comes up from time to time and is worthy of some discussion and analysis.  Here is an article from The Independent in 2009 that attempts to address the issue:

Tarzan: Racist Savage of First Eco-Warrior?

Moi Tarzan, toi Jane. If you visit the Eiffel Tower this summer, study the steelwork carefully, because you might see, or imagine you see, a familiar figure leaping from strut to strut. Tarzan of the Apes has taken up residence in the Musée du Quai Branly, the museum near the base of the Eiffel Tower, which is dedicated to non-Western – or, as some people insist, “primitive” – forms of art.

Paris may seem an unusual place to find the most learned exhibition about Tarzan, also known as Lord Greystoke, ever assembled. He was, after all, an English aristocrat and orphan fostered by socially responsible apes in the African jungle. He was the literary creation of an American writer, Edgar Rice Burroughs, who never bothered to visit Africa (and was so little steeped in African studies that his ape man wrestled tigers as well as lions). The museum has decided to de-construct the Tarzan myth as part of its mission to explore how popular Western culture understands, or misunderstands, non-Western cultures. Is Tarzan a sexist and a racist who subjugates Jane and treats black men like children? Is he a macho colonialist in a leopard-skin loincloth, rather than a pith helmet? Or was he the first ecological super-hero: a man in recyclable, locally-sourced clothes who fought to protect his pristine jungle from greedy commercial interests?

According to the curator of the exhibition, the celebrated French sociologist and anthropologist Roger Boulay, it depends which Tarzan of the Apes you are talking about. “There is a big difference between the original Tarzan of the Burroughs novels and the culturally impoverished Tarzan of Hollywood movies, starting with silent movies,” he told The Independent. “The Burroughs character is complex and eventually speaks 12 languages. The movie character is often a caricature who speaks only in grunts.”

Read the full article at The Independent


  • I get the sense from ERB that he was interested in telling exciting tales, and any direct or implied social commentary was a secondary element of that. He said as much in his correspondence, albeit in a self-deprecating way.

    The many deliberate, positive racial messages in his works seems to me to negate the claims of some critics that he “meant” something by virtually every supposedly negative racially-identifiable element of his stories. Some of the critics just seem to salivate at the prospect of finding any element they can hang the “racist” label on, even when there is no hate or judgment or stereotyping in the book at all – and all of that while there are unmistakable elements of racial harmony and mutual respect, as between Tarzan and the Waziri.

    Sadly, ERB is a punching bag in some “literary” circles, and the bullies have stopped doing their fact-checking.

  • “The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”
    — Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1754

    Tarzan is essentially an evocation of Rosseau’s philosophical ideal of the natural man. Rosseau’s philosophy contrasts with Thomas Hobbe’s view of the nature of man as competitive and destructive. Instead, Rosseau’s natural man is largely good because he lives in harmony with nature, therefore nobilty is an organic part of his nature.

    Furthermore as an atheist, Burroughs embraced Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Darwin had some ideas about race that would be considered politically incorrect in our time. In addition, Burroughs lived and wrote in the age of colonialism and never really questioned it. Therefore, if modern readers see racist attitudes in Burroughs’ work, they should take into account the age in which he lived and worked. He should not be condemned for being a man of his time.

    Burroughs was above all an unpretentious entertainer, not an intellectual. Ultimately it is remarkable that his work retains so much of its original charm one hundred years after his first stories were published.

  • in 100 years, yoyos will be the most disgusting and obscene issue of the time, and we will be looked upon as savages with no moral boundries

  • Yeah, I caught several errors too.
    Gosh, I wonder in 100 years how we will be judged by the political correctness of that time?

  • here is a hint . . . if you are discussing racism, dont refer to a group of africans (Waziri) as apes . . .

    clearly they confused mangani and waziri but . .. daaaaaang that is a horrible mistake

  • Jeez, I’m french and I missed that??

    Nice article, even if Jane “Parker” would object.

    I have yet to read the other Tarzan novels, I’m not even finished yet with the first one, but I was not disturbed by racism. It seemed more blatant to me in some of Lovecraft’s or Howard’s tales.

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