An associate professor of English, Alex Vernon has written several books including the intriguing
most succnctly bred, a memoir of war and rumors of war. Here he tackles a subject bound to be dear to the hearts of thousands: the fictional character of Tarzan.
I generally read nonfiction, and it is like a vacation to read a book of nonfiction that focuses entirely on a work of fiction. Tarzan was the invention of author and entrepreneur Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs (who, as a child, I always assumed to be a colonial British explorer chap because of his rather aristocratic triple name and the subject matter of his novels) was a man who never went to college and wrote the Tarzan stories to keep the wolf, or should we say lion, from the door. Later he was savvy enough to incorporate and thereby take advantage of the sales of Tarzan gewgaws, though he never cared much for the Tarzan of the movies. "In the novels, Tarzan's victory cry is a blood-curdling howl; in the movies, it's a warbling yodel."
Tarzan, as I hope every schoolchild still knows, is a man-child abandoned in the African jungle owing to some mysterious mishap that afflicted his intrepid parents, who is then raised by an ape mother and has a childhood of vine-swinging freedom. But, because his father was a blue-blooded English lord, he is always in an internal struggle between his nurture and his nature. Oddly, he often acts on behalf of the whites who cross his path, against not only the native Africans with whom one would suppose he had co-existed in peace but also against the glories of the verdant world that surrounds him. No ecologist he, nor humanitarian. Let the gold mines be exploited, if they can be found! And once he meets Jane, it's well and truly over, for though he still longs for jungle life, he is willing (as the stories go on, Burroughs quickly learning that Tarzan sequels would do as well as or better than the first of the series) to make himself into a proper stuffy Englishman for her.
Jane is a puzzle. She enters the story as a lone female, certainly the only white woman Tarzan has ever encountered. In a gesture of Freudian depth, Tarzan gives Jane his knife in the first Tarzan movie, and she later returns it to him. That Tarzan and Jane shacked up is known to moviegoers, complete with fanciful handmade home appliances and animal housekeepers, but the novels took a more romantic, chaste view of the relationship, with Jane always questioning whether she should throw over her phlegmatic suitor, Cecil (even the name sounds wimpy), or revert to type and return home to the green fields of Wisconsin where "there was no spell of enchantment." Jane (who was definitely a blonde, according to Vernon) has been played by every sultry Grade-B actress you can think of, though initially Marilyn Monroe was considered for the part, a loss that probably assured her career's upward path. Bo Derek enacted a sultry all-about-Jane version of the Tarzan legend in 1981 (Tarzan the Ape Man) - the same year that Johnny Weismuller, the screen's most famous Tarzan, and Enid Markey, the first movie Jane, passed away. The span of time shows the durability of the Tarzan phenomenon.
Vernon comments that "the films with Jane are chick flicks," with Jane always in control from the moment her sensuous body (modified for the times) hits the screen. She typifies an independent woman with a heart of gold, a reformer who believes she can improve Tarzan. Sometimes his apparent indifference to her coquettishness has been taken for latent homosexuality. Others have seen Tarzan as the boyhood ideal, a kid with no annoying sisters or overbearing parents to tell him what to do and the whole jungle to himself who, in the end, doesn't need any girls to interfere in his
paradisiacal existence. With all this analysis going on behind the scenes, it's hard to remember, as Vernon says, that Tarzan began life as a simple fantasy hero.
Over the years, the Tarzan movie titles speak volumes about our culture, our aspirations and our changing perceptions:
Tarzan Presley, Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, The Tarzan Twins, and
Tarzan the German-Eater. Does this suggest that the Tarzan mythos can survive into the 21st
century? Vernon would like to think so, although with our expanded instantaneous knowledge of Africa, no longer the dark mysterious continent of Burroughs' day, it seems far-fetched. Tarzan fit well with the generation that idealized scouting and self-reliance and felt no need to discuss or acknowledge human needs such as bathroom issues and the problem of sex. Tarzan (who found a baby near a crashed plane and presumably was not interested in mating in the conjugal sense) was a manly ideal, the guy you love but have to give up when it's time to get serious about life. He's the grease-jock tinkerer, the bear hunter, the survivalist, but hardly husband material. And given his preference for the company of apes, he's unlikely to last long in civilization.
Vernon's book will entertain and inform you about the Ape-Man and his adventures, largely viewed as something that captivated us then, way back when.