Book Report: Tarzan of the Apes
21 November 2005, 10:02 PM
Your Humble Blogger made it to the age of 36 without having actually read Tarzan of the Apes. I enjoyed it, although the egregious racism made me uncomfortable throughout the book, and the discomfort was greater than the enjoyment. I’m sure reams have been written about the multiple layers of racism, the interaction of the disgusting eugenic belief in “breeding” and the noble savage romanticism. The only thing I have to add to all of that is to note that the dialectese given to the maidservant Esmeralda is a good example of the vicious nastiness that I find absent in the (also racist) Uncle Remus stories as written Joel Chandler Harris. They both share a joke at the expense of the negro who doesn’t speak standard English, but where Mr. Harris makes Uncle Remus speak in a marvelous poetry while Edgar Rice Burroughs has Esmeralda speak in preposterous malapropisms, mocking her stupidity and her pretension to book learning. “Ah done thought it was de devil; but Ah guess it mus’ a-been one of dem gorilephants,” she says. I think every long word in her dialogue is mispronounced or wrong in some other way.
Do you see the difference? Uncle Remus doesn’t speak standard English, and that’s held up as funny and wrong, but his speech is consistent, clear, articulate, memorable, and poetic. Esmeralda doesn’t speak standard English, and that’s funny and wrong, and her speech is stupid, inarticulate, and idiotic. More than that, it is presented as the height of risibility that Esmeralda presumes to polysyllables. Both attitudes come from racist sensibilities, but one is nasty about it, and the other isn’t. Mr. Harris does bear the responsibility for Mr. Burroughs as well, though, or for people like him. By making the softer, kinder, gentler racism acceptable, it gives the high sign to the viciousness.
Of course, nothing like that would happen today, and there is no lesson to be learned from history. Right, Will? Right, Grace? Excellent.
chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,