Charles B. Snoad
Revised December 2016
Gentlemen in Distress No More: How Tarzan of the Apes Saved Modern Masculinity
In 1911 Frederick Winslow Taylor made this bold declaration: “In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first” (qtd. in Kasson 171). Many men saw this new system as a serious threat to masculinity. One year later, in 1912, Edgar Rice Burroughs responded to Taylor’s troubling proclamation in his novel Tarzan of the Apes this way: “I am Tarzan. I am a great killer. There be none among you as mighty as Tarzan. Let his enemies beware” (192). With Tarzan as his mouthpiece, Burroughs had fired a warning shot. Tarzan summoned the powers of “the wild beast within” over-civilized gentleman in distress. More than just a novel, Tarzan of the Apes saved modern masculinity from the dangers of over-civilization.
In The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age, Alan Trachtenberg traces the development of corporate America after the Civil War. Organization, administration, obedience and loyalty were among the many new virtues of corporate life. Company men had to follow company rules, but this put masculinity at risk. “In every celebration of the businessman as the epitome of American individualism, we detect signs of concern that the older individualistic virtues no longer apply, that the ability to mobilize, to concentrate, to incorporate, counted for more than thrift and diligence” (81). Thrift and diligence still mattered, of course, but now men had to cooperate more than ever before, for the good of the company. As they gained power and control, corporations spread the good news of meritocracy, the idea that working hard guarantees success. There were many converts. By 1912, the year Tarzan first appeared in The All-Story magazine, one-fifth of the entire male labor force was comprised of white-collar workers (Kasson 186).
Trachtenberg explains how corporations convinced these suit-and-tie men that working for them was inherently American. “Portraying itself as success, business thus captured the free-labor ideology, convincing the middle classes that in competitive enterprise lay the route to fulfillment, to the true America” (87). Getting that fulfillment, reaching “the true America,” took its toll. Corporate life was by no means a place of respect. During one man’s rise to the top others ultimately had to fall. Individual success was measured not only by what the successful man could do, but also by what his inferior colleagues and competitors failed to do. Office life thus became a battlefield. “Business was a kind of warfare in which all’s fair which succeeds” (81).
After a long day at the office, “taming the wild beast within,” men found release in the pages of Tarzan. Competition had left men battered and bruised, their primal urges unfulfilled. Tarzan was free from this sad fate. He viewed competition in the jungle as a life-or-death struggle. If he fought a bigger beast and lost, Tarzan was a dead man. Businessmen who continually lost clients or failed to close important deals, however, suffered slow, painful deaths. Many checked out long before retirement age. Tarzan, with its harrowing tales of mastery and conquest, gave these “unlucky” businessmen a safe space to vent their frustrations.
By placing Tarzan in life-or-death situations, Burroughs accomplished two goals. First, he transported male readers from the corporate jungle to the real jungle. Second, he criticized the pettiness of corporate competition in which long-term financial planning, not immediate survival, mattered most. In the jungles of Africa, Tarzan knows exactly what to expect from Sabor, the tiger, and Horta, the boar, because he has studied their strengths and weaknesses. Company men knew little about their enemies and their battlefields had no discernable boundaries. Competition came from within one’s company, from other Americans and eventually from all over the globe. As competition grew and technology improved, companies had tons of “new and improved” gadgets and gizmos to sell. Up went the help wanted signs. In walked the door-to-door salesman.
Salesmen required many tools: a quality product; the proper forms; a sharp suit; a catchy sales pitch; a steady handshake. Burroughs’ brief stint as a salesman brought him little satisfaction. “My main objective in life was to get my foot in somebody’s door and then recite my sales talk like a sick parrot” (qtd. in Kasson 166).
Tarzan provided a stark constant to Burroughs’ empty salesman existence. As Burroughs explains Tarzan’s success in the jungle: “To his agility, to his brain and to his long keen knife he owed his supremacy” (127). Burroughs shows how Tarzan has innate warrior strengths (“to his agility, to his brain”) and the right tools (“his long keen knife.”) Tarzan answers to no one. He lets it all hang out. A suit and tie would hide his manhood and hinder his progress. The simplicity with which Tarzan commands his life is a far cry from the pressure to carry the right briefcase or apply the shiniest shoe polish.
Many people believed that not just corporate life, but civilization itself had weakened the male body. In Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917, Gail Bederman discusses neurasthenia, a disease of over-civilization. No longer recognized as an official disorder, from 1870 until about 1915 neurasthenia was a common diagnosis. Doctors had no problem determining its cause. “Neurasthenia resulted when a highly evolved person seriously overtaxed his body’s infinite supply of nerve force” (85).
There were both male and female neurasthenics, but symptoms were gender-specific. Over-worked women succumbed to the stresses of a rapidly changing home life. Men, however, fell ill in the office, drowning in paperwork. Work diminished free time, those precious moments when men tended to their masculine needs. “Men became neurasthenics because the mental labors of advanced civilization drained them of the nervous energy necessary to build a strong, masculine body” (130). All men were at risk for neurasthenia, but a certain type of man was more susceptible. “The men most in danger of developing neurasthenia were middle- and upper-class businessmen and professionals whose highly evolved bodies had been physically weakened by advances in civilization” (87).
Neurasthenia affected “thinking” men. Symptoms included headaches, dyspepsia, muscle spasms, impotence, involuntary emissions and spermatorrhea. Their bodies were small and feeble, “more like women’s than men’s” (87). A cultural crisis had thus emerged. Men were in physical and mental pain, but civilization was to blame, not defective genes or poor eating habits. “Neurasthenia thus expressed the cultural weakness of civilized, manly self-restraint in medical terms” (88). The medical “evidence” for neurasthenia calmed patients’ nerves and reassured their loved ones. A new diagnosis brought hope for a new cure.
Tarzan of the Apes had many healing powers. Who needs shots and pills when a healthy dose of satire will do the trick? A couple of secondary characters, Professor Porter and Samuel T. Philander, are good for some laughs. After landing on the same African shore where Tarzan’s parents had arrived many years before, Porter and Philander are met with numerous dangers. Tarzan saves them each time.
In one scene Porter and Philander are walking through the jungle discussing politics and history when a lion approaches, ready to pounce. Talk of Ferdinand and Isabella’s victories over the fifteenth-century Moors in Spain (a discussion, ironically, about civilization) comes to a halt when Philander points out the lion. Porter, annoyed with his colleague, responds:
“Tut, tut, Mr. Philander,” he chided. “How often must I urge you to seek that absolute concentration of your mental faculties which alone may permit you to bring to bear the highest powers of intellectuality upon the momentous problems which naturally fall to the lot of great minds?” (Burroughs 138)
Saying a line of this length and intellectual weight would tax any man’s nerve force. Caught up in his thoughts, Porter neglects his physical safety. “That absolute concentration of your mental faculties” to which Porter refers is a direct connection to Bederman’s description of “the mental labors of advanced civilization” that weakened male bodies. Porter’s line of work requires mental, not physical, toughness. Although he resides in the stuffy realm of academe, his life resembles the confined non-existence of the toiling middleclass businessman. Porter’s body, his brute existence, has nothing to feel. The size of his brain has gone to his head.
Tarzan’s jungle life, on the other hand, is full of adventure. He has no need for discussing the events of fifteenth-century Spain because he has to focus on staying alive right here, right now. Professors peddle theories like salesman peddle encyclopedias. But to drive home his point, to really sell the narrative, Burroughs must do more than mock fools like Porter. He must show Tarzan’s disgust for over-civilized weaklings.
In one such example, Tarzan observes Kulonga, an African tribesman, spear a boar to death. Kulonga, adverse to eating raw boar, builds a fire. After filling his belly to the brim, the tribesman leaves behind a substantial portion of uncooked meat. A slick opportunist, Tarzan moves in for a taste. He has no use for fire. Roasting the meat would kill the flavor. And so we see how Tarzan of the Apes feasts in the jungle, followed by a description of his long lost uncle’s impeccable table manners:
And then Lord Greystoke [Tarzan] wiped his greasy fingers upon his naked thighs and took up the trail of Kulonga, the son of Mbonga, the king; while in far-off London another Lord Greystoke, the younger brother of the real Lord Greystoke’s father, sent back his chops to the club’s chef because they were underdone, and when he had finished his repast he dipped his finger-ends into a silver bowl of scented water and dried them upon a piece of snowy damask. (Burroughs 78)
The evidence is clear: Tarzan, far removed from civilization, “wiped his greasy fingers upon his naked thighs,” while the effeminate Londoner “dipped his finger-ends into a silver bowl of scented water and dried them upon a piece of snowy damask.” Tarzan’s description implies action and determination; Burroughs devotes only eight words to it. The Londoner, however, is prim and proper. His “actions,” a combination of calculated maneuvers, require nineteen words. Over-civilized male bodies, Burroughs argues throughout Tarzan, are a real drag.
In another scene, as Tarzan jumps from treetop to treetop with his cousin, William Cecil Clayton, on his back, the difference between primitive and civilized man is obvious. “High into bending and swaying branches he was borne with what seemed to him incredible swiftness, while Tarzan chafed at the slowness of his progress” (Burroughs 134). In the heart of the African jungle an over-civilized male body is maladaptive. We see this principle at work again when Tarzan returns from modern society. Swinging through those familiar vines, Tarzan gets in touch again with his hyper-masculine side:
This was life! Ah, how he loved it! Civilization held nothing like this in its narrow and circumscribed sphere, hemmed in by restrictions and conventionalities. Even clothes were a hindrance and a nuisance.
At last he was free. He had not realized what a prisoner he had been. (Burroughs 247)
White-collar life “created” neurasthenia. To combat the disease of over-civilization doctors should have prescribed some quality Tarzan reading time.
John Kasson, in Houdini, Tarzan and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America, gives a detailed account of Burroughs’ frequent childhood illnesses. The youngest of four boys, Burroughs realized the power of storytelling at an early age, reciting tales to his mother from his sickbed. His overprotective mother, anxious to shield him from negative experiences, increased his misery. In his unfinished autobiography, Burroughs describes the uneventful nature of his life: “Nothing interesting ever happened to me in my life. I never went to a fire but that it was out before I arrived. None of my adventures happened. They should have because I went places and did things that invited disaster; yet the results were always blah” (qtd. in Kasson 160).
Making matters worse, Burroughs lived in the shadows of his father and more masculine older brothers. His father, George T. Burroughs, was a cavalry officer during the Civil War, and two of his brothers, George and Harry, after graduating from Yale in 1889, bought a cattle ranch in Idaho. Burroughs watched from the sidelines, unfit to compete. “Ed grew up a straggler, always far to the rear of his father’s expectations and his brothers’ example” (162).
To prove his worth as a man, Burroughs tried following in his father’s military footsteps. Heartache ensued. Burroughs flunked out of Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, after just one semester. He then attended the Michigan Military Academy, graduating in 1895. After failing his entrance exams at West Point, Burroughs enlisted in the army and hated it (Kasson 164-65). Ten months into his assignment, Burroughs got dysentery and begged his father for help. The old Civil War hero came to his son’s rescue, securing the necessary papers for an early discharge. Bewildered, Burroughs returned home, anxious for a new life. As much as he tried to fight it, Edgar Rice Burroughs became a lowly, middle-class businessman.
He worked as a timekeeper at a construction site and sold lead-pencil sharpeners and scratch pads. Nearing poverty, Burroughs found himself in a terrible bind. The births of his first two children, in 1908 and 1909, were burdens, not joys. Soon Burroughs began suffering major headaches like those described by neurasthenics (Kasson 166-67).
Finally, in 1911, the year he began writing Tarzan of the Apes, Burroughs secured a promising position at the Chicago-based magazine System, his last job before becoming a successful (self-employed) fiction writer. A.W. Shaw, the editor of System, subtitled his publication: “The Magazine of Business.” And System was exactly that, a handy, thirty-five-cent guidebook for businessmen hanging upside down in the trees of the corporate jungle. System writers gave advice on pressing topics such as how to pick the best stock options, how to improve efficiency, and how to dress like a professional.
Burroughs, however, found his work dull and his suggestions ill-advised. Those around him provided little comfort. Shaw was a fraud in Burroughs’ eyes. “I never so thoroughly disliked any employer as I did Shaw,” he wrote in his autobiography (qtd. in Kasson 170). The magazine reminded Burroughs of his own failures as a businessman. Kasson’s description of the magazine’s content explains why Burroughs was so troubled by his job: “As a whole, the articles in System depicted a world of big, energetic, masterly leaders—and, implicitly, of smaller, unexceptional followers” (175).
Desperate for a way out, Burroughs began researching pulp fiction magazines, which paid little money but had strong, cult-like followings. Finally, a breakthrough. Pulp fiction provided a forum for deepest fantasies. There was something inherently masculine about the medium. “Pulp magazines were fiction factories dominated by big publishers that demanded from their authors a combination of literary facility, stamina, and speed” (167).
On his days off from System, Burroughs crafted his first story, A Princess of Mars, in July 1911, which he wrote on “leftover stationery from his failed enterprises” (168). After The Argosy rejected it, Burroughs sent the manuscript to The All-Story, which quickly published it. After gaining confidence but no riches, Burroughs began writing Tarzan of the Apes on December 1, 1911.
In a nod to the corporate values of maximum efficiency and attention to detail, Burroughs kept a graph of his novel’s physical production over his desk. With each word, each sentence, each chapter, Burroughs laid his past failures to rest. Kasson makes the transformation clear. “Burroughs thus wrote Tarzan as an act of self-liberation. He hoped to cast off the humiliations of a frustrated, insignificant white-collar worker for the independence of a commercial author with a mass readership” (159).
And Burroughs did just that. Following the huge success of Tarzan, he started Edgar Rice Burroughs Incorporated in 1923. He was finally in charge, a literary systems builder rising from the ashes of burned-out business cards.
Tarzan of the Apes was more than just a novel. Edgar Rice Burroughs created a hyper-masculine, jungle-dwelling hero to release modern man—and himself—from the bondage of over-civilization. Frederick Winslow Taylor had the story backwards. The system was closing in, but Tarzan, naked and with spear in hand, was ready to rumble.
Bederman, Gail. Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996. Print.
Burroughs, Edgar Rice. Tarzan of the Apes. 1912. New York: Ballantine, 1990. Print.
Kasson, John F. Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America. New York: Hill, 2001. Print.
Trachtenberg, Alan. The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age. New York: Hill, 1982. Print.