Tarzan, a colonial symbol of bigotry

January 29, 2011

Edgar Rice Burroughs & Tarzan: A Biography
By Robert W. Fenton
McFarland & Co., 2010,
212 pages, $49.95 (pb)

Edgar Rice Burroughs was in illustrious company when his Tarzan books joined the works of Einstein, Freud, Marx, Zola, Upton Sinclair, H. G. Wells and Jack London in the Nazi book-burning bonfire in front of the University of Berlin in 1933, writes Robert Fenton in his biography of the US author.

Burroughs, though not one-tenth the writer or thinker of his fellow bonfire victims, had infringed Nazi philosophy. He did this not only by doing over the Germans of World War I in an early Tarzan book, but by having it done by a man who, though white, was barely above the status of the jungle's black Africans.

For the Nazi “super-race”, an “ape-man” besting the Germans in battle outweighed what might otherwise have been the redeeming white supremacism of Burroughs’ Tarzan books.

In Burroughs’ colonial imagination (he never set foot in Africa), black Africans are brutish savages. Their defeats by Tarzan are inscribed in Tarzan’s tree-hut plaque: “This is the house of Tarzan, the killer of beasts and many black men.”

Tarzan is a symbol of the white man’s conquest of Africa, set during the heyday of European colonialism, especially British.

“Never once,” writes Fenton, “did Burroughs waver from his conviction that the English were the height of aristocracy.”

John Clayton, the son of Lord and Lady Greystoke who were abandoned by mutineers on the African coast, was raised as Tarzan by an ape-mother. He nonetheless remained the rightful heir of his father’s House of Lords seat.

Despite his loincloth and primitive ape-English, Tarzan bears the “hallmark of aristocratic birth, the natural outcropping of many generations of fine breeding”. Such breeding was forged and tested in the British empire’s wars (“the noblest monument of historic achievement upon a thousand victorious battlefields”, editorialises an enthusiastic Burroughs in one Tarzan story).

Burroughs, born in 1875 in Chicago, was a political conservative and a fanatical opponent of the labour and socialist movements. These sentiments are shared by Fenton, his biographer and admirer-in-chief.

The 540-acre property-owning Burroughs uses one Tarzan story to whine that “to be poor assures one of an easier life than being rich, for the poor have no tax to pay”.



Not surprisingly, among Tarzan’s regular arch-enemies were a couple of Bolsheviks (Rokoff and Paulovitch) and sundry “international communists” — whose essential cowardice and lack of muscularity is no match for Tarzan and US government agents.

Sexism completes Burroughs’ supremacist trinity (white over black, capitalism over socialism, and male over female).

Swinging on jungle vines or fighting lions is Tarzan’s preserve, not Jane’s, for whom marriage and a legally-constituted family is all.

Burroughs rams home the message in Tarzan and the Ant-Men. Tarzan teaches the subjugated men of a tribe taken over by their women to exert their “natural” male superiority. And so a Tarzan-instructed tribesman takes a woman and says “he is going to keep her to cook for him”, knocks her down with his spear-shaft when she refuses, and kicks her in the ribs “to show her he meant business”.

This elicits her “doglike adulation and devotion”. “‘You will cook for me!’, he demanded again. ‘Forever!’, she replied.”

Intellectually poor fare, Burroughs’ Tarzan books nevertheless became immensely successful classics of popular fiction, cinema and television. They are well-crafted adventure stories with a popular thematic core.

Men “are all alike”, Burroughs expounds. They are “cheating, murdering, lying, fighting and for all things that the beasts of the jungle would not deign to possess”.

In civilised man, there is nothing but “deceit, and hypocrisy, and greed, and avarice, and cruelty” compared with the “freedom and happiness of the jungle”.

These sentiments — that much is primitive and ugly beneath the civilised surface of our society — are at the heart of Tarzan’s cultural success. It resonated with a widespread dissatisfaction with the social restrictions, the nasty scramble for wealth, the dishonesty and violence of modern civilisation.

Although his social critique comes from a flag-waving, war-loving, Republican-voting millionaire, Burroughs successfully taps into the myth of the “noble savage” as symbol of a morally cleaner world.

Tarzan, however, is not harmless fun. “Me Tarzan, me white man, me king of the jungle” is a philosophy that excludes those whose skin colour, gender or class status are “inferior” to Tarzan’s.

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Comments

Obviously you have not read the books. ERB's subtext of nature vs. nurture and his dim view of civilized facade, mankind's obvious hypocracies was a bit more complex than the horrible films (including Disney's) suggest. You are obviously basing your opinion on the bastardized Hollywood versions. There is less for everyone to be offended in the Burroughs version of TARZAN than my readings of Freud and his somewhat perverted world view. BTW, the Jesse Marsh image was a horrid choice---go with Kubert or Hogarth---classic illustrators for a classic writer!

The Tarzan books change over time. All black men are not painted as dull stupid savages to be dominated by white men. Muviro and the Waziri are as noble and admirable as any characters in fiction. Like any other situation in the world, there are good white people, bad white people, good black people, bad black people. Situations are fluid. Tarzan changes and grows intellectually over time. However, if you maintained that he never really outgrows the core of apish behavior that gives him his power, you'd be right.

It's all point of view, isn't it. Who do you want with you as a jungle guide when the lions attack? Tarzan, Jane, or a Russian spy named Rokoff?

One would have to be blind not to see what a White in the thick of a jungle full where Africans live is all about. A White man who CONTROLS animals with a yell; a White man who CONQUERS wild beasts by fighting them; a White man who strikes fear in the natives. It is all about the White man establishing his superiority and dominance over Black people as well as beasts.

If one watches any of the original Tarzan movies, just look at the body language of the Blacks in the movie and the body language of the Whites in it. The Blacks are always cowering before the White man. Looking like ignorant, no nothing buffoons. The White man is always portrayed as good-posture-pipe-smoking-hands-on the-hip-I-know-it-all-arrogant-domineering-gun-toting-our-way-or-the-highway gods of the planet. White women always portrayed as in need of protection from the "natives" and beasts.

This superiority and domineering complex is very much alive and well and this is what the non-White nations of the world have a problem with. The White man still does not get it. They think that by throwing money at the non-White nations will buy them friends and allies. Can't buy friends. People will take your money and pretend they love you for it.

White people seem comfortable when they African American in this way. They present no intellectual challenge to them. It really bothers them when Blacks step out of that stereotype and speak, write, and think intelligently. This, for some reason, agitates them. I even had a White guy say to an outspoken African American that "He has forgotten his place."

As long as African Americans are "running from" White people in fear of their loud Tarzan like cries out of the jungle, White people are content. But let an African American awaken and read, write, and think as they do and present questions and challenges to them, they become uneasy.

A first African American President is strong evidence of this mentality. Here is a man who is far more intelligent and "Presidential" than the previous President (George W) and he is catching pure hell from many Whites from all directions. No President in American history has been assaulted "lynched" as this one.

Much of White America should be ashamed of themselves. The whole world sees how you treat your President; and much of that world knows that it is because of his skin color.

This opinion may have been true once but it's now mostly a fiction, at least in the New England area. It's easy to form a distorted opinion and then gather evidence for it by blocking out all evidence to the contrary, a confirmation bias.
But really, "white America" no longer cares about the color of peoples skin or their heritage or what have you. Everyone has much more pressing issues to concern over even if they did have some sort of race issue (most do NOT have an issue with race anyways). This seems like that fallacy (I forget the name) where you think other people are more concerned with you then they actually are.