Tarzan of the Apes

Edgar Rice Burroughs

     Born in Chicago in 1875,  Burroughs was the son of a Civil War veteran who moved to the burgeoning metropolis in 1868, began his career as a distiller and ended up running the American Battery Company.  Burroughs' two older brothers were Yale graduates who entered their father's business.  Young Ed found success through a more roundabout route. 
    After a couple of years working for their father and inhaling battery acid, the older brothers headed West to clear their lungs and start a cattle ranch.  Young Edgar joined them in 1892.  He fell in love with the west and the idea of the cowboy;  photographs from the time feature him in chaps, ten gallon hat, and leather vest.  
After half a year in the West, Edgar was shipped off to Phillips Academy in Massachusetts.  Burroughs was not a successful student.  He flunked out of Phillips and enrolled in the Michigan Military Academy.  After graduation, he joined the military as a cavalry officer and was stationed in Arizona.  Bored by army life, Burroughs persuaded his father to pull some strings and have him discharged.  He spent the next 17 years trying to make it as a businessman, editor, and writer in Chicago.  The ambiguous fruits of middle-class clerical life took their toll 
on Burroughs and as he ground out copy for System, "The Magazine of Business," a journal devoted to more efficient business management, he grew increasingly desperate.

    As Burroughs grappled to find meaningful work and vocation, the pulp magazine revolution was exploding across American popular culture.  Cheap, illustrated magazines like The All-Story and The Argosy began to cultivate a new, broad readership of working-class and middle-class men with tales of adventure in distant times and places.  Burroughs initially disdained these new, extravagant vehicles of mass fantasy.  But, desperate to find success, he began writing his first adventure series, A Princess of Mars, in 1911 and was soon being paid about half a cent a word to publish A Princess in All Story.

    Burroughs began Tarzan shortly after the success of his Mars serial.  He claimed that his only guide to Africa was Henry Stanley's In Darkest Africa (1890).  All-Story's editors were enthusiastic about Burroughs' new project, and the first installment of Tarzan appeared in the 
October 1912 issue of the magazine, with a cover featuring Tarzan grappling with the mighty Simba.  Burroughs completed a Tarzan sequel in 1913, and the first Tarzan narrative was published as a book  in 1914.  By the time he was done with Tarzan, publishing Tarzan in the Foreign Legion in 1947, Burroughs had become the king of pulp fiction, having earned millions through the novels and their licensed movie, comic strip, and radio versions.  

     Tarzan has been variously read as: adventure tale, imperialist narrative, and popular, e.g. generic, fiction.  Yet, as we've seen with our work on contexts, Burroughs' fantasy of a white aristocrat made savage by his environment and then redeemed by love touches on a number of ideological and narrative discourses that traverse popular and elite cultures of the American fin-de-siecle.  Our most important goals in reading Tarzan are two-fold: to locate these cultural memes within the text and to examine the kinds of provisional articulations, equations, and analogies - - e.g. the cultural work and commerce - - that Burroughs' narrative undertakes with the texts and representations that surround it.

The project:

First: You'll work in groups.  Each group should pick a context from the list below.  Read the contemporary cultural texts associated with the context.  Think about the connections between Tarzan and the cultural texts, especially in relation to the theme (of imperialism, exoticism, manliness, wildness, etc.).  How does Tarzan take up and develop, or echo, the arguments within the cultural text you've read?  

Now: go to our Tarzan page on DemocraticVistas.net.  There, you'll see links to a page for each of your contexts.  Click on the link for your context.  This is where you'll write your commentary on Tarzan's relation to contemporary debates about imperialism, exoticism, manliness, and wildness.  You don't have to confine your discussion to the just the cultural text assigned here.  Feel free to expand your research and reading.  And, feel free to add images and other appropriate multimedia.  Your page on DemocraticVistas is a collaborative effort.  You should get together before writing and discuss the cultural text you've read and its connections to Tarzan.



      Rudyard Kipling, "The White Man's Burden"
      Mark Twain, "To the Person Sitting in Darkness"

    John Luther Long, Madam Butterfly

   Theodore Roosevelt, "The Strenuous Life"
   George Miller Beard, "Preface," American Nervousness: Its Causes and Consequences

  Frederick Jackson Turner, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" (Chapter One of The Frontier in American History

Further Reading:

John Kasson, Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America (2002)

        Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890 (1985)

        Marianna Torgovnik, Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives (1991)

        Irwin Porges, Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan (1975)