E Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes – A Literary Prototype

To re-read a well written book is not only pleasant but also inspiring; especially to writers who are always searching for methods to improve their prose.

While the oeuvre of popular authors such as John O'Hara, Ernest Hemingway, and Norman Mailer, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Fowles -who wrote so much in their lifetimes– are by now buried in the dunes of oblivion, E Rice Burroughs' Tarzan remains vibrant and beloved. But, why? There may be many reasons, but I think the following two have something to do with it:

(1) The presence of a prototype, and

(2) Sentence openers.

In contrast to the above mentioned authors, Burroughs bequeathed for posterity a prototype character: Tarzan. This feat together with a wise use of English syntax -in particular his sentence openers- make Tarzan a masterpiece. A classic.

A prototype in literature is an original and unique character that will serve as a typical example for others to follow. Take, for example, Ian Fleming's super secret agent James Bond; after his first appearance, an innumerable variety of secret agents appeared-from the most ridiculous to almost sublime. If one applies this reasoning to lasting authors, one can see that there's some validity to my thesis.

Truman Capote -in his novelette Breakfast Tiffany's- not only created the prototype Holly Golightly, but he wrote with great respect for grammar and syntax; calling inartistic prose "typing." Although we can credit Capote with the invention of the new genre of "novelistic journalism," that will not give him immortality-Holly Golightly strolling in front of Tiffany's will.

Authors who create prototypes achieve immortality. Among the ancients we have the Greek playwrights: Aeschylus (Electra and Orestes), Sophocles (Antigone and Oedipus), and Euripides (Medea). Later, of course Shakespeare (Hamlet, Falstaff, etc.) and Cervantes (Don Quixote and Sancho). Insuperable in satire we have Voltaire's Candide and Panglos-the credulous youth and the pedantic philosopher.

Closer to our time we have Jane Austen. In Mr. Darcy, readers see firsthand the British aristocrat, arrogant, imperious, and yet kind-hearted. With Lolita, Nabokov portrays the adolescent, no-so-innocent nymphet. Isn't Gregor Samsa a first? With this character Kafka transforms a hero into a bug; an influential bug because it inspired Gabriel Garcia Marquez to become a writer. What of Holden Caulfield? Didn't Salinger create the prototype of the disaffected teenager-the rebel without a cause?

Taking his cue from Emily Bronte's Heathcliff, Scott Fitzgerald created Jay Gatsby, a poor boy whose only mission in life was to amass wealth to regain a lost love. Again, here we have two strong prototypes. Without a prototype and without due respect for the sound structures of the English language, the dunes will close in.

Let's test this thesis:

Of the following authors: Iris Murdoch, Joyce Carol Oates, Grisham, Stephen King, Anne Tyler, Tom Clancy, Don DeLillo, John Updike, Truman Capote, or E Rice Burroughs – Who do you think will survive the dunes and rivers of amnesia and oblivion? My money is on win to E Rice Burroughs, place on Truman Capote, and show on Nabokov. These authors will never be lost in Lethe, the river of forgetfulness.

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