Exploring the Life and Works of Edgar Rice Burroughs

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A Review


Author: Sarkis Atamian

Publisher: Publication Consultants

P. O. Box 221974,

Ankorage, Alaska 99522-1974

website, 1997

ISBN: 1-888125-12-8

Price: A$14.95 (quality paperback) 128 pages

Reviewed by Patrick H. Adkins

Literary criticism of Edgar Rice Burroughs has a long and interesting history, with a significant body of critical writings that has accumulated over the past fifty years. Because of his position as one of the preeminent representatives of the pulp magazines, which were a primary source of fiction for several generations of readers in the first half of this century, Burroughs is of special interest to those who study popular literature; and his continuing phenomenal popularity nearly fifty years after his death has begun to earn him grudging recognition in serious academic and literary circles. A consensus seems to be gradually building that, whatever his limitations, he was nevertheless an inspired storyteller and quite possibly an authentic imaginative genius. Burroughs' greatest importance, however, may be extra-literary: Based on the number of scientists whose love of science was first awakened by youthful reading of Burroughs' interplanetary romances, Carl Sagan observed in Mars and the Mind of Man that Burroughs may well turn out to be the most influential writer of the 20th Century.

The origin of the idea of a child raised by apes has been sought by a number of previous scholars, including Rudolph Altrocchi (Sleuthing in the Stacks, 1944), Richard Lupoff (Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure, 1965), and Irwin Porges (Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan, 1975); in addition, several insightful articles on the subject have appeared in various Burroughs journals. Burroughs himself credited his inspiration to the tale of Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, and to a nearly forgotten story about a man stranded among apes on an island, which he had read years before. It is this question of what inspired Burroughs that Sarkis Atamian, formerly Head of Department of Sociology and Psychology at the University of Alaska, in Fairbanks, reopens and seeks to answer once and for all in The Origin of Tarzan.

In the course of his fascinating, discursive inquiry, Atamian examines several topics, beginning with the question of how Asian tigers wound up in the African jungle in the magazine version of Tarzan of the Apes (an error corrected before book publication in 1914). He ascribes the generally unfavorable critical reception Burroughs met with during his lifetime to Burroughs' outspoken political beliefs and worldview (he was anti-socialist, anti-Communist, and generally conservative, though critical of Colonialism and the human race in general), and suggests that Burroughs' erroneous placement of tigers in Africa served as an excuse for subsequent critics (including Kipling) to dismiss him as a bumbling ignoramus. (Others have argued convincingly that much of the antagonism to Burroughs was based on his open acceptance of Darwinian evolution.) By searching through the early works of African explorers, Atamian demonstrates that Burroughs' mistake was in fact a very understandable one, since leopards were often referred to colloquially as tigers at that time, a misunderstanding compounded by the inclusion of a picture of an Asiatic tiger in one of Burroughs' primary sources.

Much of this volume is devoted to retracing the state of knowledge about Africa, especially the West Coast of equatorial Africa, in 1911. Atamian convincingly demonstrates that Paul Du Chaillu's Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa (1861) and J. W. Buell's Heroes of the Dark Continent (1889) supplied many of the details Burroughs incorporated in his early Tarzan books. He offers an eloquent defense of Du Chaillu, a 19th Century explorer whose works constituted nearly all that was known about the African great apes in their natural habitat until the second half of this century, and finally locates the inspiration for Tarzan in a striking passage in Du Chaillu's book--a conclusion which, though certainly new and interesting, it is hardly likely to be the last word on this topic.

On one level The Origin of Tarzan is an entertaining personal homage to the storytelling genius of an American original. It is also a significant addition to the growing body of critical work about Edgar Rice Burroughs and an important book in the study of how popular literature shapes perception. The vast success of Burroughs' Tarzan books and their adaptions in virtually every medium, especially film (which distorted them greatly), have led some to attribute to Burroughs a primary role in shaping the way Africa has been popularly viewed throughout much of this century. Atamian's exploration of the works that molded Tarzan's Africa should be of interest to anyone concerned with the role of popular culture in how we perceive the world.

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