Alex Vernon


On his book On Tarzan

Cover Interview of August 09, 2009

A close-up

Most likely someone flipping through On Tarzan at a bookstore will first notice the photographs introducing each chapter and the epigraphs.  I hope this potential reader sees the humor here.

There’s the 1927 publicity shot of Tarzan-actor James Pierce greeting five Boy Scouts of different ages, “from casual youngsters to an upstanding young adult” shaking Pierce’s hand, and behind them all, forming the backdrop, a cluster of dark-skinned, spear-clutching savages—what a hysterically loaded image of white manhood in the making.

Or there’s the chapter epigraph taken from Burroughs’ Tarzan and the Lion Man, “Were I not already engaged on other lines of research, and were it possible, I should like to determine the biological or psychological explanation of the profound attraction that the blond female has for the male of all races,” spoken by the character God.  Opposite this page we see Bo Derek as Jane Parker asking her father, “Daddy, is he really a savage?”

The book’s epigraphs include a line from Burroughs’ The Son of Tarzan—“Thus did the scent of Numa, the lion, transform the boy into a beast”—followed by one from Philip José Farmer’s A Feast Unknown—“It is, more than almost anything, African in its essence. Let him who would envision the soul of this ancient continent, eat lion sperm.”

I like to think this humor colors the entire book.  When Boy in MGM’s Tarzan’s Secret Treasure longs to see airplanes and other modern inventions, Jane tells him to “forget about civilization.  Our world here is far more lovely and far more exciting than the outside world I promise you.  Now you run and get the caviar from the refrigerator.”

The film Tarzan and the Valley of Gold “gives us the most astonishing convergence of American capitalism, cultural imperialism, and violence I know, with Tarzan as the focal point, when in the Plaza de Toros, a cultural landmark, he crushes a Mexican foe with a giant Coca-Cola bottle.”

There’s the bit that reads a scene from the 2005 animated film Madagascar in terms of the of West’s imagined intersections of racism, miscegenation, primitivism, cannibalism, bestiality, and homosexuality.

And there’s the next chapter’s addition of incest to the mix, beginning with The Son of Tarzan.  In Burroughs’ fourth Tarzan novel, Tarzan’s son Jack and his new friend Akut the ape “flee England aboard a steamer bound for Africa with Akut disguised as Jack’s own grandmother.  ‘Outside the[ir] cabin—and none there was aboard who knew what he did in the cabin—the lad was just as any other healthy, normal English boy might have been.’ So inside the cabin he was not normal, doing things nobody knew, such as having sex with a bull ape in drag as his own grandmother”?