Tarzan of the Apes
by Edgar Rice Burroughs
1914, A. C. McClurg
Recommended? Not as such
Every time I sit down to write for the Anarcho-Geek Review, I think about how limiting it is to say “Recommended?” and then answer in the binary. But, I suppose, a reader comes to AGR wanting a recommendation from the point of view of “can an anarchist recommend this politically.” And with Tarzan, no, I cannot in good conscience recommend it. It’s a story of its time, with all the evil black men and damsels-in-distress that entails.
It’s a well-written, well-paced adventure and romance the likes of which we don’t see too often anymore. So what’s good (a little bit) and bad (a hell of a lot) about old Tarzan?
Tarzan of the Apes is, rather than the embodiment of the wild, the embodiment of the mainstream American male persona. Tarzan of the Apes knows he belongs in the jungle but he can make his way with ease in the civilized world.
Tarzan, for those who aren’t aware, is a character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs that has been with us through movies and books and cartoons for a hundred years now. Tarzan is King of the Apes—orphaned as a baby of castaways on the west coast of Africa, raised by ferocious apes. He swings from tree to tree, using his physical might and his superior brain to be, indeed, the fiercest and mightiest killer in the whole of the jungle. And it started with this book.
There’s an incredible, nearly insufferable amount of bad in this book. Tarzan literally lynches the first black person he ever meets. The tribespeople are viscous, cruel cannibals who are stupid and superstitious. Over and over again, the book beats it into our brain that white people are practically as different from black people as humans are from apes. It’s not just the tribes of Africa who get this treatment: Jane’s black servant is a sniveling coward of a fat black woman from Baltimore who is clearly just in the story for comic relief. The racism is sort of never-ending, and of course, the very premise of the book is how this god of a white man is the only person who could rule the jungle.
Jane gets saved like three times at least in the book, too. Though to be fair, so does pretty much everyone around her as well. White people in the jungle get saved, black people in the jungle get killed.
Somehow, the overwhelming racism and sexism that underlies the book serves as a fascinating foil for the statements here and there throughout that are actually rather positive. Tarzan (who learns how to be the perfect gentleman) chastises a white colonialist for suggesting that all lions are cowardly, saying you cannot judge individuals by the group anymore than you could rightly think all black people criminal based on one example. (Even in this positive animal rights and anti-racial-stereotyping bit of the story, though, he’s comparing black people to animals.)
As for gender roles, honestly, I’m impressed by Jane and her other love interest, Clayton. Both are just so refreshingly honest. They say what’s on their mind. They apologize for rude things. Clayton refuses to resort to underhanded means to win Jane’s love. There’s more to unpack there, about Tarzan “choosing” to be civil and not assault Jane, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
But the primitivism in the book is no primitivism at all. Tarzan of the Apes is, rather than the embodiment of the wild, the embodiment of the mainstream American male persona. Tarzan of the Apes knows he belongs in the jungle but he can make his way with ease in the civilized world. He’s basically the best at everything, including killing and being primal as well as being courteous and civil. Burroughs has mixed the American romanticization of British civilization with the American romanticization of the African wild. This isn’t a book about longing to return to our pre-civilized way of life, of returning to the lifeways of our indigenous roots. It’s about returning to a time in America where men were men were men were Tarzan.
It’s interesting to me—perhaps telling—that Burroughs paints Tarzan so sympathetically, with the character’s preference for solving problems through violence and his occasional refusal of polite society, while at the same time painting two different gangs of mutineers as the worst thieving evil scum of the earth. Tarzan is stealing only from nature and black men, while the mutineers are stealing from their rightful masters.
Okay, actually, this book really fucking awful. Sometimes that doesn’t really sink in until after I finish both a book and its review.
But if you like simple, old-fashioned adventure stories and have a high tolerance for simple, old-fashioned racism, or if you want to know what the hell is wrong with white American men, you might get something out of reading Tarzan.