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Douglas Fetherling - Tarzan, Inc.
by Douglas Fetherling

John Taliaferro is the latest biographer of Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950), creator of Tarzan. Unfortunately, in Tarzan Forever (Distican, 383 pages, $44.50 cloth), Taliaferro proves that he's no literary critic, only another fan, with a fan sensibility-the total rejection of evaluative interpretation. This fact becomes apparent when Taliaferro complains that Burroughs and his oeuvre have been shunned unfairly by the academic and literary establishments. The character of Tarzan, he complains, is not considered part "of the canon" despite being one of the most enduring creations in pop culture.

That's like condemning the Vatican for neglecting to beatify Mickey Mouse. Status in the core syllabus of literature, like a place in the calendar of saints, is not accorded on the basis of box-office popularity. Readers may conclude that Taliaferro is not a thinker or even someone familiar with the ways of thinkers. But then neither was Burroughs. Lack of intellectual rigour could, therefore, be a plus in telling the story of Burroughs' life, if that's all one wishes to do. The life in question was by no means an uninteresting one, for it was tinged with sadness, despite entrepreneurial successes at the low-brow end of the entertainment racket.

Burroughs was born in Chicago, the son of a Civil War hero and successful man of business. He received an appointment to West Point but flunked the entrance exam, whereupon, in the American tradition he exemplified, he went west to start over. In Idaho, he quite successfully worked a gold-mining claim. In the Arizona Territory, he served as a trooper in the ill-famed and not-yet-dismounted Seventh Cavalry-a decade after the surrender of Geronimo robbed the unit of its mission. Garrison duty and poor health drove Burroughs back to Chicago where, for a time, he sold pencil-sharpeners-a world of difference from Thoreau, a pencil-maker by trade. At what must have seemed his zenith of achievement, Burroughs oversaw the steno pool at Sears. By 1912, he was trying to earn a few bucks sending stories to pulp magazines. "Tarzan, Lord of the Apes" was only his third try.

The rest of the yarn is familiar. Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who came to loathe Sherlock Holmes and argued that his chivalric romances were more important, Burroughs got trapped into cranking out more and more Tarzan stories and novels while trying to break the cycle by creating other series-one set on Mars, another on Venus. But he was wise enough to appreciate what the public wanted. Living now in California on a huge ranch, Burroughs turned Tarzan into a comic strip, a radio series, and, of course, movies.

As he came to dislike middlemen such as agents and publishers, Burroughs became his own publisher. He also became one of the first American writers to "incorporate", forming what is now called a personal-service corporation. His corporation still controls the rights to Tarzan and is still run by his descendants who certainly reversed a declining enterprise. Burroughs, living near Hollywood in his glory period, moved with a crowd wealthier than himself. That and a costly divorce forced him to sell his beloved Tarzana Ranch, which became the tremendously boring L.A. suburb of Tarzana, California-the sort of place that might have inspired Orson Welles's wisecrack that, in Los Angeles, all streets look as though they lead to the airport.

I hadn't read any Burroughs since 1957, but recently I turned to the new "commemorative edition" of The Land That Time Forgot (University of Nebraska Press, 484 pages, US $14.95 paper), a 1924 dinosaur yarn said to represent the "best" of his non-Tarzan works. What I learned from Tarzan Forever is how much of a racist Burroughs was, and I don't use the term loosely. Burroughs was not someone who stereotyped another race destructively and ignorantly, like Sax Rohmer. Nor was he, like Virginia Woolf or Ezra Pound, someone whose utterances strayed into anti-Semitism during recurrent periods of mental illness. Rather, he resembled H.G. Wells in believing, but to a much greater degree and on a much cruder level, in the natural superiority of the Northern European peoples and the use of selective breeding to propagate their supposed virtues. This is real proto-Nazi stuff. Scary.

The world of Burroughs couldn't be further away from that of Conan Doyle, the subject of another new biography, Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle, by Daniel Stashower (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 512 pages, $32.50 cloth). Conan Doyle was a little blimpish, it's true. He grew naive, as evinced not by his overall belief in spiritualism but by his specific insistence that faeries really exist. But he wasn't a racist-not even to the extent that Ian Fleming was. (Look up Mordecai Richler's essay on the subject).

I've always believed (apparently more strongly than Stashower) that Conan Doyle's imperishable contribution to popular writing had a lot to do with his Catholic education. What is Sherlock Holmes if not a secular Jesuit superhero? In any case, Conan Doyle somehow gave our culture its permanent fascination with Victorian crime-specifically, the English Victorian murder. The subject continues to flourish in fiction and in non-fiction. One of the ablest practitioners of the tradition is Charles Palliser, whose Victorian mystery, The Quincunx (the word means "an arrangement of four objects at corners and one in the centre of a rectangle"), became a great surprise bestseller a decade ago. His new one, The Unburied (McArthur & Co., 390 pages, $33.95 cloth), is a worthy successor, a ghost story set in the close of a provincial cathedral in the 1870s. Highly recommended. 


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