Preserving Tarzan's Literary Legacy

Nov 9, 2012

When he was five years old, George McWhorter’s mother decided that she would teach him how to read so he would be able to keep pace with other schoolchildren.

“She first started with Charles Dickens, and I was totally disinterested and yawned in her face.  But when she pulled out a Tarzan book, I was all eyes and all ears,” said McWhorter.

And thus began McWhorter’s lifelong Tarzan fascination.    In 1936, he starting amassing a collection of first edition books and other memorabilia that has swelled to 200,000 items.

In 1976, McWhorter donated his collection, in his mother’s honor, to the University of Louisville, where he’s a longtime curator of rare books.     U of L says it’s the largest institutional collection of Tarzan materials in the world.

Now 82, McWhorter hosted a Tarzan 100th anniversary party at U of L last month.

The guests included Edgar Rice Burroughs’ grandson, John, who also learned to read on the Tarzan books, spending many days at Tarzana, Burrough’s ranch in southern California.

“And I asked him, I says ‘Grandpa, how come you always leave the end of a book not completely finished?’  And he said ‘I always want the people that read my stuff and like it to want more,’” Burroughs said.

Millions have also come to know Tarzan at the movies, most notably the films of the 1930’s and 40’s starring Johnny Weissmuller.

John Burroughs says his grandfather didn’t care for most of the Tarzan film adaptations, which took some liberties with the character and the love of his life, Jane.

“He was a literate, English lord,” Burroughs said.   “Tarzan never said, ‘me Tarzan, you Jane,’ that was a creation of MGM.”

One thing did Burroughs did write about was the Tarzan yell, immortalized by Johnny Weissmuller.

“The yell was an animal, like the apes that had just made a kill or just finished a battle,” John Burroughs said.”   “They would pound their chest in exultation, like, ‘I’m the head of the pack, I’m the king.’”

Nearly two dozen actors have played Tarzan in films and television.  Denny Miller was  known as the first blond Tarzan and is the oldest of the surviving actors.

He played the lord of the jungle in 1959’s Tarzan, the Ape Man.

“They had the rights to do two more, and I never heard from them since.  I only did one, and it sure was fun,” Miller said.

While the film was not a big commercial success, Miller was able to parlay the experience into some similar work in TV and commercials, and these days he’s taking an active part in the Tarzan centennial.  He calls Edgar Rice Burroughs one of the world’s great storytellers.

At the University of Louisville, George McWhorter let out a yell to set the mood for a panel discussion of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Tarzan, a franchise that continues to thrive in new ways.    

There’s a novel by Robin Maxwell called Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan, the first version of the Tarzan story written by a woman.

Work is underway on new animated and live action Tarzan films. 

John Burroughs says he’s glad to see Tarzan cast these days as an eco-warrior, defending the jungle from elephant poachers and protecting its trees, a trait his grandfather would embrace.

But to him there’s a simpler reason the character has endured for a century.

“He takes a person out of their humdrum normal life and brings them into a completely different, believable world, where good triumphs over evil, where the strong survive and if something terrible and awful happened to you, you don’t lie down and pray or feel sad for yourself, you try again, and make it work.”

Some of the University of Louisville’s collection of Tarzan materials is on display at the Department of Rare Books.   It’s free and open to the public weekdays through December 15.