call of the wild: back to basics

by Jesse Marinoff Reyes:

We are fast approaching the centennial (October!) of the publication of Tarzan of the Apes—in the pages of the pulp periodical All Story Magazine—but let us take a moment to tribute his creator, and the creator of John Carter of Mars, Carson of Venus, David Innes and Tanar of Pellucidar, and several more adventure heroes whose exploits—whether of the wild west, or of the uncharted wilds of the Dark Continent, the Center of the Earth, or the fantastic reaches of the Moon, Mars, and Venus—in the pulps, in books, in comics and newspaper strips, and television and the movies have enthralled generations, from my father’s Depression-era adulthood to my Baby Boomer childhood.

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It is a memory of father-son bonding that comes to mind when I stop to consider Edgar Rice Burroughs. I was just old enough to thrill at adventure stories when my father showed me a dog-eared but much-loved Big Little Book from the 1930s that he’d kept with him as a souvenir, a lamplight companion after many a long, hard day laboring in the fields of Wenatchee or the canneries of Kodiak. It was a Tarzan story that he kept, a pop-literary symbol of manly virtue and escape from the drudgery of his early immigrant life in America, where perhaps for an hour he could get away to someplace in the jungle of the imagination…

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…—maybe it was the forlorn coast of West Africa where Lord and Lady Greystoke met their doom, but their infant son taken by the she-ape Kala would survive and eventually thrive as a man like no other; maybe it was some lost valley where impossible creatures and lost kingdoms awaited Tarzan with equally fantastic adventures; or maybe it was one of many white, proto-Colonial interlopers come to the jungle to exploit it for riches only to find its white protector, the first environmental hero (for all of the battles to the death with other jungle animals, Tarzan is still one of THEM and not really one of US), and a white man who saw Africa as would a black man—or more intrinsically, as an animal—as his home and not his colony.

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Sitting with dad on a Saturday afternoon, watching an old Johnny Weismuller or Buster Crabbe movie (or Lex Barker, Gordon Scott, or Jock Mahoney) or the 1960s television series with Ron Ely, no matter how far off the books or close to the source material, was a joy for me—and memories I’d not trade for anything. I became a fan of the comics—and dad would always come back from the drug store with a Tarzan, or a Korak: Son of Tarzan Gold Key comic under his arm for me, though he would always be sure to tell me to let him read it when I was done—then, the books by Burroughs himself (there are 24 novels). I can remember reading Tarzan of the Apes in paperback, the TV-tie-in with Ron Ely on the cover. Whether in my bedroom or a nearby tree, I too would thrill as my father had at that forlorn coast, that lost valley, or those interlopers being foiled by the man like no other.

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For that I have to thank a former-rancher, former-wholesaler, former pencil-sharpener (that was a job???), and former drifter, Edgar Rice Burroughs, who when given half a chance let his imagination run wild in the jungle.

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