Is Tarzan High-Culture Reading Now?

Tarzan is one of the most popular and influential fictional characters of all time, but does his story qualify as high-end literature?

Image courtesy of the Library of America

In 1929, psychologists conducted a survey of 65 critics, asking them to choose the greatest living American novelists. Many of the writers the survey's respondents ranked in the top 10 are still esteemed and read today (at least in graduate schools): Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and Thornton Wilder. Others, deservedly or not, are now forgotten: Who reads Joseph Hergesheimer anymore?

But the critics agreed about one thing in particular, the man who got their vote for not being worth reading at all: Edgar Rice Burroughs. Ironically, 83 years later, the prestigious Library of America— to preserving "the nation's cultural heritage by publishing America's best and most significant writing in durable and authoritative editions" and providing Americans with a "collective sense of the country's literary accomplishments"— issuing handsome new volumes of Burroughs' two most famous novels, Tarzan of the Apes and A Princess of Mars, with introductions from the noted writers Thomas Mallon and Junot Díaz.

The obvious question presents itself: These novels are undoubtedly significant— is one of the most popular and influential fictional characters of all time, and A Princess of Mars (the source material for Andrew Stanton's John Carter) provided the template George Lucas later plundered for Star Wars— are they really among our "best"? There's no doubt that Burroughs knew how to write an action scene, and his work brims over with rich thematic material (colonialism, manifest destiny, the noble savage). And it is of course impossible to miss the weird erotic charge that pulses through his works, with their muscular heroes and lithe heroines running around wearing fetish gear. (For confirmation of this, just check out the series of pornographic Tarzan novels written by the cult author Philip José Farmer or the bizarre graphic comics adapted from Burroughs' Mars stories by the outsider artist James Killian Spratt.)

But these books are also profoundly racist, with the Tarzan novels in particular filled with "low and bestial" Africans who are constantly either bested or rescued by the great white hunter. And in the end, do Burroughs' stories really provide much more than (admittedly provocative and culturally resonant) escapism? Gore Vidal, an avid childhood reader of these books, once wrote that "Burroughs is innocent of literature" and described the continued popularity of his novels among adult readers as "unbearably sad."

Whether or not you agree with Vidal, it would be interesting to hear what the Library of America's late cofounder Edmund Wilson, who wasn't exactly known for his tolerance of genre fiction, would have to say about this. Of course, that's the library's problem, not ours, and these books still hold up as entertainment if nothing else. There's just something strange about reading them in beautiful hardcovers rather than cheap, yellow-edged paperbacks.

— Hodler, research director at Details

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