Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Write, Right, White, Rite: Literacy, Imperialism, Race, and Cannibalism in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Write, Right, White, Rite: Literacy, Imperialism, Race, and Cannibalism in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes

Article excerpt

Squatting upon his haunches on the table top in the cabin his father had built--his smooth, brown, naked little body bent over the book which rested in his strong slender hands, and his great shock of long, black hair falling about his well shaped head and bright, intelligent eyes--Tarzan of the apes, little primitive man, presented a picture filled, at once, with pathos and with promise--an allegorical figure of the primordial groping through the black night of ignorance toward the light of learning.

--Tarzan of the Apes(1)

[A scene repeated over and over in nineteenth century literature--a scene that inaugurates a literature of empire]: in the wild and wordless wastes of colonial India, Africa, the Caribbean, the sudden, fortuitous discovery of the English book. It is, like all myths of origin, memorable for its balance between epiphany and enunciation. The discovery of the book is, at once, a moment of originality and authority. It is, as well, a process of displacement that, paradoxically, makes the presence of the book wondrous to the extent to which it is repeated, translated, misread, displaced.

--Homi K. Bhabha, "Signs Taken for Wonders"(2)

The first epigraph, desperately breathless, comes from the seventh chapter of Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1914 American classic. Titled "The Light of Knowledge," this chapter marks the moment when Tarzan returns to the cabin which, unbeknownst to him, had once belonged to his parents. During an earlier visit he had discovered a store of mysterious books, but was unable to fathom their purpose. After successfully fighting a bull gorilla using a knife pilfered from his parents' belongings, Tarzan returns to the wondrous site for more. It is no accident that the violent weapon and the discovered English books are conjoined. The weapon, a sign of civilization, efficiently shifts the balance of jungle hierarchies. But as much as Burroughs is preoccupied with Tarzan's apprenticeship with weaponry--spears, nooses, bow and arrow--he seems more concerned with arming his character with literacy: reading, writing, and inevitably, speaking first French and then English.

Burroughs begs his readers to view Tarzan's act of reading allegorically: the primitive being yearns for knowledge. The author reminds his readers that this scene takes place in the cabin built by the boy's father. In essence, Tarzan is being exposed to the canon--the house of literature--of western learning. Burroughs emphasizes how uncultured Tarzan is, yet suggests that he is saved by his "his well shaped head and bright, intelligent eyes" from the primordial groping of his surrogate Ape family. This epiphanic moment implies that someone of Tarzan's superior stock might overcome any obstacle, even the stumbling block of illiteracy and lack of teachers. Beyond simply learning to piece together the ordered randomness of the letters ("bugs," in his lexicon) and match up words to concepts and things, Tarzan eventually discovers his true identity--but not before he comes face to face with the ideologies of white masculinity and the European brand of civilization supported by it.(3)

While Tarzan and other characters may not know his true identity through much of the novel, readers' delight in Tarzan stems, in part, from our always knowing who and what Tarzan is. Tarzan's parents are none other than Lord and Lady Greystoke, en route to a colonial outpost to investigate abuses against Black British subjects. They are marooned in Africa after a mutiny onboard ship, and with no one to rescue them, they begin their life in the jungle. But soon after her son's birth, Lady Greystoke succumbs to a fatal illness and Lord Greystoke is murdered by a bull ape. The abandoned infant Greystoke is adopted by Kala, a female ape, and named "Tarzan," meaning white skin.(4) As Tarzan matures, his inherited intellectual superiority becomes apparent. In his early teens, he encounters the cabin that once belonged to his human parents--although, of course, he never considers that Kala is not his mother--and discovers the English book and the possibilities and pleasures of reading and writing. …

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