Ballantine Tarzan Covers 2

Pop Culture 101: When the Beatles Landed in America, “Tarzan” ruled the Bookstores

ERBDOM, Tarzan, The Tarzan Files

So, okay,   Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan books were all the rage in 1912 to the 1940’s.  That’s pretty cool, as far as I’m concerned. But when I find myself saying that to millenial Disney Tarzanistas who think Tarzan started as an animated characer in 1998, I see their eyes glaze over — 1912?  Come on, man.

Okay, so you’re not impressed by success in 1912?  Let me try this one on you.

In addition to its success in 1912 and the teens …. ponder this.   A full fifty years later in 1963, which is also thirteen years after Edgar Rice Burroughs had died — and is also a time when the Beatles were exploding in the United States and modern pop culture was about to be unleashed once and for all ….guess what books were burning up the shelves in bookstores all across the United States?


The Tarzan Books.  And other ERB Books too  — but the Tarzan books led the way.

The phenomenon was so great that in 1963 Life Magazine published a special report — “Tarzan of the Paperbacks.”

Ponder this, from the article: “They have sold almost ten million copies, almost one thirtieth of the total annual sales of all paperbacks in the US.”

Say what?

One out of every thirty paperback books sold was a Tarzan book?

And remember,  this is fifty years after they originally appeared, and at a time when America was just beginnng the 1960s cultural transformation that is still the driving force in American pop culture today?


Here is the 1963 article in full — it’s pretty amazing.

Tarzan of the Paperbacks1


By Paul Mandel – LIFE Magazine ~ November 29, 1963

Two years ago, a lady librarian in California took a Tarzan book off the shelf on the spoilsport grounds that Tarzan and Jane were living together out of wedlock. She could have had no inkling of the consequences of her misguided act. The furore it aroused in newspapers has brought the Ape Man roaring back out of literary limbo to delight millions of nostalgic Americans and thrown a bomb into the paperback book business.

The Tarzan books, along with other works of their author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, are runaway best-sellers today and have been ever since they began to come out last year. They have sold something more than 10 million copies, almost one thirtieth the total annual sales of all paperbacks in the U.S. Their resurgence has outraged some publishers whose pet books have been rudely elbowed off the display racks, but has brought a gush of renewed nostalgia to at least two generations who remember and revel in the days of Burroughs’ first triumphs and are delighted to see them recur.

From 1914 until roughly 1940 Burroughs was a splendid phenomenon in publishing. His books, the first one of which appeared exactly 50 years ago next June, sold 35 million copies in the face of concerted critical antagonism which called them (in one typical example) “flap doodle… wild, utterly preposterous, utterly meaningless and humorless… long-winded and repetitious… sheer bumble puppy.” Burroughs owed most of his success to one creation — a little English orphan lord who was raised and educated by apes: Tarzan.

Burroughs wrote 24 Tarzan books in all and they were translated into 31 languages, including Esperanto, Urdu and Russian (the Soviets felt that although Tarzan was a peer, he had been brought up by proletarian apes so it was all right for young Communists to like him). In Germany after World War I, Tarzan’s sales were so vast that a disgruntled local publisher printed a counter-Tarzan tract called Tarzan Eats Germans. In the U.S. the novels inspired Tarzan bread, Tarzan sweaters, Tarzan ice cream, 37 Tarzan movies, and innumerable do-it-yourself Tarzans: one day during the time of Tarzan’s greatest success there were l5 children in Kansas City hospitals who had hurt themselves falling out of trees while playing Ape Man.

The original Tarzan hard covers fathered a vast tribe of derivative publications. There were Tarzan Big Little Books and Better Little Books, which were small and chunky like baby bricks, and Tarzan Big Big Books, which were the same in content but bigger — roughly the size and consistency of a modern club sandwich. They alternated short, fevered pages of text (Tantor advanced his snake-like trunk toward the terrified Swede. His little eyes blazed. At last he had found the creature who had killed his mate) with
snappily captioned drawings (Bellowing Horribly, the Elephant Charged: Brooding, ULP Gazed into the Fire.) There were Tarzan bubble-gum cards and Tarzan cartoon strips, and even an official manual for Tarzan Clans which included a 500-word dictionary, English-Ape and Ape-English.

World War II seemed to end the craze for Tarzan books, perhaps because substantial clans of American boys had started living their own real-life jungle dramas. By the time Burroughs died in 1950, leaving his valuable rights to his books to his three children in Tarzana Calif. Tarzan appeared to have entered the literary dinosaur park reserved for other has-beens like the Boy Allies or Don Sturdy.

Then came the lady librarian in California. When newspapers heard what she had done, they published reams of foolish speculation about just what Tarzan and Jane were to each other — foolish because anyone who had studied the Ape Man’s domestic arrangements knew that Jane’s father, an ordained minister, had married the two in a small family ceremony in the bush. In any case, all the publicity apparently started old Burroughs fans rooting around for more books to buy for their children and
reread themselves. They found to their dismay that only nine of the the 24 Tarzan books were still in print, on the backlist of a New York publisher named Grosset & Dunlap.

The sales of these nine titles increased 25%, but they by no means satisfied the pent-up interest the librarian had unwittingly released. Other publishers petitioned the Burroughs estate for permission to reprint Tarzan. Perhaps because they were content with the revenues from their movie rights, the heirs failed to answer most of these inquiries. Finally one dogged Tarzanophile publisher wrote the Library of Congress to see exactly what rights the heirs still owned. The library’s answer disclosed that Burroughs’ heirs had committed a lapse which would have sent Burroughs’ hero skulking into the underbrush. U.S. copyrights expire in 28 years unless renewed, and the heirs had forgotten to renew the copyrights on at least eight Tarzan books plus about 20 other Burroughs novels. Lo, the Ape Man lay naked in the public domain.

There ensued, starting to the spring of 1962, a feast over his literary body as savage as any jungle episode Burroughs ever created. (At the smell of blood the panther gave forth a shrill scream, and a moment later… beasts were feeding side by side upon the tender meat.) New York Canaveral Press got out 19 hardback Burroughses. Dover issued four paperbacks combining 10 Tarzan paperbacks. Ballantine published 10 Tarzan paperbacks, then two more, plus nine non-Tarzan books, and now plans to
bring out another 10 Tarzans and one more non-Tarzan. The threat of a mass freeload on what they had previously regarded as their patrimony sent the Burroughs’ heirs to shaking out the drawers and safes at Tarzana to see if there might be anything left which they did own. They found at least five unpublished novels and promptly sold hardcover rights to Canaveral for these and any of the books which were still copyrighted. By next summer some 70 Burroughs novels will be in print.

In the illustrations for their reprints the publishers have shown wide differences of opinions about what Tarzan looks like. Ace’s Tarzan — in the tradition of the big Little, Big Big and Burroughs’ original books — is mesomorphic, equipped to wrestle monsters and save maidens from parboiling. Ballantine’s Tarzan is sleek and cerebral-looking. But whatever their image of the hero, all the books have been selling wondrously. Both Ace and Ballantine have gone into enormous second printings — 300,000 and 110,000 per title respectively. In the Ace catalogue today Edgar Rice Burroughs occupies an entire separate category, a little smaller than either Science Fiction or Mysteries, but larger than Adventure, Humor or Self-Help.

Not everybody is delighted by this Burroughs rebirth. Norman Podhoretz, the editor of a furrowed-brow magazine called Commentary, has ticked of Burroughs’ style as “that Victorian kind of heaviness.” And Dr. Fredric Wertham, an extremely serious student of the psychiatric implications of modern publishing trends, feels that there is something sick about Tarzan’s return. “The vogue,” he says, “has a definite social meaning: to bring out acceptance of violence crime and war — as a legitimate means of social action. Tarzan appeals to the easiest thing to appeal to: our primitive instincts. We have to try to get out of this.”

On the other hand there has been a countercurrent of delight. The Wall Street Journal, which often confines its scrutiny of books on such sprightly topics as corporate merger, gave Tarzan a whole column not long ago. “When it comes to forming the mind,” the writer asked, “would you rather have… Tarzan… or the modern comic books [or] Spillane…? The Tarzan stories… are among the most elevated and edifying books… now on the racks.”

The Wall Street Journal has found some noisy support for its enthusiasm in the activities of a recently formed organization called the Burroughs Bibliophiles, which has nearly l,000 members. It publishes a Burroughs fan magazine and a newsletter and holds a yearly “Dum-Dum” which is ape talk for “meeting,” at which it gloats over its favorite author’s renaissance.

And there are indeed some things to gloat over. The first is that Burroughs’ non-Tarzan novels — he wrote 36 of them — turn out to be better than the Tarzan books. Some are even good. They range from Upton Sinclair-like examinations of gamy corners of American Life (The Mucker and The Girl from Hollywood) to inventive science-fiction books. These included 10 Mars novels, all of
which will shortly be out on paperback, about an earthman named John Carter, who finds himself on Barsoom, the local name for Mars. The planet is populated by a colorful assortment of white apes, green Communists and nubile red girls. Carter marries one of the latter — no question either.

There are six topsy-turvy novels about a world called Pellucidar inside the earth’s core. It is first found when the controls on a big man-carrying drill becomes stuck at Full Down. Pellucidar’s rulers are a nasty lot of reptiles. Just once Burroughs lets down the barriers between his two sets of books and has Tarzan visit Pellucidar. The Ape Man gets in some good licks for the mammals upstairs.

Some of the non-Tarzan books are taut and serious and the best one, The Lost Continent, formerly called Beyond Thirty, tells of a war-ruined England peopled by savages who call it Grabritin. It sounds much more like Orwell than Omtag the Giraffe.

The second lesson from the Burroughs revival is that his book Tarzan is far more interesting than the movie one. The films presumably had trouble finding suitably muscled ape men who could learn long lines, so their Tarzans tended to be laconic (“Me Tarzan. You Jane. Where Boy?”) The book Tarzan, on the other hand, is always saying things like “I know the legend well, and because it is so persistent and… circumstantial, I have thought that I should like to investigate it.” This makes him a lot more sophisticated, if a little long-winded.

Until the most recent movies the film Tarzan tended to be a treebody keeping pretty close to home with Jane, while the book Tarzan tuns out to be a veritable boulevardier, visiting such exotic locals as Paris, London, the Dutch Indies, Baltimore and Wisconsin, in the course of his efforts in behalf of the apes at home. Lest any heretic dispute the superiority of the book Tarzan over the Hollywood Tarzan, he should read one of the newly reprinted paperbacks Tarzan and the Lion Man. In its last chapter
Tarzan visits Hollywood incognito. He is offered a chance to play the lead in a Tarzan movie but flunks the screen test and loses out to an adagio dancer.

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