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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Tarzan of the Apes (1912) by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Bettie Page being menaced by a cannibal in a scene that derives inspiration directly from Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Book Review
Tarzan of the Apes (1912)
by Edgar Rice Burroughs

  Tarzan of the Apes is a classic example of the porous border between "high" and "low" art.  Tarzan turned into one of the most enduring fictional characters of the 20th century, alongside contemporaries like Sherlock Holmes(1887), The Invisible Man(1897) and Dracula(1897.)  Tarzan is different from earlier popular fictional characters because the move from printed literature to film was almost instantaneous.  The first film versions of Tarzan were silent movies released as early as 1918, which, if you consider the interruption of the first World War, is basically simultaneous.

  The movie version of Tarzan took off in 1932, when Johnny Weissmuller played the role.  You can see the impact in an Ngram comparing the relative popularity of Tarzan, Frankenstein and Sherlock Holmes:

  In this Ngram you can see Tarzan crushing Sherlock Holmes and Frankenstein before plummeting to earth in the 1930s.  Thereafter, Tarzan and Sherlock have both played second fiddle to the Nineteenth century character Frankenstein, perhaps because Frankenstein is considered the "first" monster book in literature and thus attracts a disproportionate amount of attention from the academic community relative to the other two characters.

  All this supports the proposition that Tarzan of the Apes- the first book- is worth a look precisely because it has proved to be so enduring, the true definition of a classic.  At the same time, Burroughs is not the most skilled novelist, and the vile racism that permeates his treatment of the African cannibals is as difficult to stomach as the frank depictions of the evils of slavery in Uncle Tom's Cabin.  The difference being that Stowe was criticizing the institution of slavery, and Burroughs is trying to entertain a broad popular audience for adventure novels with gory sensationalism.

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