Trouble with “Tarzan”

The Lord of the Jungle as exemplar for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ problematic political views (DeDisnification, Part 6)

Although at first blush it might seem like an innocent-though-improbable adventure yarn, Tarzan is a troubling tale on many levels: its author, Edgar Rice Burroughs clearly believed in social Darwinism, class hierarchy, patriarchy, eugenics, the supremacy of the white race, and indeed his own superiority, claiming a “pure” Anglo-Saxon lineage.

It is fair to call him a man of his times, since these ideas were widespread in the US in the teens and ’20s, when mainstream journals would describe anyone from anywhere south of Paris as “swarthy”, but I’m not quite ready to fall over myself forgiving him. There’s also the oft-raised question of whether we can or should hate the artist but love the art. Even Barthes in his 1967 essay, La mort de l’auteur, weighs in on the side of judging works based on their own merits rather than considering context and intention.

However, it would also be fairly difficult to disentangle Burroughs’ worldview from his works. Even though he dissembled, saying:

Entertainment is fiction’s purpose, [not] disseminating any great truths or spreading any propaganda […].¹

Such things are still frequently incorporated into his works, sometimes allegorically, but sometimes quite overtly as well. The first of the Tarzan books, Tarzan of the Apes, was published in 1912, to enthusiastic reception in America as well as Europe. But after the outbreak of WWI, Burroughs used subsequent books as a platform to attack and insult the German people, even though it lost him their readership. During the Red Scare, stories like The Moon Maid were used to condemn socialism as well.

And indeed, the author did not stick to fiction when talking about his views. He opined on the Hickman murder trial that the perpetrator was a “moral imbecile” and that,

If we hang him we have removed […] a potential menace to peace and happiness and safety of countless future generations, for moral imbeciles breed moral imbeciles, criminals breed criminals, murderers breed murderers just as St. Bernards breed St. Bernards.

He continued:

[A] new species of man has been evolving through the ages and only when society awakens […] will it realize that the members of this new species may not be judged by the same standards that hold for us […]. Destruction and sterilization are our only defense and we should invoke them while we are yet numerically in the ascendancy.

In his now neatly expunged article, “I See a New Race”, Burroughs imagined a future civilization that had adopted strict policies of intelligence testing and forced sterilization:

The sterilization of criminals, defectives and incompetents together with wide dissemination of birth control information and public instruction on eugenics resulted in a rapid rise in the standards of national intelligence after two generations […] prizes went to families that produced the most intelligent children. Stupidity became unfashionable.

Returning to his fiction, the Tarzan stories don’t just contain vague allusions to these ideas, they are a philosophical embodiment of them. The entire premise of the works is that a noble white man will come to master his environment regardless of how many obstacles he must overcome to do so. Remember, Tarzan’s birth name is John Clayton, Viscount Greystoke. Burroughs’ premise is that millions of years of evolution have made Tarzan not only superior to the creatures of the jungle, but also to humans of other races and of lower social classes, including women.

Peppered throughout are his tales are descriptions of “surly” and “rapacious” Arabs, and “superstitious” black people, though some of the stronger terms used in earlier editions have been subsequently edited out; Burrooughs would unhesitatingly use the N-word, as well as charming terms like “smoke”. Indeed, Tarzan seems to enjoy killing black men, detecting some relatedness to himself, but not believing them to be fully human. He posts a sign on his home to announce himself upon the arrival of Caucasians, reading:

This is the House of Tarzan, The Killer of Beasts and Many Black Men.

Gail Bederman, in Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880–1917, refers to him as “lyncher Tarzan”.

Burroughs sees modern civilization, and particularly the racially mixed communities found therein as decadent, for which he sees social Darwinism, which he believes is “nature’s law” as the cure. In Tarzan and the Last Empire Burroughs’ glorification of eugenics again surfaces, in the form of an empire called Honus Hasta, whose rulers, in order to counter the rampant criminality that long ago plagued the place,

made laws so drastic that no thief or murderer lived to propagate his kind. Indeed, the laws of Honus Hasta destroyed not only the criminal but all members of his family, so that there were none to transmit to posterity the criminal inclinations of a depraved sire […] the laws of Honus Hasta prevented the breeding of criminals.

Disney, whether blithely unaware of this background, or choosing to ignore it, decided to make a movie about this character. And again they are far from alone, in addition to the 24 novels Burroughs originally penned, there were another dozen unauthorized ones, radio and stage productions, eight silent films, over 40 classic serial films, a pile of TV shows, nine more recent films, and several documentaries, including 1997’s Investigating Tarzan, which explored the durability of the character’s mystique despite the racism inherent in it and Burroughs’ other works.

I’d be the last to say that art should shy away from controversy, but Disney’s approach to controversy is not an embrace, it’s just a fresh coat of whitewash. There is an implicit societal idea that the studio takes on board that works created for children such as their films should contain ethical meaning and lessons but over and over they talk down to their audience and sanitize and trivialize the problems and conflicts that are encountered.

I’ll present a longtime hero of mine for contrast: Maurice Sendak, who, in answer to the question, “what is appropriate to tell children?” said simply:

Tell them anything you want.

That is, he did not think that children needed to be condescended to, and that no topic was off limits. His books, Where the Wild Things Are, Mickey in the Night Kitchen, and Outside Over There make up a sort of trilogy (all of these books were controversial, with Mickey drawing fire in particular for showing the titular character nude): he says they are,

[…] all variations on the same theme: how children master various feelings—danger, boredom, fear, frustration, jealousy—and manage to come to grips with the realities of their lives.

Some pretty real topics there, and if you’ve read any of those books, you know he leans in.

Disney sidesteps some of the Tarzan issues by painting an Africa where only he and various animals live, until more Europeans arrive—effectively whitewashing black people out of existence. Nonetheless, the most laughable part of Burroughs’ tales, that Tarzan teaches himself to read, write and speak English from the books he finds in his dead parents’ home remains in the film. From a linguistic standpoint, calling this impossible would be an understatement. The animation studio does manage to also add some positive messages about family bonds, human guardianship of nature, and of course the evil and greedy villains are defeated in the end.

However, while Disney clearly can’t be accused of subscribing to Burroughs’ worldview, as we have already seen, particularly in Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, they do present a corporate Barthesian myth that the best way to deal with problematic differences between people is to simply pretend they don’t exist. And while this is certainly a step up from advocating the eradication of the other, “just look away” is a pretty poor lesson too.

Read Subsequent Articles in this Series

Part 7A: Down the Rabbit Hole

Part 7A Addendum A: Curious Curation

Part 7A Addendum B: “Alice” in Revolt

Part 7A Addendum C: How “Alice” Grew Big in Japan

Part 7B: Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War

Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle”

Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred

Part 9A Addendum: The Woods “Over the Wall”

Part 9B: The Sum of its Versions

Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio

Part 9D: Snowhaus

Part 10: The Little Less-Than

Read Previous Articles in this Series

Part 1: Straightening out “Hunchback”

Part 2: Making over “Mulan”

Part 2 Addendum B: Your Western Wuxia Is Weak

Part 3A: “Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes

Part 3B: Doing Hera’s Work

Part 4: “Belle” Epoch

Part 5: Putting “Pocahontas” to Rest

Part 5 Addendum: Powhatan’s Mantle


  1. As the whitewashing of Burroughs’ image seems fairly thorough, I’ve been forced to draw from secondary sources, in this case, Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs the Creator of Tarzan by John Taliaferro.

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