Tarzan and the race card

The ape-man's creator might have believed in white superiority, but the new Disney film goes out of its way to avoid the black and white issues.

Ethics & Values

June 27, 1999|By JEROME WEEKS | JEROME WEEKS,DALLAS MORNING NEWS

In "ape-speak," the name Tarzan means "white skin." Which tells you a great deal about Edgar Rice Burroughs' famous jungle tales. "White skin" refers to the fact that, in the original Burroughs novels and in "Tarzan," the new Walt Disney film, the tree-swinger was an English foundling. After his parents died, he was raised by a band of great apes.

But the whiteness of Tarzan -- the fact that Burroughs even incorporated it into the character's name -- also highlights the colonial and racial nature of this fictional world. Tarzan, a British lord, is a white king of the African jungle.

According to the new biography, "Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs" (Scribner, $30), Burroughs was fascinated by roughing it and by "proper" lineage.

Like many of his contemporaries, writes his biographer, John Taliaferro, Burroughs "believed in a hierarchy of race and class. In the Tarzan stories, blacks are generally superstitious and Arabs rapacious." Meanwhile, Burroughs was "extremely proud of his nearly pure Anglo-Saxon lineage."

In short, in Tarzan, good breeding meets survival of the fittest. According to Burroughs, the white upper classes were meant to rule the world because they're stronger, smarter, tougher.

Faced with the racism in the Tarzan books ("the baiting of blacks was Tarzan's chief divertissement," Burroughs declares in one story), editors of recent reprints have softened their language -- without altering Tarzan's domination over "ignorant tribes of savage cannibals."

Confronting these same difficulties, Walt Disney's Tarzan takes what may prove a controversial approach: It simply depopulates Africa. In the film, there are no African natives.

This was necessary to simplify the story, say "Tarzan" co-directors Kevin Lima and Chris Buck. They wanted to concentrate on Tarzan's choice between being animal or human.

"I think Disney found discretion was the better part of valor," says Taliaferro. The Disney approach does simplify the story, he says -- by ignoring an entire race.

Bringing up racism in his biography has not endeared Taliaferro to Tarzan enthusiasts.

"The hard-core Burroughs fans view the books nostalgically," Taliaferro says by phone. "These are the books of their childhood, after all. So they see me as politicizing this, overstressing it."

In fact, Taliaferro argues, with his thunderous tales of adventure, Burroughs helped shape modern popular culture -- leading the way to Superman and Conan the Barbarian. He was the most widely read American author of the first half of the 20th century. Before his death in 1950, Burroughs wrote 11 books set on Mars, six in the center of the Earth and five on Venus as well as the two dozen "Tarzan" books.

There were also the many film adaptations of "Tarzan," of course, beginning with a 1918 silent version and culminating, for many people, in the MGM classics from the '30s starring Johnny Weissmuller.

Burroughs pioneered the ways an author could cash in on his own mass-media creations. He was one of the first authors to incorporate himself.

Despite this, Tarzan's creator never really was wealthy -- just comfortable. "He made money," Taliaferro says, "but he never really hit the jackpot.

Burroughs' fantasies were deemed too violent, too sexy for genteel readers. His outer-space voyages featured naked women and threatened rapes -- strong stuff for the sci-fi of the period.

In 1912, the Chicago-born Burroughs submitted "Tarzan of the Apes" to All-Story Magazine, which paid him $700. The 37-year-old had failed at almost everything else: railroad policeman, gold miner, rancher. The best he'd done was run the stenographic department at Sears.

Burroughs' brand of literary escapism found a huge audience at the time, Taliaferro says, partly because of "the great stirring that was going on in American culture, the fear of what was called 'the mongrelization of America.' "

With immigration from Eastern Europe reaching a peak, with European colonial empires increasingly under attack, many Anglo-Saxons feared that their supposed racial and cultural supremacy was endangered.

Tarzan showed them their fears were groundless. He is a noble savage, able to teach himself English from a book, able to outsmart any opponent, to escape any trap, defeat any animal -- or any human.

"Tarzan spoke to the old order," says Taliaferro. "He brought 19th-century values into the 20th. He reassures modern audiences that, down deep, there is still a natural order to things. Blood will tell. Tarzan was raised by apes, but he is still Lord Greystoke."

Tarzan fans, Taliaferro says, have argued that Burroughs was no more racist than anyone else at the time.

But in his book, Taliaferro uncovers Burroughs' lifelong belief in eugenics, "the radical fringe of Darwinism," the notion that undesirable people -- the ill, the criminal, the racially "impure" -- should be sterilized. In the '20s and '30s, such ideas were not that far out of the American mainstream.

In 1927, Burroughs covered the kidnap-murder trial of William Edward Hickman for the Hearst papers. In his reports, he called for the extermination of "moral imbeciles" and "instinctive criminals" -- even their relatives. Ironically, one probable reason Burroughs didn't side with the Nazis, who promoted similar ideas, was his long-standing hatred of Germans.

Burroughs was "a bundle of contradictions," says Taliaferro. Even as his books are imbued with such bigotry, one of their fundamental appeals is their "boyishness," he says. When he wrote his yarns, Burroughs often began by eagerly fabricating an entire world -- complete with maps, languages, everything but secret handshakes. As wild or violent as his work is, there's a childlike wonder to it.

In this sense, animation is perfect for Tarzan, says Taliaferro. "It escapes any problems of realism or animal stunts. You don't have to dress up guys in monkey suits."

Pub Date: 06/27/99

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