February 12, 2009

The CCLaP 100: "Tarzan of the Apes," by Edgar Rice Burroughs

(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Tarzan of the Apes (1914)
By Edgar Rice Burroughs
Book #25 in this essay series

(UPDATE: It's been pointed out that, in my rush to get through this book, I mixed up a few of the story's details in my synopsis below. The errors have now been fixed, and I apologize for getting them wrong in the first place.)

The story in a nutshell:
Set in the last great days of the British Empire (i.e. the first decades of the 20th Century), Tarzan of the Apes is the story of one John Clayton, Viscount of Greystoke, actually born in the jungle on the western coast of Africa after his parents were marooned there by a mutinous ship crew, while they were passengers and bystanders on a long sea voyage. Ah, but it turns out that his parents both die while he's still a newborn, prompting a hasty "adoption" by a local ape named Kala and a childhood raised not as a human, but rather as the palest, weakest, least hairy ape of the entire region. The first half of this book, then, is an examination of tribal life itself, as "Tarzan" (his ape name) navigates the tricky politics and graphic violence of the animal society he finds himself in, even while slowly coming to realize during his puberty just how different he actually is. (See, he ends up stumbling across his parents' old jungle homestead while a teen, a surprisingly domestic setup because of the mutineers letting the Claytons unload all their worldly possessions before being abandoned; and thus does Tarzan end up just naturally learning how to read and write on his own, how to use a weapon and more, eventually using these things to bloodily conquer all his foes and become the famed "King of the Apes" we know today.)

The plot's pace picks up again in the second half, though, after yet another wreck by a ship full of lily-white Europeans; and who should this party include but none other than the evil William Clayton Robert Canler, who's been using his personal fortune to bully into marriage our adventurous heroine Jane Porter, a Victorian with a wild streak who ends up enjoying their impromptu African adventure much more than the nerdy French scientists American professors also along for the ride. Needless to say, Tarzan ends up saving their lives numerous times; has a chick-lit-esque wordless romantic night of vine-swinging with the clearly "Jungle Fever" infected Jane; and of course somehow manages to be the catalyst behind not only Robert's fall from grace but a surprise financial windfall for the Porter family, thus erasing the debt that was forcing Jane into a marriage of convenience to begin with. And thus does our "origin tale" end in the rural farmlands of Wisconsin (the rural farmlands of Wisconsin?), with the baddies punished and the goodies rewarded and with a now-civilized Tarzan ready for the two dozen official sequels that would soon follow.

The argument for it being a classic:
Even this book's fans admit that it's not the quality of the prose itself that makes this a classic, but rather its place in artistic history; for as most people know by now, Tarzan turned out to be an insanely loved character by the public at large, prompting one of the first-ever "character franchises" in the history of the entertainment industry. (In fact, Burroughs himself started one of the first artist-owned production companies in history as well, the still-existing "Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc.," which has overseen each and every one of the thousands of Tarzan books, movies, TV episodes, comics and more that has ever been made.) And besides, its fans say, even the writing itself isn't as bad as some make it out to be; sure, some of the later sequels get awfully cheesy and formulaic, but this first novel is surprisingly sophisticated for its time, deliberately avoiding many of the lazy racial stereotypes that defined this age and even offering up a refreshingly independent female lead too. Add up all of these things, its fans argue, along with the fantastic snapshot of its times that it provides (a look at an overextended British Empire first seriously questioning the ethics of colonization), and you have yourself a book that still easily deserves to be revisited by a whole new generation of readers.

The argument against:
Oh, and did I mention the CRAPPY, CRAPPY WRITING on display in Tarzan? Because that's certainly the first thing this book's critics will bring up, many of whom openly laugh at the entire concept of this being considered a "literary classic." That's like giving a Best Picture Oscar to a Will Smith movie, they argue, merely for it being the biggest moneymaker that year; just because Tarzan himself has become entwined into our entire popular culture, they say, doesn't make any of the actual projects better in quality than they were when they first came out, i.e. not very good at all. In fact, it could be argued that today's title perfectly illustrates the challenges inherent in defining what exactly the word "classic" even means, the issue that inspired this "CCLaP 100" essay series to begin with; that although this title is certainly historically important, it might be better at this point to actually study the "Tarzan Phenomenon" and its impact on culture than to read the literal books themselves. It's something that can be said these days of more and more popular old genre novels from the Victorian and Edwardian ages, and Tarzan they'd say is no exception.

My verdict:
So first, let's quickly admit that this book's critics are right about its quality, and that Burroughs' own attitude about his ouevre while alive profoundly supports this: turns out that the Chicago-born author never cared much about being a "good" writer at all, and only stumbled into the profession in the first place after a failed career in the US Cavalry (weak heart) and a decade of demeaning odd jobs in the Manifest-Destiny-era western territories. It was while mired in such circumstances that he was first introduced through a friend to the adventure serials of the pulp industry, at which point the non-writing Burroughs famously declared that if this was the kind of crap that sold pulps, he could do such stuff in his sleep and never have to be a day-laborer again; and that's exactly what he did, forging a 75-book "literary career" that for him was much more about simply paying the bills than about any artistic considerations. So is its overwhelming commercial success enough, then, to declare the book a "classic?" Certainly, for example, it almost single-handedly set the tone for the way Hollywood still works even to this day, not just from a "franchise-building" aspect but even in the way this genre-actioner's plotline is set up: there is the main "A" story of the title (Tarzan's struggles both in the wild and among "civilized society"); then a "B" romantic story featuring two good-looking airheads (in this case, Jane and the suave French sailor Paul D'Arnot William Clayton, Tarzan's cousin -- note that the infamous "Me Tarzan, you Jane" love affair isn't explored in the original books until much later in the series); and then a humorous "C" story featuring a pair of bumbling nerds, existing for almost no other reason than to provide comic relief. This has been the basic framework of nearly every Hollywood action movie since, so much so that most of us take these tropes for granted by now; and we have the original Tarzan to thank for this, because of it just happening to be a runaway bestseller at the same exact moment in history that the nascent Hollywood was first starting to write the formulas and rules of its industry, the story conventions that thousands of lazy hacks have leaned on ever since.

So what I'm arguing today, then (and it's rare that I argue this, so enjoy it), is that maybe this is enough to label Tarzan of the Apes a classic, and to encourage people to keep reading it to this day; not for the quality of the writing itself, but rather the overwhelmingly important role it played in the history of both the film industry and popular culture in general. The "summer blockbuster" wouldn't be nearly the thing it currently is if not for Tarzan; and given how important in our modern times the summer blockbuster is to the overall history of the American arts, this alone I feel makes the original slim novel still worth reading. And besides, what its fans say about the book's quality is true too, that ultimately it's not much worse than most of the other serialized genre-actioners that were churned out at the end of the Victorian Era (yes, Jules Verne, I'm looking at you), and in some ways is actually much better than typical; just to cite one excellent example, as mentioned Burroughs goes out of his way to avoid metaphorical comparisons between black people and the ape society on display here (a major point of many of the other eugenics-obsessed genre-actioners of the period), instead deliberately showing through the characters' actions that the shipwrecked white people and local black villagers possess exactly the same amount of intelligence, in both cases way above what even the smartest ape is capable of.

Certainly no one is going to mistake this book for the Early Modernist masterpieces that were coming out at the same time; but maybe a book doesn't always have to be such a thing to be considered a classic, or to argue that people should still continue to read it to this day. Maybe sometimes it's simple competence combined with extraordinary historical significance that justifies such a label; like I said, it's not an argument I make often, but in the case of Tarzan of the Apes is one where I will. Although caution is advised, it's ultimately a title I recommend everyone checking out.

Is it a classic? Yes

The next four books scheduled to be read:
Next time: Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott
Two books from now: Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert
Three books from now: Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson
Four books from now: Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

Read even more about Tarzan of the Apes: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:27 PM, February 12, 2009. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |