Alex Vernon


On his book On Tarzan

Cover Interview of August 10, 2009


The first customer review posted on called On Tarzan “a work of seminal and impressive scholarship.”  The second called it a “piece of absolute trash” and suggested that the book be burned and Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. sue me for libel.

With such extreme responses, On Tarzan must do something right.

I write academic nonfiction for a professional and mostly exclusive audience, I write familiar essays for a general and mostly inclusive audience, and the potential readership for a book on Tarzan draws from both communities.  While Tarzan’s cultural significance demands a serious approach, his inherent ridiculousness heckles such efforts.

On Tarzan, then, is a book-length essay, a cultural study informed by academic consideration yet at the same time familiar, speculative, and playful, embodying the ape-man’s own impossible hybridity.

Lauren Slater had a similar vision for her controversial Opening Skinner’s Box: “as an essayist, my interest was not in establishing the facts of a life but in mining the meaning, for me, of the questions that life spawned. An essayist celebrates questions, loves the liminal, and feels that life is best lived between the may and the be of maybe.”

On Tarzan succeeds for the same reasons it fails.  As a kind of cultural memoir, it performs both historical inquiry and imaginative engagement.  The book isn’t always sure when it is being serious, when fun.  How verifiable can we take its association of the 1960s heroic reemergence and eventual collapse into parody of Tarzan with the trajectory of the U.S. war in Vietnam?

I teach literature because it matters, but also because it’s fun.  I press upon my students the pleasure of inquiry and discovery and articulation.  All evidence by which we arrive at opinion and judgment in literary and cultural work is circumstantial.  What matters, finally, is what you can do with a text, how you can play it.  Serious play, in accord with one’s historical, aesthetic, and hermeneutical conscientiousness, but play nevertheless.

After all, young Tarzan loved pulling pranks, and Burroughs had a great and healthy sense of humor too.  He probably wouldn’t like this book one bit—but he should.

© 2009 Alex Vernon