Tarzan of the Apes
Edgar Rice Burroughs
1912

There’s a whole analysis we can do on the Tarzan phenomenon – an analysis of colonialism, of the myth of ‘the savage’, the way notions of race are constructed and reproduced; and then a whole other on masculinity and gender. Tarzan is everywhere, and Tarzan remains a major cultural reference point precisely because it does play on and reinforce so much of where white anglo-american culture comes from, so much of what shaped the modern world, and what continues to shape it. Tarzan may seem like just a character for kids’ stories. But culturally, he is really, really important.

Magazine serials, the original novel, and some 25 sequels by Burroughs and countless other books and media by other authors demonstrate just how much the character of Tarzan spoke to and became a part of our general consciousness. White boy of aristocratic heritage raised in the jungle, Tarzan combines all those characteristics of the “noble savage” and puts them in a white skin to make them just that much braver, that much more noble, to represent in the popular imagination a unique twist on the colonial project, a unique marrying of civilization and nature. The ultimate representation of white masculinity in a world defined by conquest and empire, Tarzan tugs at deeply-held popular prejudices and ideals to take and retain iconic status.

Now, Burroughs was just writing an adventure story set in the assumptions of his time, the Tarzan books being intended as straight-ahead adventures coming out of a particularly racialized cultural place. The emphasis on the role of race and masculinity in this summary, then, is less about Burrough’s agenda and more about the fact that Tarzan’s wide and lasting influence speaks to something fundamental about white anglo-american identity – the tension between contempt for “savages” and the longing for a return to nature that is so perfectly embodied in the Tarzan character. And, make no mistake, that character speaks to us no less today than it did in 1912.

The British boy raised in the jungle. The epitome of manhood. Freedom, raw sexual power, strength and violence, a model of some imagined “natural” human ethic – what every woman wants, what every man wants to be, what Europe itself liked, in moments of fancy, to imagine in the colonial project and what Teddy Roosevelt liked to imagine for America’s own version of that project. Tarzan is important because Tarzan is – whether we admit or or not – what we want to be.

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