Tarzan of the Apes
By Edgar Rice Burroughs
(Library of America, 432 pp., $20)

POOR TARZAN. The original Tarzan of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s novel Tarzan of the Apes is a hundred years old this year, buried under layer after suffocating layer of silent films and talkies, Johnny Weissmuller and Bo Derek, comic books and “George of the Jungle” cartoons, “Me Tarzan, you Jane,” Tarzan ice cream and Tarzan bread, and untold numbers of sequels and prequels. We all know who Tarzan was even if we have never actually read the book. We can see him, raffishly clad in his lion skin, flying from vine to vine, and we can hear him ululating his two-note jungle yodel. There are very few enduring modern myths, but Tarzan, dreamed up by a Chicago-born writer who had failed at many other professions, is surely one of them. Is it possible, under such distracting circumstances, to read Tarzan of the Apes afresh? The estimable Library of America has re-issued the book in its original format, with a cover based closely on the 1914 edition, which reproduced in turn the full magazine text of 1912.

The reader discovers almost immediately that the original tale is far more complex than one might have believed from its many popular offspring. Time has simplified it. An outline of the plot, itself a simplification, might go something like this: an English nobleman named John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, is sent to Africa to look into European abuses of native workers, who are said to be “held in virtual slavery” in the rubber and ivory trade. A eugenicist’s dream, Clayton “was the type of Englishman that one likes best to associate with the noblest monuments of historic achievement upon a thousand victorious battlefields—a strong, virile man—mentally, morally, and physically.” Clayton and his pregnant wife, Alice, are marooned on a desolate but beautiful part of the African coast when the crew of their vessel mutinies, a “short and grisly” operation that Clayton witnesses “as though he had been but watching an indifferent cricket match.” Clayton builds a little tree-house, but an attack by a “great anthropoid ape” leaves Alice traumatized and oblivious of her surroundings.

The scene, which Lady Greystoke remembers only as “an awful dream,” is suggestive of rape—“screaming with rage and pain, the ape flew at the delicate woman, who went down beneath him to merciful unconsciousness”—though Burroughs is careful to make sure that the assailant, hit by a bullet from Clayton’s gun, dies just before penetration. During the night immediately following the attack, as though the marauding ape has somehow contributed to its conception, “a little son was born in the tiny cabin beside the primeval forest, while a leopard screamed before the door, and the deep notes of a lion’s roar sounded from beyond the ridge.” Exactly a year to the day after the child’s birth, Lady Greystoke dies, and so, soon after, does her distraught husband.

The orphaned child is adopted by a grieving ape-mother named Kala, who has lost her own baby in a melee among the apes. The apes, in their ape language, call the ugly, hairless child “Tarzan,” meaning “white skin.” Tarzan matures slowly, according to ape expectations, but his powers of thought are superior; after solving the mechanism of the lock on his birth parents’ cabin, he learns to wield a knife, to lasso his prey and to swim, and, most amazingly, teaches himself to read and write, and not just English but eventually French as well. The knife and the lasso come in handy after an attack by native warriors, whom Tarzan terrorizes and from whom he steals a bow and poisoned arrows.

Then, in the major plot twist of the tale, an exploratory party happens to show up on precisely the same stretch of shoreline: an absent-minded professor from Baltimore, accompanied by his lovely, plucky daughter, Jane Porter, and her African American mammy, “the ubiquitous Esmeralda”; the professor’s assistant; and, by an extraordinary coincidence, the current Lord Greystoke, a cousin of Tarzan’s, who joins the party in London “just for the adventure.” Soon they encounter a group of French soldiers (another mutiny, buried treasure, a map), and there are various battles among man and beast in which Tarzan is invariably on the victorious side.

He is less victorious in the battle among Jane’s suitors. At first, there are only two: the usurping Greystoke and Tarzan himself, who declares his love for Jane after he has rescued her for the first time (literally “carried [her] off her feet,” as Burroughs puts it), and the two have indulged in a primeval tryst. A third suitor eventually intrudes, an evil Baltimore businessman named Canler, who has funded the Porter venture, and who will have Jane even if he has to buy her and—his language resembles Simon Legree’s—enslave her. “Of course you are right,” he tells her cheerfully. “I am buying you ... but I thought you would prefer to pretend that it was otherwise.” The novel ends in, of all places, Wisconsin, with one last rescue of a damsel in distress from, of all things, a forest fire.

Tarzan settles all debts (the buried treasure), takes Canler by the throat (“Do you wish this to live?”) and sends him on his way, and nobly renounces Jane, who is having second thoughts about her primal passion and thinks that young Clayton, civilized Englishman that he is, would be a more “logical mate for such as herself.” “She realized the spell that had been upon her in the depths of that far-off jungle, but there was no spell of enchantment now in prosaic Wisconsin.” A sequel is promised in a closing footnote: “The further adventures of Tarzan, and what came of his noble act of self-renunciation, will be told in the next book of Tarzan.”


T.S. ELIOT once said that Henry James had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it. Edgar Rice Burroughs, by contrast, is ravished by ideas. Darwin’s ideas interest him and so do the Social Darwinists. He is a proponent of both American democracy and English aristocracy. He laments the downfall of chivalry but decries colonial oppression. He loves civilization (on his way to the United States, Tarzan makes a pit-stop in Paris to admire its highest manifestations) but he is also enchanted by primitivism. His idea of human origins is both tooth-and-fang primordial, rife with rape and cannibalism, and Edenic or, as he thinks of it, “Greek”: no episode in the book is more idyllic than Jane and Tarzan’s chaste but passionate night together in the jungle. Amid this thicket of ideas—a jungle of ideas, really—one cannot help wondering what Burroughs was after, what the ideological core of his vivid tale was meant to be.

At its narrative substratum, Tarzan of the Apes is perhaps nothing more complicated than a retelling of “The Ugly Duckling,” that reassuring fable for all misfits. There has been some mistake: the odd bird, so out of place among the ducks, turns out to be a displaced swan. Gawkiness translates to grace. How perfectly fitted to the tribulations and final triumph of the ballet! “It does not matter in the least having been born in a duckyard,” Hans Christian Andersen writes, “if only you come out of a swan’s egg!” The moment of recognition for Andersen’s ugly duckling comes when he bows his head at the glorious swans, as though proffering it for a beheading, and sees his own glorious reflection in the water.

When ten-year-old Tarzan glimpses his own reflection in the water, he is appalled:

It had been bad enough to be hairless, but to own such a countenance! He wondered that the other apes could look at him at all.
That tiny slit of a mouth and those puny white teeth! How they looked beside the mighty lips and powerful fangs of his more fortunate brothers!
And the little pinched nose of him; so thin was it that it looked half starved.... But when he saw his eyes; ah, that was the final blow—a brown spot, a gray circle, and then blank whiteness! Frightful! not even the snakes had such hideous eyes as he.

It will be a while before Tarzan, with Jane’s tender help, learns to love his snake eyes and his blank whiteness. Predictably, Burroughs weaves some racism into his story of the ugly ape. His apes, especially Tarzan’s adoptive mother, Kala, remain attractive while the African natives are made to seem subhuman; their periodic lynching by Tarzan, gleefully wielding his lasso, is meant to be comical but will strike modern readers, as Thomas Mallon points out in a helpful introduction, as horrifying.


WHAT BURROUGHS MAINLY wanted to achieve in writing Tarzan was enough money on which to live. “I failed in every enterprise I attempted,” he wrote. “I sold electric light bulbs to janitors, candy to drug stores, and Stoddard’s Lectures from door to door.” When he found himself marketing pencil-sharpeners, however, it was as though one of those light bulbs went on: he determined to take a pencil in hand and write pulp fiction.

His first attempt was A Princess of Mars, also reprinted by the Library of America, a fantasy of space travel that inspired the recent cinematic flop John Carter. Like many Northerners, Burroughs had a soft spot for the defeated South as a bastion of aristocratic manners and Sir Walter Scott chivalry. The Virginian John Carter, “a splendid specimen of manhood ... broad of shoulder and narrow of hip,” is a former Confederate officer who, beamed up to Mars, helps some comely, red-skinned Martians in their own civil war. Burroughs’s second book, with another castaway as its hero, was Tarzan of the Apes. It made his fortune, and he named his sprawling ranch outside Los Angeles Tarzana. He wrote another sixty or so books, including twenty-two works about Tarzan, none of which had anything quite like the success of the original.

Ideologically, Burroughs was attuned to his moment. Several impressive books had expressed unease that modern civilization, and American civilization in particular, had lost its manly edge, its warrior ethos—that it was, as Eliot said of Boston, “refined beyond the point of civilization.” Nostalgic for the heroism of the Civil War (in which Burroughs’s own father had fought), many had welcomed the Spanish-American War as a testing ground for American youth; Burroughs himself tried, unsuccessfully, to join Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. William James, who opposed the war, wondered whether some “moral equivalent of war” might be found to give piquancy and meaning to life. A particularly beautiful example of this literature of unease and “regeneration through violence” is Jack London’s The Call of the Wild.

But Tarzan of the Apes rarely seems engaged by such questions. Burroughs’s interests lie elsewhere. The emotional core of the book, its true heart of darkness, lies in the little cabin built by Tarzan’s father. The apes are fascinated by this “wonderful lair,” and so is Tarzan himself. It is the outpost of civilization, the little house on the prairie, the uncanny site of birth and death but also the generative site of writing and reading. It is here that young Tarzan is presented with two deeply intertwined mysteries. One is his parentage; the other is the nature of human language. These are the codes that he must crack in order to figure out who he is. The lock on the cabin door is a metaphor for these riddles.

Burroughs invests a great deal of narrative ingenuity in the adoption of baby Tarzan by his ape-mother, Kala. Rudyard Kipling made adoption by wolves believable—more of a challenge, one might think, than adoption by apes. No moment in The Jungle Book is more poignant than Mowgli’s brief sojourn in the home of his presumed birth-mother, Messua, who gives the child milk to drink. Suddenly Mowgli feels something brush his leg. It is Mother Wolf, his adoptive mother, licking him. “I have a desire to see that woman who gave thee milk,” says Mother Wolf. Then she adds, possessively, “I gave thee thy first milk.”

Tarzan’s adoption, like so much else in the novel, is built around coincidences. Alice dies on her infant son’s first birthday. At that very moment, the unusually attractive ape Kala—the Greek word for “beautiful”—loses her own baby when the ape-leader Kerchak goes mad, attacks Kala, and the baby plunges to its death. After the melee, Kerchak leads the apes toward the little cabin, while Kala, a traumatized mother like Lady Greystoke, “carried her little dead baby hugged closely to her breast.”

The cabin door, always locked, unaccountably stands open. The apes enter to find a dead woman, a distraught man who rears up one last time and is killed by Kerchak, and a crying baby. Kala, who has been clutching her dead child, switches the babies.

As she took up the little live baby of Alice Clayton she dropped the dead body of her own into the empty cradle; for the wail of the living had answered the call of universal motherhood within her wild breast which the dead could not still.

Burroughs wins our assent for this adoption by insisting on Kala’s beauty and her capacity for motherhood. She was, we are told, “a splendid, clean-limbed animal, with a round, high forehead, which denoted more intelligence than most of her kind possessed. So, also, she had a greater capacity for mother love and mother sorrow.” Tarzan assumes, for almost the entire novel, that Kala is his birth-mother, and she, with her limited means of communication, does not enlighten him about his true origins beyond hinting that his father was a great white ape of some kind. Tarzan can only unlock the secret by learning to read.

He returns to the cabin, figures out the mechanism of the lock on the door, and turns his attention to the books left there, “which seemed to exert a strange and powerful influence over him, so that he could scarce attend to aught else for the lure of the wondrous puzzle which their purpose presented to him.” Fortunately these are children’s books, primers and illustrated alphabets, with pictures accompanying “the strange little bugs which covered the pages.” Burroughs himself offers us a picture:

Squatting upon his haunches on the table top in the cabin his father had built—his smooth, brown, naked little body bent over the book which rested in his strong slender hands, and his great shock of long, black hair falling about his well shaped head and bright, intelligent eyes— 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.

Tarzan’s physical prowess in swinging through treetops is exceeded only by his linguistic genius, for, as Burroughs concedes, “it was a hard and laborious task which he had set himself without knowing it—a task which might seem to you or me impossible—learning to read without having the slightest knowledge of letters or written language, or the faintest idea that such things existed.” It takes him about five years to decipher the strange little bugs and to learn to produce them himself, with a cache of lead pencils “in a hitherto undiscovered drawer beneath the table.”

What we have here are really two scenes of origin: Tarzan’s mysterious parentage, not to be finally resolved until fingerprints are compared at the end of the novel; and the origins of the novel we are reading, in the diary kept by Tarzan’s birth-father. (Burroughs’s own discovery of writing through lead pencils and pencil-sharpeners is probably memorialized in Tarzan’s epiphany.) Burroughs further delays Tarzan’s self-recognition by having Lord Greystoke keep his diary in French. We are not told why—perhaps it is what a cultivated English lord would do. So Tarzan must wait for the arrival of a Frenchman, the dashing Captain D’Arnot, to teach him French—in a couple of weeks—to get the full story. The first words out of Tarzan’s mouth are not “Me Tarzan, you Jane” but, amazingly, “Mais, oui!”


TARZAN OF THE APES  presents to the twenty-first-century reader a riddle of its own: why this peculiar fixation on adoption and legitimacy? In probing Kipling’s interest in adoption, Edmund Wilson, in The Wound and the Bow, excavated the moment in Kipling’s life when, as a young child, he and his sister were farmed out, without explanation, to an abusive couple in England for a dismal six years, an experience that, in Wilson’s view, left a decisive mark on Kipling’s fiction. It is possible that Burroughs had some kindred private crisis, perhaps the time that he was sent away from his home in Chicago, during the flu epidemic of 1890–1891, when he was fifteen, to live on his older brother’s cattle ranch in Idaho.

But the question of legitimacy feels less personal in Tarzan of the Apes and more, to use Burroughs’s own word, allegorical. He seems to be puzzling out what Kipling called, indelicately, “the white man’s burden,” when he summoned the United States to enter the Spanish-American War. Is the United States, Burroughs (along with his whole generation) seems to be asking, ready to assume the burden of policing the world? Can its muscular young men, trained in the Wild West, “inherit” both the martial prowess of its mother-country, Great Britain (embodied by Lord Greystoke, Tarzan’s father) and the cultural flair of its occasional helper, France (represented by D’Arnot)? Can it unite its once divided halves, figured here in the wretched images of lynching native Africans and in the humiliatingly awful linguistic inventions of Jane’s maid, who fears “gorilephants” and the “hipponocerous” and is concerned that her mistress “acts sorter kinder disgranulated dis ebenin’”? Tarzan is made to stand at the cultural crossroads of all these nationalities and ethnicities as though, lost in the Wisconsin woods, he is America.

Amid all these mysteries of parentage and authority, the final exchange of the novel takes on an added resonance. Channeling Sydney Carton, Tarzan has renounced his claim on Jane. Clayton, unaware that Tarzan now has proof that he, Tarzan, is the true Lord Greystoke, and could strip him of his title and his bride, expresses his gratitude.

“I say, old man,” cried Clayton, “I haven’t had a chance to thank you for all you’ve done for us. It seems as though you had your hands full saving our lives in Africa and here.
“I’m awfully glad you came on here. We must get better acquainted. I often thought about you, you know, and the remarkable circumstances of your environment.
“If it’s any of my business, how the devil did you ever get into that bally jungle?”
“I was born there,” said Tarzan, quietly. “My mother was an Ape, and of course she couldn’t tell me much about it. I never knew who my father was.

On both counts, Tarzan, far more sophisticated than one might think, is telling the truth.

Christopher Benfey is a contributing editor for The New Republic. This article appeared in the October 25, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “The Swinger: Tarzan of the Apes.”