Tarzan of the Apes | Study Guide

Edgar Rice Burroughs

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Tarzan of the Apes | Context


Pulp Magazines

Tarzan of the Apes was first published in the October 1912 issue of All-Story Magazine, a well-known pulp magazine famous for its short stories and serial tales. This was Burroughs's second foray into the pulps. His first published work, Under the Moon of Mars, was published in the same magazine between February and June 1912 to rave reviews. Audiences were even more excited by Burroughs's jungle adventure, which starred a noble Englishman raised by apes. Printed in its entirety in one issue, Tarzan of the Apes catapulted pulp magazines into the limelight and made Burroughs a household name.

Pulp magazines rose to prominence in the 1890s as a cheap yet entertaining alternative to glossy magazines such as Harper's and Scribner's, which were written for well-off urban dwellers. Most of these magazines—costing about 50 cents an issue (the modern equivalent of about $13.79)—were too expensive for the middle and lower classes, and the content was often of little interest to mass audiences. Pulp magazines, on the other hand, could be printed and sold for extremely low prices: around 10 cents an issue (the modern equivalent of about $2.76) thanks to the low-quality paper on which they were printed. Made from wood pulp dissolved in acid and then rolled flat, pulp paper had a rough, unfinished feel to it. That didn't matter to publishers or the readers who cared more about the stories in the magazine than the paper on which those stories were printed.

While the glossy magazines prided themselves on good writing, pulp publishers were looking for compelling stories that enticed readers to come back for more in the next month's issue. Many people associate pulp fiction with crime noir—gritty tales of a dark and dangerous criminal underworld—but it really spanned all genres. Early pulps such as American author Frank A. Munsey's All-Story Magazine published tales from the various genres: adventure, science fiction, Western, crime, and sports. Anything exciting or unusual was fair game, and as time went on many of the stories became more titillating. By the 1920s publishers started creating niche publications for specific genres, such as Street & Smith's Detective Story Magazine and Western Story Magazine.

Many now-famous authors got their start in pulp magazines; in addition to Burroughs, they include American authors Ray Bradbury, H.P. Lovecraft, and Raymond Chandler, and English author H.G. Wells. It wasn't easy to make a living publishing solely in pulps. The most generous pulp magazines paid their authors a penny per word. Many wrote with the goal of eventually getting into the glossy magazines, which paid better. But pulps were a good training ground for new authors. The turnaround time was fast and the readership was fickle, so it was imperative for writers to work fast and write an interesting story the first time around.

Pulp magazines reached peak popularity during the Great Depression (1929–39) and served as an inexpensive escape from the day-to-day drudgery of American life. During the World War II era (1939–45), paper shortages significantly decreased the number of magazines available to the public, and by the 1950s the pulps were replaced by paperback books, comic books, television, and movies. However, their influence is still felt across all media and genres.

Western Colonialism in Africa

Tarzan of the Apes takes place between 1888 and 1909, at the height of Western colonialism in Africa. Colonialism is the political and economic control of one state over another. European countries began exploring, conquering, and settling Africa in the mid-1700s, when there was growing opposition to the slave trade and a desire to spread Christianity and Western culture. These countries' supposedly good intentions morphed into outright greed in the late 1800s with the discovery of Africa's valuable natural resources, including rubber, diamonds, copper, and gold. European nations began claiming African territories for themselves by using repeating rifles (which contained multiple rounds of ammunition) and machine guns against the more primitive weapons of the native African peoples. The Africans' land and way of life were taken away for Western profit.

Before the Europeans arrived, the African continent was divided by tribes and ethnic groups. Small villages were governed by elders or village chiefs. Larger kingdoms and empires had central, primarily monarchical governments. Borders between groups were fluid, and changed depending on the reach and control of leaders. Arbitrary borders became more and more prevalent as Western powers began to claim territory for themselves in the late 19th century; by 1900 Africa looked like a giant jigsaw puzzle of European control. France, Great Britain, Belgium, Portugal, Italy, Spain, and Germany partitioned the continent based on their economic and national desires, not the needs or wishes of the African people. In many cases these partitions divided members of the same ethnic group and forced warring tribes to cohabitate—both situations resulting in intercontinental strife.

In Tarzan of the Apes, John Clayton is sent to Africa as a representative of the British Colonial Office to investigate reports of another colonial power—most likely Belgium—wooing away "simple native inhabitants" to become soldiers in its army and collect rubber and ivory along the Congo and Aruwimi rivers. Though this scenario is fictional, it may be rooted in fact. King Leopold II of Belgium controlled the Free State of Congo during this time. Though the colony was purportedly set up as a "humanitarian venture" to address the devastating effects of slavery and the liquor trade, it functioned as a moneymaker for the king. The Congo territory was rich in rubber and valuable minerals, so the king allowed foreign entities to mine on "his" land as long as they paid taxes and an additional monetary tribute that went straight into his pocket. Selling rubber didn't bring in as much profit as selling ivory or slaves, and the companies needed cheap labor. Local tribes gave up their agricultural livelihoods—often under threat of military force—to gather the vine sap used to make rubber. This is similar to the situation Mbonga's tribe members face in Tarzan of the Apes before they kill the white officer and his black soldiers.

Word spread about the way King Leopold II was allowing his newest subjects to be treated. Many colonizers turned a blind eye to the situation because they, too, were more concerned about profits than human rights. Traders who had been forced out of the area began complaining, as did Christian missionaries, but the situation didn't become international news until 1904 when British diplomat Roger Casement wrote a scathing report about the treatment of Congolese natives under King Leopold II's rule. That may be how Burroughs learned about the situation and decided to incorporate it into his novel.

Social Darwinism

The social hierarchy of the characters in Tarzan of the Apes is based on the theory of social Darwinism, which says humans are subject to the same laws of natural selection as plants and animals. The theory of natural selection became popular in the 1860s after the publication of English naturalist Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859), which introduced the idea of survival of the fittest—that is, animals with traits best suited to their surroundings will survive. Darwin's ideas were revolutionary, and they brought about a better understanding of why some species thrive while others languish. But they also inspired a school of thought Darwin never intended.

Burroughs wrote Tarzan of the Apes in 1912, less than 50 years after the end of the American Civil War (1861–65). Cultural values and thoughts can take a long time to change, and racist attitudes and ideas were still the norm in the early 20th century. Many people who considered themselves educated believed there were physical, moral, and intellectual differences between black people and white people. Some, including prominent English sociologist and philosopher Herbert Spencer, made a connection between Darwin's theories and racist and classist viewpoints. Proponents of this theory of social Darwinism believe individual races, ethnicities, and social groups fight for survival in society just like plants and animals fight for survival in the natural world. Groups that are more highly evolved have better odds of success, which is displayed through wealth, power, or social status. Those with lesser traits have little power and little money. Groups with lesser traits do not have the skills to survive and eventually die off. They are replaced by a more genetically superior group. At the time, popular thought attributed superiority to the white upper class. Lower-class black people were on the other end of this "fittest" scale.

Social Darwinist theories were often the rationale behind public policies and initiatives that promoted the success and supremacy of the white upper class. These include imperialism (the spreading of a state's power and territory) and colonialism, both of which brought Westerners to Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These "survival of the fittest" theories were also popular with titans of industry who used them to justify their enormous wealth and success. If their success was a natural product of their intelligence and superior capabilities, then they didn't have to give back to the very communities that helped them become rich.

Burroughs was a proponent of social Darwinism. Obsessed with his own upper-class, largely Anglo-Saxon (British) heritage, he was known as a champion of eugenics, or the complete eradication of "undesirable" characteristics. This is clear in Tarzan of the Apes, in which the main character—a white, high-born man—is smarter, stronger, and better looking than everyone he meets. The lower-born white characters, including the sailors who strand Tarzan's biological parents on the African shore, are brutish and violent and therefore of a lower class. It isn't too far-fetched to think they will kill one another eventually, thereby ending that strain of humans. In the same vein, black characters—mostly native Africans—are depicted as no better than wild animals and too inferior to survive.

Tarzan of the Apes and Racism

A lot of the literary stigma attached to Tarzan of the Apes relates to its racist themes and Burroughs's controversial views. So much in the way of cultural thought has happened since Tarzan of the Apes was published more than 100 years ago. Cultural values and norms have evolved, and what was standard practice at the turn of the 20th century is often viewed as outdated or backward in the 21st century. Yet it remains impossible to talk about Tarzan of the Apes without talking about race, how it is depicted, and whether Burroughs was indeed racist.

There are two schools of thought about racism as it pertains to the Tarzan series. Both acknowledge Burroughs's prejudiced depiction of minorities, particularly his black characters. However, some critics think Burroughs was merely a product of his time. He was hardly the only early-20th-century author who portrayed "native" peoples as unintelligent, superstitious, violent, and closer to animals than humans on the evolutionary scale. Nor was he the only one to rely on racial stereotypes in his depictions of African American, American Indian, or Middle Eastern characters. Some argue Burroughs simply followed the pattern set by best-selling pulp and literary authors. This line of thinking takes the blame off Burroughs and puts it on Western society.

Other critics consider such racism inexcusable. Still, many of them are quick to point out that racist beliefs don't necessarily go hand in hand with bad writing. For example, the introduction to Burroughs's work in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism (1979) explicitly calls Burroughs a "white supremacist" in one sentence and notes his "place among the great American storytellers" in the next.

These critics believe that negative portrayals of a group of people should be balanced with positive portrayals of that same group. While Tarzan of the Apes doesn't meet this criterion, the Tarzan canon does. Throughout the Tarzan books, Burroughs portrays good Africans and bad Africans, good Arabs and bad Arabs, and good Germans and bad Germans, depending on the plot and when the books were written.

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