100 years on, still wild about Tarzan


By Neely Tucker
The Washington Post |
October 26. 2012 7:02PM

A century after his birth, Tarzan is affixed as one of literature’s most enduring creations. Tarzan is pictured through the years from AMC’s “Tarzan Adventure” in June (clockwise from upper left): Herman Briz (1935), Lex Barker (1949) , Mike Henry (1968) and Gordon Scott, with Eve Brent (1958). (Courtesy of AMC)







When historical novelist Robin Maxwell was looking for a book idea a couple of years ago, her husband asked who her new “literary lovers” would be.

“ ‘Tarzan and Jane!’ just blurted out of my mouth,” she says, laughing at how forcefully the idea seized her.

And so, 100 years after the Lord of the Apes first swung into the world’s pop culture window, there is “Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan,” a lush, romantic take on the English lord raised by primates — told from Jane’s point of view.

“We’re calling it ‘50 Shades of Green,’ ” Maxwell says.

This is just one leaf on the vine, however. A century after his birth, Tarzan is affixed as one of literature’s most enduring creations. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ archetype of primordial man in an atavistic jungle, more trusting of nature than mankind, struck a chord that still resonates. He is free of religion, politics, nationality and any of the oppressive rules, regulations, oversights, traffic cameras, parking tickets and other indignities imposed on modern man.

Wild sensation

“Tarzan of the Apes,” an 80,000-word adventure about an orphaned boy in the jungle, was a wild sensation when it debuted in the October 1912 edition of The All-Story Magazine. Published in book form in 1914, it spawned a series of 24 novels (and two for teens), selling an estimated 100 million copies in at least 35 languages. It is recognized by the Library of Congress as one of the “Books That Shaped America.” It has been turned into 52 authorized films, a radio show, a comic strip, a Broadway musical, merchandising without end, and even Tarzana, a city in California centered around Burroughs’s property.

Globally, there are new editions of Burroughs novels (“The Return of Tarzan,” “The Beasts of Tarzan,” “The Son of Tarzan,” etc.) coming out in at least a dozen countries. This isn’t new. Post-Czarist Russia printed so many pirated copies that a Moscow publisher told the New York Times in 1924: “They read it in offices, read it in street cars, read it in trains, read it in factories. Go to the villages and you find the educated young soldier reading ‘Tarzan’ to a circle of peasants with mouths agape.” Gore Vidal, in 1963, on the prevalence of Tarzan in this country: “There is hardly an American male of my generation who has not at one time or another tried to master the victory cry of the great ape as it issued from the androgynous chest of Johnny Weissmuller.”

Take your pick of what the ape man represents: Unfettered freedom? Domain over one’s environment? Raw male sexuality? The original Warrior in a State of Nature

As Maxwell put it in a recent essay, Tarzan never dies.

“I would say it’s because he’s selfless,” says Jim Sullos, president of Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc., the family-run business that manages the late author’s estate, when asked to explain the enduring appeal. “Tarzan is not greedy. He doesn’t want anything from anybody, he doesn’t need anything from anybody. He’s not trying to be in charge, but people want him to be. He lives without rules or restrictions but does so in an honorable way … . He represents a freedom we just don’t have anymore.”
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