The Language of Men
April 16, 2012 | by Thomas Mallon
The New York Times made its first mention of Edgar Rice Burroughs on June 14, 1914, when the paper’s Book Review included Tarzan of the Apes among “One Hundred Books for Summer Reading.” Having asked publishers to supply the hundred titles, the Review editors did “not pretend to say what consideration has inspired each . . . particular selection”—a note of caution that veers toward alarm in the editors’ capsule assessment of Burroughs’s recent creation: “The author has evidently tried to see how far he could go without exceeding the limits of possibility.” The plot description that followed made it clear that, “possibility” aside, plausibility had certainly been breached:
Lord Greystoke and his wife are marooned on the African jungle coast, build a cabin, and become accustomed to the wild life there. A son is born and the mother dies. A herd of giant apes invade the cabin, kill Lord Greystoke, take away the child, and rear it as their own. When the child has become a man he possesses the habits, the language, and the great strength of the apes. One day a white woman is put ashore from a ship, and the ape man falls in love with her, and rescues her from many perils. He also plays the part of instructor to a scientific expedition. The scene then shifts to Wisconsin, where the heroine is rescued from more perils. Meanwhile the ape man has been educated in the culture of his kind, and he finally proves that he has a soul as well as superhuman strength.
Burroughs was surely unfazed by this. The mockingly neutral tone (and not terribly accurate summary) could hardly matter to a man who had failed at gold-dredging, accountancy, mail-order sales, and a host of other ventures by the time he was thirty-five and, close to desperation, decided he “could write stories just as entertaining and probably a lot more so” than those he saw in the fiction magazines of his day. Burroughs’s instincts quickly proved correct, and after selling a tale called “Under the Moons of Mars,” he started composing Tarzan of the Apes: “I wrote it in longhand,” he recalled years later, “on the backs of old letterheads and odd pieces of paper.”
Tarzan was published in The All-Story magazine for October 1912, just a few months after Americans had thrilled to Jim Thorpe’s Olympic feats in Stockholm, and during the final weeks of Theodore Roosevelt’s bumptious Bull Moose campaign to recapture the presidency. In May of 1898, in between some odd-jobbing and work as a ranch hand, Burroughs had applied for a spot in the Rough Riders and been turned down by Roosevelt himself. But surely no one could better exemplify what TR called “the strenuous life” than Burroughs’s new vine-swinging, lasso-waving, knife-wielding hero. In Tarzan of the Apes, the author might not be displaying the tight craft of Conrad or the immediate social concerns of Dreiser, both of whom had books on that Summer 1914 list, but he was serving a brew of the wholesome and the exotic that appealed to the fantasy lives of both men and women, boys and girls—precincts for the most part kept rigidly separated by writers of what we now call “genre fiction.”
If the literary-minded reader spots Tarzan’s kinship to the “noble savage” who intrigued readers of a century before, the book’s heroine, Jane Porter, sees something even rarer: “What a perfect creature! There could be naught of cruelty or baseness beneath that godlike exterior. Never, she thought, had such a man strode the earth since God created the first in his own image.”
By the time Jane makes this excited mental utterance, the reader has already seen, along with ample evidence of Tarzan’s physical power, demonstrations of his cleverness, his humor, and—for all his ability to snap a lion’s neck—a fundamental indifference to power. Tarzan is King of the Apes for a very brief period, because this human son of an English lord doesn’t really enjoy lording it over anyone: “Tarzan tired of it as he found that kingship meant the curtailment of his liberty. He longed for the little cabin and the sun-kissed sea—for the cool interior of the well-built house, and for the never-ending wonders of the many books.” He is more a philosopher than a king. He also has a place in fiction’s company of romantic renouncers, men who have always, from Dickens’s Sydney Carton to Humphrey Bogart’s Rick, elicited the sentimental appreciation of readers and moviegoers. When Tarzan gives up Jane at the end of the novel, so that she can make a more sensible (to say the least) marriage, the gesture confirms the “nobility of character” that Jane sees in him from the beginning.
Anyone who returns to Tarzan after years of swinging through the higher branches of literature will have to acknowledge the book’s falterings in plot and narration. On its first page Burroughs more or less promises to tell the tale through a series of filters that suggest Conrad’s Marlow (“I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me”) as well as via some document discoveries that seem meant to lend the kind of credibility such devices gave the earliest English novels. But these contrivances cease to be of any consequence, and the first-person narrator soon largely disappears—except when the author needs to throw his hands up through a loophole: “With Tantor, the elephant, he [Tarzan] made friends. How? Ask me not.” The storyteller makes a few startling and ingenious asides—pointing out that Tarzan’s aristocratic uncle is using a fingerbowl at his London club at the same moment his nephew is gobbling the flesh of a wild boar—but such irony is neither Burroughs’s strong suit nor his chief aim.
He has, above all, a tale to tell, and to get the job done he’ll use a whole range of voices and styles, trying them out the way he tried all those occupations before authorship. We get the old-fashioned essayistic sound of omniscience (“smiles are the foundation of beauty”) as well as the plain carpentry of popular science and travel writing (“If you ever chance to pass that far off African village …”). The text carries grace notes of a light classicism (“Roman gladiators” and a “Greek god” cohabit within a paragraph of Chapter XIII) and there’s an occasional echo of Dickens: Professor Porter’s pedantic definition of a lion is almost a direct steal from Hard Times’s Mr. Gradgrind.
And yet, Burroughs finally gets the job done on his own narrative terms. The author speeds through what he chooses (Tarzan’s birth occurs almost incidentally) and saves shrewd, verve-filled renderings for what captures his own imagination. He knows how to end a chapter (“and then he pulled the trigger”) and to construct a camera-ready paragraph. The following description of Jane suggests an awareness of the cinematic storytelling mode just aborning, the adaptive medium that will bring Burroughs fame and riches beyond anything he dreamt of when beginning his longhand tale:
Jane Porter—her lithe, young form flattened against the trunk of a great tree, her hands tight pressed against her rising and falling bosom, and her eyes wide with mingled horror, fascination, fear, and admiration—watched the primordial ape battle with the primeval man for possession of a woman—for her.
Cast into her brave new world, Jane is the novel’s Miranda. Burroughs has repeated mutinies do the work of The Tempest ’s banishment and shipwreck, and there are enough doublings and misapprehensions—for a long stretch Jane and her suitor, Clayton, believe there must be two creatures doing all that Tarzan does—that a reader will sometimes think he’s in the Forest of Arden instead of the jungle.
Like the Shakespeare of The Tempest, Burroughs is preoccupied with language. He may not deploy it with unfailing elegance, but he is in awe of its existence. Caliban finally rues his acquisition of speech from Prospero, but Tarzan reveres every word he gains through the effortful decoding of those inky “little bugs” in what he didn’t even know were books. For all his exaltation of Tarzan’s animal prowess, Burroughs most lyrically cherishes the products of his mind: “Tarzan of the apes, little primitive man, presented a picture filled, at once, with pathos and with promise—an allegorical figure of the primordial groping through the black night of ignorance toward the light of learning.”
Able to read English before he can speak it, Tarzan may strain our credulity in the same way Burroughs’s grammatical apes do, but he provokes our imagination. The allure of the primitive is of course a great part of the book’s draw; but the novel also hymns the possibilities of civilization. Lieutenant D’Arnot, one of the French officers searching for Jane after her abduction by the ape named Terkoz, ends up having to be rescued himself, and when he asks what repayment he can offer, Tarzan unhesitatingly says, “Teach me to speak the language of men.” With its opening dactyl and beautiful cadence, it’s the most thrilling sentence in the book, a line that Shakespeare would have considered a good hour’s work. Like so many literary heroes going back to Don Quixote, Tarzan is the sum of all he’s read: “He would act as he imagined the men in the books would have acted were they in his place.”
In his way, Tarzan even seems a flying resolution of the mind/body problem, a fantasy remedy for the anxieties about emasculation that would bother American readers from Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome (1911) to Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers (1942). The year 1912 would force Americans to ponder the sinkability of the Titanic and the discovery of Vitamins A and B, substances which, however natural, began to suggest that man might need a little more help and supplementing than he’d hitherto believed. Swinging through the sky and descending to the rescue, Tarzan is perhaps the only deus ex machina who’s ever been the protagonist too. He differs from what we now call “superheroes” by the absence of any extra-human powers; he is what we already are, simply expanded toward perfection.
There have been, of course—in addition to all the print sequels—the movie franchise, the comic strips, the town of Tarzana, the TV series, the Disney cartoon, and the video game. Each is further testament to the original novel’s deep, subconscious appeal. “Tarzan swung himself to the trees once more, and with swift noiselessness sped along high above the trail”: this is not the mechanized flight that readers of 1912 were hearing about and even beginning to experience; it is closer to the way we imagine ourselves flying when we’re asleep. Moving fast, through the air, safe, worthy of being rescued and held: it’s the stuff of our deepest dreams, which were the subject of a ground-breaking new book by Dr. Henri Bergson in the summer of 1914. The Times listed it five titles away from Tarzan of the Apes.