Part of growing up in the 20th century was reading the adventures of Tarzan of the Apes, through a series of 24 books by Edgar Rice Burroughs; the novels are considered classic literature by adults, as well. Written between 1912 and 1965, Tarzan has been adapted numerous times for radio, television, stage, and cinema and has been adapted more times than any book except Dracula. But this classic also has a history of being banned and censured.
It may seem hard to understand just how the tales of Tarzan and Jane could be offensive enough that some would demand that readers be denied their right to them, but the sad truth is that it has happened several times.
Among the reasons for censoring the books is because Tarzan and Jane live together without having been “married in the eyes of God”.
All of the Tarzan books were banned in Los Angeles, California, in 1929 because it was reasoned that, even though he is a fictional character, Tarzan, was living in the jungle with Jane without being married.
The books were likewise pulled from the shelves of the public library in- the appropriately named- town of Tarzana, California in the 1930s. Authorities said the adventure stories were unsuitable for youngsters since there was “no evidence that Tarzan and Jane had married before they started cohabiting in the treetops”.
Ralph Rothmund, who ran Burroughs’ estate, protested that the couple had taken marital vows in the jungle with Jane’s father serving as minister. “The father may not have been an ordained minister,” he said, “but after all things were primitive in those days in the jungle.”
In the cinematic adaptation of “Tarzan and His Mate” (1934), an underwater nude scene of Maureen O’Sullivan’s double (a professional swimmer) had to be removed before theaters would show it. After Ted Turner bought the MGM library in the 1990s, he had the scene restored.
Pictured at left, Burroughs holds a copy of the first German edition of Tarzan of the Apes, published by the Dieck Company of Stuttgart, in 1924. After the publisher’s death, Burroughs sent Dieck’s widow enough money to keep her out of the poor house- because the Tarzan books had been banned in Nazi Germany and she had fallen on hard times.
It is often noted that the Tarzan books and movies use racial stereotyping, but that- to a degree- was common in the times in which they were written. That does not serve to dismiss those claims, but rather put them in an historical context for deeper understanding. This led to controversy in the later years of the 20th century, especially after the changing social views and customs in the 1970s.
A Swedish character was described as having “a long yellow moustache, an unwholesome complexion, and filthy nails”, and Russians cheat at cards. The aristocracy and royalty- except the House of Greystoke, of course- are habitually degenerate.
The early books give a negative and stereotypical portrayal of the Africans of the day- both Arabic and Black. In The Return of Tarzan, Arabs are “surly looking” and call Christians “dogs”, while Blacks are “lithe, ebon warriors, gesticulating and jabbering”. One could make an equal argument that Burroughs was simply depicting villainous characters as such and the heroes in a brighter context- as in Chapter 6 of Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar where Burroughs writes of Mugambi, “…nor could a braver or more loyal guardian have been found in any clime or upon any soil.”
In later books, Africans are portrayed more realistically as people. In Tarzan’s Quest, while the depiction of Africans remains relatively primitive, they are portrayed more individualistically, with a greater variety of character traits, good and bad, while the main villains are Whites. Burroughs never loses his disfavor for European royalty, though.
The “superior-inferior” relationship is evident in virtually all interactions between Whites and Blacks in the stories- and similarly in most other interactions between differing people; although it can be said that these interactions are the heart of the dramatic narrative and without them there is no story, especially in the conflict between past and present and the definitions of ‘civilization’ and ‘humanity’ that the books explore.
In Tarzan of the Apes, details of a background of suffering experienced at the hands of Whites by Mbonga’s “once great” people are repeatedly told with evident sympathy, and in explanation or even justification of their current animosity toward Whites.
Burroughs’ opinions, which manifested through the narrative voice in the stories, reflected other common attitudes in his time, which in a 21st-century context would be considered racist and sexist. According to James Loewen’s Sundown Towns, this may be a result of Burroughs’ having been from Oak Park, Illinois, a former Sundown town (a town that forbids non-Whites from living within it).
He isn’t spiteful in his attitudes, either. His heroes don’t act violently against women or different races.
Feminist scholars have criticized the presence of other sympathetic male characters that engage in this violence with Tarzan’s approval. In Tarzan and the Ant Men, the men of a fictional tribe of creatures called the Alali gain social dominance of their society by beating the Alali women into submission with weapons that Tarzan willingly provides them. Following the battle, Burroughs writes: “To entertain Tarzan and to show him what great strides civilization had taken, the son of The First Woman seized a female by the hair and dragging her to him, struck her heavily about the head and face with his clenched fist, and the woman fell upon her knees and fondled his legs, looking wistfully into his face, her own glowing with love and admiration.”
While Burroughs writes some female characters with humanistic equalizing elements, it is commonly argued that violent scenes against women in the context of male sociopolitical domination are condoned in his writing, underpinning a notion of gendered hierarchy where patriarchy is the natural highpoint of society.
However, Burroughs notion of the feminine elevated women to the same level as men and that- in such characters as Dian or Dejah Thoris- portrays a female type who is neither desperate housewife nor full-lipped prom-date, and neither middle-level office-manager nor frowning ideological feminist-professor, but those who exceed all these in her realized humanity and in so doing suggests how ridiculous such views were to begin with.
It has been suggested- and supported in various experiments and real-world examples- that when we are removed from our modern world of convenience and elevated sense of civilization we revert to primal instincts and behaviors. There is hardly anyone out there, who when forced into a similar situation as Tarzan, would find many of our “values” skewed and modified in order to survive.
In the end, all of these “issues” are lost and unnoticed by the children reading of exotic lands and wild animals while fantasizing about high adventure and danger. Once again, adults- who have forgotten and forsaken their childhood imaginations and innocence- look with a magnifying glass at these tales with a larger world-view than is needed for them.
For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at http://bbark.deepforestproductions.com/