The cover art for Alex Vernon's slim cultural biography "On Tarzan" is a photo of winding green tendrils and vines, vines being the equivalent of the cross-town bus for the Lord of the Apes.
But the photo is also a warning of the thicket we are about to enter: a rampant, root-bound tangle of a book in which the author muses upon Tarzan as, among other things, a kind of prefiguring Colossus of American modernity, a Leopold Bloom in a loincloth.
In Vernon's gaze, Edgar Rice Burroughs' Ape Man is the most protean character since ... well ... Proteus, both a product of 19th-century literary naturalism and a rejection of that naturalism.
Here, Tarzan is a tonic to the creeping emasculation of urbanism (see: Prufrock); there, he's a homoerotic analogue, a smooth-skinned catamite in a leopard singlet (see: Village People).
What's jungle-speak for "whiplash"?
Everywhere, Tarzan epitomizes Americanism —- never mind that he was born to English nobility. In Vernon's view, Tarzan is Horatio Alger wrestling with a crocodile. He is an immigrant, a dual citizen, an orphan, an adolescent, a language refugee: all states of being that roughly correspond to the fresh-off-the-boat culture of early 20th-century America. (Burroughs' first Tarzan story appeared in 1912.)
But wait, there's more. Tarzan is an avatar of both nature and nurture, Rousseau and B.F. Skinner, of Haeckel's ontology-phylogeny recapitulation theory, of post-racial harmony and violent white neocolonialism. Writes Vernon: "The Tarzan tales' argument for inherent and essential gender and racial roles and traits self-deconstructs. Cultural relativism rears."
Uh-huh. Sure it does.
To his credit, Vernon cheerfully acknowledges that the vine from which he's swinging can't always bear the weight.
"Sometimes I want to throw up my hands and say: None of the above," he writes. "[Tarzan is] just an escapist action hero. Readers and viewers lose themselves in Tarzania, and wallow in their lostness."
But then it's back to the library stacks for more research. This 177-page book is appended with 22 pages of notes, a bibliography and an index. Even its title is preciously, even hilariously academic.
In fairness, Vernon is a pretty lively writer and "On Tarzan" is full of fun facts. The first movie Tarzan, for instance, was Elmo Lincoln, a former Arkansas state trooper who also played in D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation." A dire hint of that Ku Klux Klan saga is seen in the 1918 "Tarzan of the Apes" when Tarzan uses a vine-fashioned noose to lynch unruly natives.
OK, that's not a fun fact. How about this? Lincoln was so hairy that he had to be shaved twice a day during shooting.
Modern readers have lost touch with Tarzan, whom Vernon calls —- defensibly if not definitively —- the most popular fictional character of the 20th century. From 1918 to 1970, Hollywood churned out 43 Tarzan features (and a bazillion knockoffs). There were uncountable comic strips, illustrated novels, radio and television shows and a mighty slew of "notebooks, wallets, several games, stickers, playing cards, stamps . . . knapsacks, beach balls and thongs."
Let's stop a moment to savor the notion of Tarzan thongs, shall we?
There were Tarzan clubs throughout America and, of course, Southern Californians know that the Los Angeles section of Tarzana was built around property once owned by Burroughs' Tarzana Ranch.
Vernon's naked American avatar was so beloved around the world that when Johnny Weissmuller died in 1984, the Soviets played his Tarzan yell in Red Square for 24 hours straight.
And yet, Tarzan was obviously an agent of cultural imperialism, a propaganda tool, an interventionist, a racist; the movies were banned from Egypt to Cuba on grounds of political incorrectness. The men who took the United States into Vietnam "were a troop of Tarzans," Vernon writes. "A man of supreme surety, Tarzan on page and screen is never wrong, he knows he's never wrong and we forgive and forget his arrogance because he always proves himself —- and because, if we're Americans, he's one of us."
For all that, Tarzan could also be seen as a revolutionary figure, not a gorilla but a guerrilla, resisting the evil white man's intrusion into Eden. The tree dweller preaches anti-materialism. "His association with apes defied the racist, classist assumptions of the day," Vernon notes.
But what's most telling, perhaps, is that Tarzan fell off the mythical map after about 1970. Some of the Tarzan films that have appeared since then have set the character in the simplified frame of romantic adventure —- a la the Bo Derek vehicle "Tarzan: The Ape Man" (1981) —- or cast him as muscle-bound knucklehead.
While Disney's animated "Tarzan" (1997) garnered respectable reviews, Disney's "Tarzan: The Broadway Musical" flopped in 2007.
At a time when Hollywood is resurrecting superheroes from Batman to Captain Marvel, a Tarzan reboot seems less likely.
Vernon draws the unexceptional conclusion that Tarzan's diminished relevance is linked to our growing unease with neocolonialism, which is to say, depictions of a white man ruling, often brutally, over dark-skinned indigenous peoples.
In the movies, Africans —- infrequently played by black actors and extras, by the way —- are invariably depicted as childish savages.
At the same time, Vernon suggests that Tarzan's brand of steady masculinity couldn't survive the age of irony.
The rise of environmental consciousness has also tended to make audiences less comfortable with Tarzan's remorseless, lion-stabbing dominion over paradise. (In the early movies, Elmo Lincoln actually killed a drugged-up lion.)
For all these reasons, or none of them, Tarzan has wound up on the scrap heap with other former American heroes, from Natty Bumppo to Popeye the Sailor Man.
"On Tarzan" by Alex Vernon; University of Georgia Press; 226 pages; $22.95
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