Friday, February 6, 2009

Alex Vernon's "On Tarzan"

Alex Vernon is an associate professor of English at Hendrix College. His books include The Eyes of Orion, Soldiers Once and Still, Arms and the Self, and Most Succinctly Bred.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, On Tarzan, and reported the following:
On page ninety-eight we learned that Edgar Rice Burroughs tried to kill off Jane in Tarzan the Untamed; on page ninety-nine, we learn that Hollywood also tried to kill her off in Tarzan Finds a Son!:

But fan outcry in response to a news release forced the production team to shoot a new ending. Now she impossibly survives the spear plunged in her back. Otherwise Hollywood simply dropped her out of the picture without bothering to kill her and frequently without bothering to explain her absence or even to mention her, as if she never existed….[because] Bachelorhood—sexual freedom—sells.

Yet, as other parts of this chapter observe, in many films Jane is actually the protagonist.

Page ninety-nine then begins to think about Burroughs’ post-Darwin conflicted inheritance in his feelings toward women:

He also had to reconcile the two parts of Jane: the primitive woman who responds lustfully to her discovery of her primitive (albeit aristocratic) man, and the proper woman destined for gentle wifehood and motherhood.

Though I’m a professional academic, I want On Tarzan to appeal to non-academic and academic readers alike. Page ninety-nine perhaps tilts a little more toward an academic audience when it introduces the nineteenth century’s “cult of the lady.” The language I’ve quoted, however, is fairly indicative of the book’s style, one I hope is compelling and easy.

Page ninety-nine falls in a chapter which explores how the universe of narratives, by-products, and phenomena I’ve dubbed Tarzania wrestles with womanhood. Other chapters work through issues like adolescence, immigration, racism, U.S. neo-colonialism, primitivism, gender-bending, and incest. Thus Darwin and Freud are here, as are G. Stanley Hall, Sir Richard Francis Burton, Nella Larsen, Frederic Wertham, Acquanetta, Leslie Fiedler, Dorothy Dandridge, John Wayne, Philip José Farmer, Coca-Cola, Bo Derek, Curious George, and many others.

The challenge of writing On Tarzan lay in organizing a mess of trivia into a provocative and concise story. The book is really an essay. Like an essay, it traces my imagination as it encounters and tries to make sense of Tarzania. Like an essay, it has occasional first-person grounding and it finds its vitality in supposition and curiosity. I’m not always sure how much stock I put in some of its wondering claims. On its best pages, On Tarzan takes Tarzan seriously while recognizing his silliness—it offers insights and fun.
Read more about On Tarzan at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue