From Open Letters Monthly:
More than any other of Burroughs’ many creations, Tarzan has become a staple of popular culture, a process which began almost immediately: 1918 marked the first version of the novel in the relatively new forum of popular cinema, a film that would be one of the first to gross over one million dollars. Beyond film, Tarzan would form the basis of a radio show in the 1930s, and would spawn one of the first serial dramatic comic strips, the other being “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” both of which debuted on the same day in January 1929. As the twentieth century steamed ahead, Tarzan found fame in television, comic books, cartoons, songs, lunchboxes, and even on the map: Burroughs bought a ranch and named it after his character, and over the years it developed into the town Tarzana, California. All of this is not to forget that Burroughs eventually published twenty-six Tarzan books, to which other authors (both authorized and not) added after Burroughs’ death in 1950.
It would be a daunting, and likely pointless, task to try to explain the why of Tarzan’s popularity. I say “pointless” (even though I venture into an explanation below) because, while many of us will have a clear picture of Tarzan in our heads, the character is in fact more slippery than one may first think. Burroughs’ own Tarzan moves from being the superman who was raised by “anthropoid apes” after being orphaned on the shores of equatorial western Africa, to being more or less an international gentleman spy, to being briefly replaced by his son, to exploring the underworld of Burroughs’ other series set beneath the Earth’s crust. Beyond Burroughs’ version, while most popular culture Tarzans share the heritage of being raised in Africa by apes and being suspicious of civilization, the similarities between Burroughs’ original creation and its cultural descendants often end there. Tarzan’s well-known clipped speech pattern, for example, is the creation of the films; by the end of the original novel, Tarzan speaks flawless English and French, and had earlier taught himself how to read and write in English.
So the “why” of Tarzan’s appeal is less of a concern, it seems to me, than the “how”: the character functions almost as a cultural prism, in which the concerns, anxieties, desires, and tastes of particular times and places are encapsulated, only to be refracted in such a way as to make us look at that context in a different perspective. When I think of Tarzan, I often think of one of his later, perhaps distant descendants: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. At the beginning of each episode of that television series, the voiceover intones that “Into every generation a slayer is born”; well, into every generation, or location, a Tarzan likewise seems to be born.
Burroughs’ original Tarzan, as he appeared in that first novel, embodies several of the aspirations, tensions, and failings of the early twentieth-century Unites States. Born to Lord and Lady Greystoke after they were marooned on the shores of equatorial western Africa by a group of cutthroat mutineers, the rightful inheritor of the title ‘Lord Greystoke’ is orphaned and subsequently raised by apes in the jungle. His struggles to survive, combined with what Burroughs describes as his “heredity,” lead Tarzan to develop into a “god-like” specimen of humanity, who, when confronted with members of “civilization” is left agog at their weakness and stupidity. Like Eliot’s also popular (though not quite as popular) “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Tarzan of the Apes bemoans the stultifying effects of modern civilization.