TARZAN OF THE PAPERBACKS - By Paul Mandel - LIFE Magazine ~ November 29, 1963
TARZAN OF THE PAPERBACKS - By Paul Mandel - LIFE Magazine ~ November 29, 1963
Two years ago, a lady librarian in California took a Tarzan book off the shelf on the spoilsport grounds that Tarzan and Jane
were living together out of wedlock. She could have had no inkling of the consequences of her misguided act. The furore it
aroused in newspapers has brought the Ape Man roaring back out of literary limbo to delight millions of nostalgic Americans and
thrown a bomb into the paperback book business.
The Tarzan books, along with other works of their author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, are runaway best-sellers today and have
been ever since they began to come out last year. They have sold something more than 10 million copies, almost one thirtieth the
total annual sales of all paperbacks in the U.S. Their resurgence has outraged some publishers whose pet books have been
rudely elbowed off the display racks, but has brought a gush of renewed nostalgia to at least two generations who remember and
revel in the days of Burroughs' first triumphs and are delighted to see them recur.
From 1914 until roughly 1940 Burroughs was a splendid phenomenon in publishing. His books, the first one of which appeared
exactly 50 years ago next June, sold 35 million copies in the face of concerted critical antagonism which called them (in one
typical example) "flap doodle... wild, utterly preposterous, utterly meaningless and humorless... long-winded and repetitious...
sheer bumble puppy." Burroughs owed most of his success to one creation -- a little English orphan lord who was raised and
educated by apes: Tarzan.
Burroughs wrote 24 Tarzan books in all and they were translated into 31 languages, including Esperanto, Urdu and Russian
(the Soviets felt that although Tarzan was a peer, he had been brought up by proletarian apes so it was all right for young
Communists to like him). In Germany after World War I, Tarzan's sales were so vast that a disgruntled local publisher printed a
counter-Tarzan tract called Tarzan Eats Germans. In the U.S. the novels inspired Tarzan bread, Tarzan sweaters, Tarzan ice
cream, 37 Tarzan movies, and innumerable do-it-yourself Tarzans: one day during the time of Tarzan's greatest success there
were l5 children in Kansas City hospitals who had hurt themselves falling out of trees while playing Ape Man.
The original Tarzan hard covers fathered a vast tribe of derivative publications. There were Tarzan Big Little Books and Better
Little Books, which were small and chunky like baby bricks, and Tarzan Big Big Books, which were the same in content but bigger
-- roughly the size and consistency of a modern club sandwich. They alternated short, fevered pages of text (Tantor advanced his
snake-like trunk toward the terrified Swede. His little eyes blazed. At last he had found the creature who had killed his mate) with
snappily captioned drawings (Bellowing Horribly, the Elephant Charged: Brooding, ULP Gazed into the Fire.) There were Tarzan
bubble-gum cards and Tarzan cartoon strips, and even an official manual for Tarzan Clans which included a 500-word dictionary,
English-Ape and Ape-English.
World War II seemed to end the craze for Tarzan books, perhaps because substantial clans of American boys had started living
their own real-life jungle dramas. By the time Burroughs died in 1950, leaving his valuable rights to his books to his three children
in Tarzana Calif. Tarzan appeared to have entered the literary dinosaur park reserved for other has-beens like the Boy Allies or
Then came the lady librarian in California. When newspapers heard what she had done, they published reams of foolish
speculation about just what Tarzan and Jane were to each other -- foolish because anyone who had studied the Ape Man's
domestic arrangements knew that Jane's father, an ordained minister, had married the two in a small family ceremony in the bush.
In any case, all the publicity apparently started old Burroughs fans rooting around for more books to buy for their children and
reread themselves. They found to their dismay that only nine of the the 24 Tarzan books were still in print, on the backlist of a New
York publisher named Grosset & Dunlap.
The sales of these nine titles increased 25%, but they by no means satisfied the pent-up interest the librarian had unwittingly
released. Other publishers petitioned the Burroughs estate for permission to reprint Tarzan. Perhaps because they were content
with the revenues from their movie rights, the heirs failed to answer most of these inquiries. Finally one dogged Tarzanophile
publisher wrote the Library of Congress to see exactly what rights the heirs still owned. The library's answer disclosed that
Burroughs' heirs had committed a lapse which would have sent Burroughs' hero skulking into the underbrush. U.S. copyrights
expire in 28 years unless renewed, and the heirs had forgotten to renew the copyrights on at least eight Tarzan books plus about
20 other Burroughs novels. Lo, the Ape Man lay naked in the public domain.
There ensued, starting to the spring of 1962, a feast over his literary body as savage as any jungle episode Burroughs ever
created. (At the smell of blood the panther gave forth a shrill scream, and a moment later... beasts were feeding side by side upon
the tender meat.) New York Canaveral Press got out 19 hardback Burroughses. Dover issued four paperbacks combining 10
Tarzan paperbacks. Ballantine published 10 Tarzan paperbacks, then two more, plus nine non-Tarzan books, and now plans to
bring out another 10 Tarzans and one more non-Tarzan. The threat of a mass freeload on what they had previously regarded as
their patrimony sent the Burroughs' heirs to shaking out the drawers and safes at Tarzana to see if there might be anything left
which they did own. They found at least five unpublished novels and promptly sold hardcover rights to Canaveral for these and
any of the books which were still copyrighted. By next summer some 70 Burroughs novels will be in print.
In the illustrations for their reprints the publishers have shown wide differences of opinions about what Tarzan looks like. Ace's
Tarzan -- in the tradition of the big Little, Big Big and Burroughs' original books -- is mesomorphic, equipped to wrestle monsters
and save maidens from parboiling. Ballantine's Tarzan is sleek and cerebral-looking. But whatever their image of the hero, all the
books have been selling wondrously. Both Ace and Ballantine have gone into enormous second printings -- 300,000 and 110,000
per title respectively. In the Ace catalogue today Edgar Rice Burroughs occupies an entire separate category, a little smaller than
either Science Fiction or Mysteries, but larger than Adventure, Humor or Self-Help.
Not everybody is delighted by this Burroughs rebirth. Norman Podhoretz, the editor of a furrowed-brow magazine called
Commentary, has ticked of Burroughs' style as "that Victorian kind of heaviness." And Dr. Fredric Wertham, an extremely serious
student of the psychiatric implications of modern publishing trends, feels that there is something sick about Tarzan's return. "The
vogue," he says, "has a definite social meaning: to bring out acceptance of violence crime and war -- as a legitimate means of
social action. Tarzan appeals to the easiest thing to appeal to: our primitive instincts. We have to try to get out of this."
On the other hand there has been a countercurrent of delight. The Wall Street Journal, which often confines its scrutiny of
books on such sprightly topics as corporate merger, gave Tarzan a whole column not long ago. "When it comes to forming the
mind," the writer asked, "would you rather have... Tarzan... or the modern comic books [or] Spillane...? The Tarzan stories... are
among the most elevated and edifying books... now on the racks."
The Wall Street Journal has found some noisy support for its enthusiasm in the activities of a recently formed organization
called the Burroughs Bibliophiles, which has nearly l,000 members. It publishes a Burroughs fan magazine and a newsletter and
holds a yearly "Dum-Dum" which is ape talk for "meeting," at which it gloats over its favorite author's renaissance.
And there are indeed some things to gloat over. The first is that Burroughs' non-Tarzan novels -- he wrote 36 of them -- turn out
to be better than the Tarzan books. Some are even good. They range from Upton Sinclair-like examinations of gamy corners of
American Life (The Mucker and The Girl from Hollywood) to inventive science-fiction books. These included 10 Mars novels, all of
which will shortly be out on paperback, about an earthman named John Carter, who finds himself on Barsoom, the local name for
Mars. The planet is populated by a colorful assortment of white apes, green Communists and nubile red girls. Carter marries one of
the latter -- no question either.
There are six topsy-turvy novels about a world called Pellucidar inside the earth's core. It is first found when the controls on a
big man-carrying drill becomes stuck at Full Down. Pellucidar's rulers are a nasty lot of reptiles. Just once Burroughs lets down
the barriers between his two sets of books and has Tarzan visit Pellucidar. The Ape Man gets in some good licks for the mammals
Some of the non-Tarzan books are taut and serious and the best one, The Lost Continent, formerly called Beyond Thirty, tells
of a war-ruined England peopled by savages who call it Grabritin. It sounds much more like Orwell than Omtag the Giraffe.
The second lesson from the Burroughs revival is that his book Tarzan is far more interesting than the movie one. The films
presumably had trouble finding suitably muscled ape men who could learn long lines, so their Tarzans tended to be laconic ("Me
Tarzan. You Jane. Where Boy?") The book Tarzan, on the other hand, is always saying things like "I know the legend well, and
because it is so persistent and... circumstantial, I have thought that I should like to investigate it." This makes him a lot more
sophisticated, if a little long-winded.
Until the most recent movies the film Tarzan tended to be a treebody keeping pretty close to home with Jane, while the book
Tarzan tuns out to be a veritable boulevardier, visiting such exotic locals as Paris, London, the Dutch Indies, Baltimore and
Wisconsin, in the course of his efforts in behalf of the apes at home. Lest any heretic dispute the superiority of the book Tarzan
over the Hollywood Tarzan, he should read one of the newly reprinted paperbacks Tarzan and the Lion Man. In its last chapter
Tarzan visits Hollywood incognito. He is offered a chance to play the lead in a Tarzan movie but flunks the screen test and loses
out to an adagio dancer.