Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan, Was Not The Racist Hack His Critics Claim. Here’s Proof.

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An unfortunate byproduct of much of  the racially focused commentary triggered by the release of  David Yates’  Legend of Tarzan is the wholesale trashing of the reputation of one of the most beloved and unique pop culture figures of the last century — Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan, John Carter, and a half dozen other mythic heroes.  Is this fair criticism?  Are Burroughs’ novels the blatantly racist claptrap that this new avalanche of criticism claims they are?  The answer is no.  Burroughs’ actual writing in the totality his literary output proves it.

Legend of Tarzan and the Charges of Racism

In the aftermath of the release of Legend of Tarzan, a great wave of commentary has questioned whether the film,  based on characters and situations created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in the early part of 2oth century, can escape embedded racism that is alleged to exist in the film in spite of efforts to excise it.   The criticism ranges from rational commentary that questions whether Tarzan, a creation of 1912 thinking at a time when Britain held sway of 23% of the world, can be adapted for 2016 audiences,  to strident accusations such as this over the top review from Linda Stasi in the New York Daily News: “What year is this again? The new “Legend of Tarzan” is such a crazy racist movie that it makes 1915’s “Birth of a Nation” look like a civil rights epic.”

Contextualizing the Source Material

Let’s look at the source material. First of all, consider the scope of Burroughs’ achievement and pop culture impact. During the period in which he wrote novels from 1912 until he became the oldest war correspondent in history, serving in the Pacific during WWII as he neared 70 years old, his books  sold 35 million copies and were translated into 31 languages. He was J.K. Rowling before there was a J.K. Rowling. Tarzan became the best known and most loved literary character of the century.  His 24 Tarzan novels led to the first surge of pop culture licensing — there was Tarzan bread, Tarzan sweaters, Tarzan ice cream, many dozens of Tarzan movies, Tarzan lunch boxes, and for a while the Tarzan Clans of America rivaled the Boy Scouts.  All of this happened, by the way, in the face of implacable opposition by critics during Burroughs lifetime.  An example from 1915:  “flap doodle… wild, utterly preposterous, utterly meaningless and humorless… long-winded and repetitious… sheer bumble puppy.”  Burroughs was a hugely successful folk author, his writing hard-wired into the psyche of readers.  As sociologist/psychologist Sarkis Atamian notes in his book Origins of Tarzan:

“Tarzan is the archetypal man in all of us.  Imperceptibly, vaguely, we sense him in ourselves every time he moves.  He releases our own archetypes of which we are unaware.  That is the grip he has on us. He tells us of the mystery of who we are. . . . The critics cannot understand because they have opted for intellect over soul.  It is precisely the lack of ERB’s “literary sophistication” which lets him grasp instinctively this truth and reality unencumbered by an obstructing modern intellectualism.  This is what his critics cannot understand, while the common man, the average human being who is in touch with his spirit, immediately grasps what Tarzan’s humanity is all about.”

Lack of critical acceptance did little to slow down the Burroughs juggernaut.  Even in death Burroughs’ popularity wasn’t done — not by a long shot. Let’s flash forward to November 29 1963, thirteen years after Burroughs’ death.  The Beatles were just getting ready to invade America — but another British invasion of America was well under way. The English aristocrat raised by apes,  John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, aka Tarzan, ruled the shelves of bookstores and newstands, courtesy of savagely popular reprints issued by Ace and Ballantine books.  The November 29, 1963 edition of Life Magazine, in an article entitled Tarzan, Lord of the Paperbacks, reported:

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.

Burroughs’ Gift

To read many of the reviews of Legend of Tarzan, you’d think that “ERB” as we called him was some kind of white supremacist wingnut spewing racism and hatred.  Okay,we’ll get to that and break it down in a minute, but first let’s talk broadly about how influential these books were.   James Cameron read them and would later say“With ‘Avatar,’ I thought, forget all these chick flicks and do a classic guys’ adventure movie, something in the Edgar Rice Burroughs mold, like John Carter of Mars.” (The New Yorker, October 26, 2009). Carl Sagan said:  “I can remember as a child reading with breathless fascination the Mars novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I journeyed with John Carter, gentleman adventurer from Virginia, to ‘Barsoom,’. . . . I can remember spending many an hour in my boyhood…imploring what I believed to be Mars to transport me there.” (“Cosmos” 1980).  And Ray Bradbury said: “Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world. By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go out and decide to become special.” (Listen to the Echoes, 2010)

One Reader’s Takeaway

I was one of the generation who found Tarzan and “ERB” as we called him in the 1960s.  I read all 24 Tarzan books, all twelve John Carter of Mars books, all four Carson of Venus Books — in sum, I read it all, multiple times.   As Bradbury suggests, I formed values based on my reading of these books — values that impacted me as a child and a youth and  have shaped me as an adult.  What values am I talking about?  Let’s focus mainly on Tarzan, since he’s the one in the critics crosshairs at the moment.

  • Tarzan was abandoned as an infant when his parents died, and as a result, was subjected to an extraordinary arduous upbringing among the apes.   As a result of this unique and arduous upbringing, he became stronger than other men, his senses of smell and hearing were more acute — and all of this happened through the hard work of his existence. The takeaway:  Work your butt off and you can transform yourself into something special.
  • Society and the cultured life weakened people, made them soft, brought out their baser instincts.  The rough, physical life of Tarzan brought out the best in him, and produced a better human being, free of the ugliness that society created.  Tarzan was more pure, a noble savage who was eventually able to move among men and “pass” as civilized, but whose inner natural state made him better than “civilized” men.
  • Tarzan fell in love with Jane and was faithful to her, without exception, for the rest of his life.  He loved with complete conviction; he was faithful; he believed in Jane and the power of their love and would do anything to preserve her, and the love, against any danger that would manifest itself.

Notice there is nothing in there about me learning that I was superior because I was white; nothing about learning from the books that it was because of my whiteness that I could prevail. That wasn’t the takeaway; that wasn’t the main lesson from the books.

As a result of the “main lesson” that I did get from the books, I did what Ray Bradbury said so many of us did. I went out into the world with enthusiasm and confidence; I set out to do great and mighty things; I believed in myself and was unafraid; I wasn’t timid; I challenged myself and tried to create a bio worthy of a Burroughs character; I took on major challenges and genuine adventures; I searched for an extraordinary woman to love and when I found her, I cherished her.  If there was something negative that I derived from the books, it wasn’t about race.  Perhaps, as a result of my intense reading of the books, my inner narrative of my life took on a certain grandiosity–I was, after all, the ERB-like hero of my own inner narrative but in the end I wasn’t Tarzan and my efforts to fly through the middle terraces like Tarzan didn’t always work out. I crashed. But I picked myself up and kept going, and I’m grateful to Burroughs for giving me the gift of confidence and a spirit of adventure and a belief in the power of love. When they throw some dirt over me, I know that at a minimum the word will be that I went out into the world and tried to get the most out of life, and Burroughs was a big part of the reason I lived that way.  I am not alone in this.  This is the impact that Burroughs had on many of us.

The Charges Against Burroughs

Burroughs is charged with racism and the prosecution typically cites the followng, which has appeared in at least fifty reviews and critical piece of commentary in the ten days since Legend of Tarzan came out.  The first piece of evidence is a note that Tarzan left on the cabin (not a treehouse by the way) saying that he was Tarzan, the “killer of beasts and many black men.” It is then stated that in Tarzan of the Apes, the young Tarzan tormented the tribe of Mbonga killing many of them,which is true.  And finally it is stated that Tarzan is depicted as succeeding over all Africans because his whiteness makes him superior.

These factors are all present.  I do recall that when I finally got my hands on book one Tarzan of the Apes (which due to availability was the tenth or fifteenth Tarzan book I read, not the first) I noted these things and was aware of a racial component. But even then, as a pre-teen in the 1960’s, I was able to make some allowance for the fact that Burroughs had been writing a half century earlier.  Women didn’t even have the right to vote at that point. Institutionalized discrimination had been the norm.  Reading it was a little like simply growing up around elders — my father, for example, who was no racist but who every once in awhile said things that made me feel a little uncomfortable. I knew that overall he had outgrown the racial attitudes that his childhood in Alabama in the 1930s had given him — but once in awhile it would reassert itself, only to go back into remission.  He wasn’t a racist, but he was capable of saying things occasionally which could, if taken out of context, give rise to a misimpression.  ERB was like that.

In any event — the prosecution case rests on the casual killings by the young Tarzan of the tribe of Mbonga, his pride in those killings, and on the fact that he was white and succeeded in Africa, ergo “proving” that whites are superior, a narrative that reinforces colonialism/imperialism concepts that are built on the foundation of white racial superiority.

The Evidence That Burroughs Was Not a Racist

I will limit the presentation of evidence to passages from the books themselves — the reason being, the words written by the author are what’s important. All of the words — not just the few passages cherry picked for the purposes of proving a point or supporting a narrative.  (And thank you to Norman Ray, Rick Barry, Scott Tracy Griffin, Thomas Simmons, Demos Sachlas, and others for digging these out.)

Consider these passages and ask yourself — are these the words of a blatant racist with a white supremacy agenda?

The Gods of Mars (1913)
In that little party there was not one who would desert another; yet we were of different countries, different colours, different races, different religions–and one of us was of a different world. (Chapter 15)

The Return of Tarzan (1914)

 It was now a beautiful, moonlit night. The air was crisp and invigorating. Behind them lay the interminable vista of the desert, dotted here and there with an occasional oasis. The date palms of the little fertile spot they had just left, and the circle of goatskin tents, stood out in sharp relief against the yellow sand—a phantom paradise upon a phantom sea. Before them rose the grim and silent mountains. Tarzan’s blood leaped in his veins. This was life! He looked down upon the girl beside him—a daughter of the desert walking across the face of a dead world with a son of the jungle. He smiled at the thought. He wished that he had had a sister, and that she had been like this girl. What a bully chum she would have been! (Chapter 10)


At dawn the hunters were off. There were fifty sleek, black warriors, and in their midst, lithe and active as a young forest god, strode Tarzan of the Apes, his brown skin contrasting oddly with the ebony of his companions. Except for color he was one of them. His ornaments and weapons were the same as theirs—he spoke their language—he laughed and joked with them, and leaped and shouted in the brief wild dance that preceded their departure from the village, to all intent and purpose a savage among savages. Nor, had he questioned himself, is it to be doubted that he would have admitted that he was far more closely allied to these people and their life than to the Parisian friends whose ways, apelike, he had successfully mimicked for a few short months. (Chapter 15)

The Lad and the Lion (1914)

Nor had the lionman’s perspicacity been one whit at fault in its estimate of the bronze maid of the desert. Far above the average of her sisters, was Nakhla-not only in personal beauty, but in virtue, goodness, character and intelligence as well. A girl in a thousand, was she-yes, in ten thousand, in whom race or complexion might bear no slightest place in the estimate that was her due. Nakhla of the Sahara was a daughter of the races. (Chapter 18)

Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar (1918)
In itself the hunt was a success, and ten days after its inauguration, a well-laden safari took up its return march toward the Waziri plain. Lord and Lady Greystoke with Basuli and Mugambi rode together at the head of the column, laughing and talking together in that easy familiarity which common interests and mutual respect breed between honest and intelligent men of any races.”  (Chapter 24, “Home”)
Warlord of Mars (1919)
Twenty-two years before I had been cast, naked and a stranger, into this strange and savage world. The hand of every race and nation was raised in continual strife and warring against the men of every other land and color. Today, by the might of my sword and the loyalty of the friends my sword had made for me, black man and white, red man and green rubbed shoulders in peace and good-fellowship.(Ch.16)

Tarzan the Terrible  (1921)

Tarzan smiled. Even here was the racial distinction between white man and black man—Ho-don and Waz-don. Not even the fact that they appeared to be equals in the matter of intelligence made any difference— one was white and one was black, and it was easy to see that the white considered himself superior to the other—one could see it in his quiet smile. 

Apache Devil (1926)

Wichita Billings knew that the man at her side loved her. She knew that she was drawn to him more than to any other man that she had ever known, but she did not know that this attraction constituted love. Raised as she had been in an atmosphere of racial hatred, schooled in ignorance and bigotry by people who looked upon every race and nation, other than their own race and nation, as inferior, she could scarce believe it possible that she could give her love to an Indian; and so her mind argued against her heart that it was not love that she felt for him but some other emotion which should be suppressed.   Shoz-Dijiji, on his part, realized the barrier that prejudice had erected between them and the difficulty that the white girl might have to surmount it in the event that she loved him. He, too, had faced a similar barrier in his hatred of the white race, but that his love had long since leveled. A greater obstacle, one which he could not again face, was the hurt that his pride had suffered when she had recoiled from his embrace.

Tarzan and the Leopard Men (1933)
She recalled the plaints of American Negroes that they were not treated with equality by the whites. Now that conditions were reversed, she could not see that the Negroes were more magnanimous than the whites. Evidently it all depended upon which was the more powerful and had nothing whatsoever to do with innate gentleness of spirit or charity. 
Land of Terror (1944)
The men are monogamous and very proud of their bloodline. Under no circumstances will they mate with a white, as they consider the white race far inferior to theirs. I could never quite accustom myself to this reversal of the status of the two races from what I had always been accustomed to; but it really was not as difficult as it might appear, for I must admit that the blacks treated us with far greater toleration here than our dark-skinned races are accorded on the outer crust. Perhaps I was getting a lesson in true democracy.

What Conclusions Can Be Drawn?

While there can be no doubt the ERB was a man of his times and his racial views do not match up perfectly with 2016 sensitivities, any actual reading of the totality of his works must acknowledge that the dominant theme of his racial statements is one of tolerance and respect. To impute a deeply  offensive white supremacist agenda, as his many sudden critics have done in the wake of the release of Legend of Tarzan, is inaccurate, unfair, unjust.   While there are undoubtedly a few oft-repeated isolated passages with offensive racial characterizations, particularly in the works depicting the young Tarzan before he encountered any civilizing influences, the dominant theme of Burroughs’ racial commentary is one of tolerance, respect, and frequent admiration of non-white races.


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(Note: for further reading, I suggest an earlier post, written six months prior to the release of Legend of Tarzan, entitled Legend of Tarzan Reboots the Debate on Whether Edgar Rice Burroughs Was a Racist — Our Study File.  The post contains links to articles and commentary on the subject that existed prior to the release of the film.)



  • Those who judge works written a hundred and more years ago by current standards are committing a grave error, as are those who view the entire world through the distorting prism of race.

  • Nice article, Michael. I think it’s also worth noting that in Burroughs’ unpublished “The Ghostly Script,” he chose as his protagonist a black man, a onetime slave who, as a U.S. Army infantry sergeant, died a hero’s death on San Juan Hill. At one point in this first-person story, the protagonist indicts the plantation family as “victims of narrow prejudice.” [Porges 752] To anyone who has studied the totality of ERB’s works, the idea of ERB as a racist is ludicrous.

  • Well done, Michael. I think you done a great job of outlining, point by point, the counter-argument to the racist charge.

    • Having finally in my life (I’m now 71) read TARZAN of the APES … I noted that ERB never used a derogatory term for blacks !! In fact, my impression is that he had an appreciation and respect for native Africans.

      ERB had NOTHING to do with the production of the movie so should not be called out for any racism in it.

      Tarzan is adopted by an ape and raised as one. He never saw white people until he was adult … therefore, he only knew that he was different than the natives, but he did not know why. In his mind he was the odd person in the jungle. Just as he had realized that he was different from the gorillas of his tribe and family.

      Especially in Book 2, The Return of Tarzan … he is repulsed and disgusted with the ways of whites in France and America.

      Nor could he attribute his superior strength to his color. Even to himself, he realized those traits were the result of his upbringing by his ape mother and having to survive and compete with them.

      Sorry one paragraph out of place as screen moved …

      As for Academia’s less than respectful reception of ERB’s work … of course they were … here is an outsider earning large income and market favor while trained scholars are not so favored in life !!

  • I agree 100% with what you wrote regarding ERB and Tarzan’s moral character. I credit ERB for opening my eyes to the joys of reading novels at the age of 51. 82 ERB and several hundred books by other authors later, ERB is one of the few authors I can enjoy reading over and over again. Thank you so much Mr. Burroughs!

  • An interesting comment from Facebook which I’m saving here:

    John Carl O
    The logic of some Tarzan critics is destroyed if we move to a more canonical author. Shakespeare was a racist–we should all stop reading Shakespeare, seeing Shakespearean plays, or watching Shakespearean movies–there is anti-semitism in The Merchant of Venice, so it doesn’t matter that there are also very moving passages where Shakespeare shows sympathy for Jews or that he makes the Jewish characters complex and human, there is racism in Othello, etc, etc. Because Burroughs wrote 100 years ago instead of 400 years ago, I suppose some people don’t understand the use of seeing how Burroughs reflected the prejudices of his time while at the same time moving beyond them–even more inexplicably, people are unable to understand how a contemporary filmmaker can make a non-racist Tarzan movie while they seem perfectly able to understand how modern filmmakers can make Shakespearean inspired movies that offer a different perspective on race than Shakespeare himself offered. Leaving aside the question of whether the Tarzan novels are racist, I think the stigma of the racist label when applied to 20th century instead of 16th century literature makes it harder to have an honest analysis of the ideas, ideologies, and worldviews we find in the literature we read–some want to ignore what is problematic, and others want to condemn any work of literature with racist ideologies. Judging people who died decades or centuries ago for their ideas and ideology seems like a stupid game people play to feel better about themselves. Should we stop people from reading Charlotte Bronte and making new film versions of Jane Eyre because there may be a tinge of racism in the depiction of Mr. Rochester’s Jamaican first wife–no, no,no, but perhaps we would benefit from reading The Wide Sargasso Sea, which tells the story from the point of view of his wife. Returning to the Tarzan novels, I think it is fair to say that Burroughs had no racist agenda but that some comments in his rapidly written books reflect unconscious racial bias, while other comments reflect a conscious or unconscious belief in solidarity between races–in other words, Burroughs seems to have been influenced by contradictory world views, which is unsurprising given the ideological conflicts raging in his day–an examination of the conflict between different views of race in Burroughs’ work seems like a promising endeavor. The Tarzan movie self-consciously critiques the colonialist endeavor that informed the original Tarzan novels–while not as thoroughly revisionist as The Wide Sargasso Sea, it does seek to shift and enrich perspectives.

  • Another favorite quote of mine that sums up Tarzan fairly well is in “Tarzan and the City of Gold.”

    “Ordinarily, Tarzan was no more concerned with the fate of a white man or by that of a black man or any other created thing to which he was not bound by ties of friendship; the life of a man meant less to Tarzan of the Apes than the life of an ape.”

  • Great article. I would add that Burroughs likely drew upon Paul Du Chaillu and JW Buell for his descriptions of Mbonga’s tribe in “Tarzan of the Apes”. He did research for the purposes of verisimilitude, so one must consider the sources. HR Haggard’s depictions of African tribes are pretty similar. Tarzan’s baiting of Mbonga’s tribe is due to Kulonga’s murder of his mother, after which Burroughs invoked a trickster god aspect to Tarzan’s character development.

    I certainly acknowledge racism when it appears in Burroughs works, but feel that Burroughs himself was troubled by society’s attitudes towards race issues and therefore provided counter points of view. He was in fact progressive for his time.

    The problem with most critics who latch on to this aspect of Burroughs writing is that they have an axe to grind. Race issues are a major flashpoint today, and invoking them in Tarzan stories is not helping anything. It’s disappointing to read a review based on superficial appreciations for Burroughs, but everyone’s entitled to their opinion, I suppose.

  • The only book by Du Chaillu that I’ve read is “Stories of the Gorilla Country” in which he describes his encounters with a cannibal tribe. I’m pretty sure that Burroughs lifted his descriptions of Mbonga’s tribe straight from Du Chaillu, who was part black himself, and genuinely interested in exploring Africa and documenting his findings of the diverse peoples and wildlife.

    I think a solid case can be made that Burroughs depictions of African tribes were based on his research, and that he immediately distanced himself from such depictions in subsequent books – most notably the noble Waziri tribe in “The Return of Tarzan” given his privately held, progressive notions regarding the equality of all races.

  • I think your article does show that Edgar Rice Burroughs was not a racist. Certainly he was influenced by the prevailing racial prejudices of his time, but I think he consciously made an effort to examine those views and that he learned from that examination that there was greatness and weakness in all humans regardless of so-called “race.”

    Burroughs, writing fast paced adventure stories for the pulp magazines of the time wasn’t above using some of the prevailing conceits on race and ethnicity to emphasize a point, such as why Tarzan felt justified in his tormenting the “cannibalistic” tribe of M’bonga; but this is in contrast to the description Burroughs used for the majestic Waziri warriors, whom Tarzan befriended, and considered equals. Burroughs, like hopefully most of us, grew wiser with his life experiences.

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