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Nkima Speaks

The Thin Veneer of Civilization:
The Discovery of a “Lost” Essay

by David Arthur Adams


David "Nkima" Adams is a familiar figure among amateur Burroughsian scholars. A school teacher, he is a member of ERBapa, the Burroughs Bibliophiles, the ERB email lists, and publishes extensively on the WWW at various sites. This essay was written for ERBmania! and addresses one of David's favorite themes, Tarzan of the Apes.

When I was a child my parents owned a bedroom set that appeared to me as though it had been carved from the skins of exotic animals. Whorls and knots shimmered in morning light like the rosettes of a leopard, and long, winding stripes of dark and shade bespoke the tiger that slept within the wood.

My mother treasured her bedroom furniture, and I remember her telling me that it was made of veneer, which to my young ears sounded like the most precious thing in the world. Thus, I was somewhat chagrined when I came across the term in later life, finding it was considered to be a cheat, a thin covering to mask the cheaper wood below.

Edgar Rice Burroughs was fond of using the phrase, "the thin veneer of civilization" to describe mankind's condition in relation to his more fundamental savage makeup. The phrase appears most commonly in his Tarzan books, although it does not appear until the second one in the series, The Return of Tarzan, which he wrote in 1912.

Lately I came across an essay that could have been written by Edgar Rice Burroughs as he was preparing notes for The Return of Tarzan. It is a short piece full of his philosophy, one filled with the phrase that will echo again and again throughout the Tarzan series. The date of composition for this work is given as 1906, and it saw the light of day in a book of essays published in 1910.

Read the following quotation from the beginning of this work. See if you do not agree that it may have come from the pen of the author of the Tarzan novels. I have underlined portions that seem to be the origin of the phrase, "the thin veneer of civilization."

"Civilization (which is part of the circle of his imaginings) has spread a veneer over the surface of the softshelled animal known as man. It is a very thin veneer; but so wonderfully is man constituted that he squirms on his bit of achievement and believes he is garbed in armor-plate.

Yet man to-day is the same man that drank from his enemy's skull in the dark German forests, that sacked cities, and stole his women from neighboring clans like any howling aborigine. The flesh-and-blood body of man has not changed in the last several thousand years. Nor has his mind changed. There is no faculty of the mind of man to-day that did not exist in the minds of the men of long ago

It is the same old animal man, smeared over, it is true, with a veneer, thin and magical, that makes him dream drunken dreams of self-exaltation and to sneer at the flesh and the blood of him beneath the smear. The raw animal crouching within him is like the earthquake monster pent in the crust of the earth. As he persuades himself against the latter till it arouses and shakes down a city, so does he persuade himself against the former until it shakes him out of his dreaming and he stands undisguised, a brute like any other brute."

One may well imagine that the phrase, "the earthquake monster pent in the crust of the earth" may have been the first quiverings of his cave man in The Eternal Lover who finally came to life in 1913. It is also interesting to note that San Francisco was indeed shaken down in May of 1906 about a month before this essay was written.

"Starve him, let him miss six meals, and see gape through the veneer the hungry maw of the animal beneath. Get between him and the female of his kind upon whom his mating instinct is bent, and see his eyes blaze like an angry cat's, hear in his throat the scream of wild stallions, and watch his fists clench like an orang-outan's. Maybe he will even beat his chest. Touch his silly vanity, which he exalts into high-sounding pride -- call him a liar, and behold the red animal in him that makes a hand clutching that is quick like the tensing of a tiger's claw, or an eagle's talon, incarnate with desire to rip and tear.

It is not necessary to call him a liar to touch his vanity. Tell a plains Indian that he has failed to steal horses from the neighboring tribe, or tell a man living in bourgeois society that he has failed to pay his bills at the neighboring grocer's, and the results are the same. Each, plains Indian and bourgeois, is smeared with a slightly different veneer, that is all. It requires a slightly different stick to scrape it off. The raw animals beneath are identical."

If this essay could be proven to be an authentic one by Edgar Rice Burroughs, it would certainly be an interesting discovery, one in which the literary historian could find many passages that would give clues to his later writings. Of course, the mention of the plains Indians might refer to his later Apache novels. Even though the geography is not entirely accurate, it sounds the basic primitive man idea that strikes a strong note in all of his work.

Next, let me present several examples of this "veneer" phrase as it appears in the Tarzan novels. I do not propose that I have found all of the appearances of this phrase in the works of Burroughs. Strangely, it is not found in his first Tarzan novel, Tarzan of the Apes, nor can it be found in his two previous novels. Here is what Burroughs wrote the first time it appears.

The Return of Tarzan - chapter two

"Presently, as he sat there, the sudden feeling came over him that eyes were watching from behind, and the old instinct of the wild beast broke through the thin veneer of civilization, so that Tarzan wheeled about so quickly that the eyes of the young woman who had been surreptitiously regarding him had not even time to drop before the gray eyes of the ape-man shot an inquiring look straight into them."

Burroughs was fond enough of the image to use it again in the same novel.

The Return of Tarzan - chapter three

He was reveling in the joy of battle and the lust of blood. As though it had been but a brittle shell, to break at the least rough usage, the thin veneer of his civilization fell from him, and the ten burly villains found themselves penned in a small room with a wild and savage beast, against whose steel muscles their puny strength was less than futile."

I have found this phrase 5 more times in the following novels: The Beasts of Tarzan, Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, Jungle Tales of Tarzan, and Tarzan the Untamed, where is occurs in two places.

Beasts of Tarzan - chapter 3

"Yet even with that burden he fell into the little habits and manners of his early life that were in reality more a part of him than the thin veneer of civilization that the past three years of his association with the white men of the outer world had spread lightly over him--a veneer that only hid the crudities of the beast that Tarzan of the Apes had been."

Tarzan and The Jewels of Opar - chapter 2

"To Tarzan of the Apes the expedition was in the nature of a holiday outing. His civilization was at best but an outward veneer which he gladly peeled off with his uncomfortable European clothes whenever any reasonable pretext presented itself. It was a woman's love which kept Tarzan even to the semblance of civilization--a condition for which familiarity had bred contempt. He hated the shams and the hypocrisies of it and with the clear vision of an unspoiled mind he had penetrated to the rotten core of the heart of the thing--the cowardly greed for peace and ease and the safe-guarding of property rights. That the fine things of life--art, music and literature--had thriven upon such enervating ideals he strenuously denied, insisting, rather, that they had endured in spite of civilization.

"Show me the fat, opulent coward," he was wont to say, "who ever originated a beautiful ideal. In the clash of arms, in the battle for survival, amid hunger and death and danger, in the face of God as manifested in the display of Nature's most terrific forces, is born all that is finest and best in the human heart and mind."

And so Tarzan always came back to Nature in the spirit of a lover keeping a long deferred tryst after a period behind prison walls. His Waziri, at marrow, were more civilized than he. They cooked their meat before they ate it and they shunned many articles of food as unclean that Tarzan had eaten with gusto all his life and so insidious is the virus of hypocrisy that even the stalwart ape-man hesitated to give rein to his natural longings before them. He ate burnt flesh when he would have preferred it raw and unspoiled, and he brought down game with arrow or spear when he would far rather have leaped upon it from ambush and sunk his strong teeth in its jugular; but at last the call of the milk of the savage mother that had suckled him in infancy rose to an insistent demand--he craved the hot blood of a fresh kill and his muscles yearned to pit themselves against the savage jungle in the battle for existence that had been his sole birthright for the first twenty years of his life."

This long quotation notes another matter covered in the essay, that of man’s dining habits. It is interesting to see that the image of eating raw, red meat is found close to the veneer image, just as it is in the later description in the novel.

"In the course of his life godlike he ignores the flesh -- until he gets to table. He raises his hands in horror at the thought of the brutish prize-fighter, and then sits down and gorges himself on roast beef, rare and red, running blood under every sawing thrust of the implement called a knife. He has a piece of cloth which he calls a napkin, with which he wipes from his lips, and from the hair on his lips, the greasy juices of the meat."

Also, it is interesting to note that peace-lovers and guardians of property rights are wrapped in the cloak of the coward, while the face of God as found in Nature stands firmly with the fighting man. This thought was well-expressed at the very end of the essay.

"It is well enough to let the ape and tiger die, but it is hardly fair to kill off the natural and courageous apes and tigers and allow the spawn of cowardly apes and tigers to live. The prizefighting apes and tigers will die all in good time in the course of natural evolution, but they will not die so long as the cowardly, somnambulistic apes and tigers club and scratch and slash. This is not a brief for the prize-fighter. It is a blow of the fist between the eyes of the somnambulists, teetering up and down, muttering magic phrases, and thanking God that they are not as other animals."

The reader familiar with the works of Burroughs will pause over that odd, twin image of apes and tigers. I barely have space here to cover “veneer” without plunging into that old, rank undergrowth of tigers.

Jungle Tales of Tarzan - chapter 11, A Jungle Joke

"Such is life, such is fame, such is power--in the center of the world's highest civilization, or in the depths of the black, primeval jungle. Always, everywhere, man is man, nor has he altered greatly beneath his veneer since he scurried into a hole between two rocks to escape the tyrannosaurus six million years ago."

Battle, David Adams

Tarzan the Untamed - chapter 1

"When necessity demanded, Tarzan of the Apes sloughed the thin veneer of his civilization and with it the hampering apparel that was its badge. In a moment the polished English gentleman reverted to the naked ape man."

Later in chapter 1...

Stripped not only of all the outward symbols of civilization, Tarzan had also reverted morally and mentally to the status of the savage beast he had been reared. Never had his civilization been more than a veneer put on for the sake of her he loved because he thought it made her happier to see him thus. In reality he had always held the outward evidences of so-called culture in deep contempt."

These are all the “veneer” quotations from the Tarzan novels I have found so far. Perhaps there are many more, but it really serves no purpose to uncover them all. It is enough to demonstrate that the metaphor is a pervasive one in the writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

The question of the true origin of the essay remains.

If I told you that this was a lost piece of writing by Edgar Rice Burroughs, you would have to confess that the fragment was entirely believable, and its influence upon the novels seems to be without doubt. However, being an honest man, I must reveal the true source of this essay to be none other than Jack London who wrote this rather Burroughsian piece, "The Somnambulists" on June 13, 1906. It was first published in the Oakland World, July 3, 1906 and later that same year in the New York Independent, Dec. 20. The essay was later collected in Revolution & Other Essays published by The Macmillan Company in March, 1910. The work can be read in its entirety at the Jack London web site. (link no longer active)

I do not make the claim that Burroughs had read this work, or that it is indeed the source of the familiar "veneer" image, however, the fact that this may be true certainly presents an intriguing possibility.


David Arthur Adams

September 5, 1998

“Thin Veneer of Civilization”
A Footnote

When I last left this article, I had only gone back as far as Jack London’s 1906 piece in my search for the phrase “thin veneer of civilization,” which was used so often by ERB in his writings about Tarzan. However, I have found an earlier source in J.G. Frazer’s “Golden Bough.” Robert Ackerman, Frazer’s biographer notes that in his 1913 Third Edition of the Golden Bough Frazer “resurrects a remark from the 1890 preface” where this sentence appeared.

“The truth seems to be that to this day the peasant remains a pagan and savage at heart; his civilization is merely a thin veneer which the hard knocks of life soon abrade, exposing the solid core of paganism and savagery below.”

I guess ERB may have picked up the phrase from Frazer as well as London.

March 9, 2005