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Tarzan: Leopold Bloom in a loincloth and L.A. icon

January 16, 2009 |  8:15 am


Thursday, Dan Neill looked at "On Tarzan" by Alex Vernon, a professor at Hendrix College. Published by the University of Georgia Press, it's a brainy take on the beefy icon.

Tarzan is an avatar of both nature and nurture, Rousseau and B.F. Skinner, of Haeckel's ontology-phylogeny recapitulation theory, of post-racial harmony and violent white neocolonialism. Writes Vernon: "The Tarzan tales' argument for inherent and essential gender and racial roles and traits self-deconstructs. Cultural relativism rears."

Uh-huh. Sure it does.

No one enjoys an overdetermined cultural analysis more than I do, and to his credit, Vernon cheerfully acknowledges that the vine from which he's swinging can't always bear the weight.

Those who are not geeks for L.A. history may be confused by Neill's allusion to Tarzana. The San Fernando Valley town was indeed named for Tarzan by author Edgar Rice Burroughs, who bought 550 acres there in 1919 and called it Tarzana Ranch. (The deal has echoes of "Chinatown" -- he bought the property from Harrison Gray Otis, owner of the L.A. Times, who'd gotten the dusty acreage in advance of the L.A. Aqueduct's 1913 opening).

By 1919, seven years had passed since "Tarzan of the Apes" was published; Burroughs, a onetime pencil sharpener salesman, had followed up with a series of increasingly popular Tarzan books. He profited from Tarzan comic strips and movies and more. He subdivided his ranch and was so financially successful that, according to the Tarzana Property Owners Assn. history of the community, In 1923, Edgar Rice Burroughs became one of the first authors in the world to incorporate himself."

I'm as guilty as anyone of thinking that classic L.A. authors run in the vein of Raymond Chandler and Nathanael West. But before they got here, L. Frank Baum and Edgar Rice Burroughs were calling L.A. home. And today, close to 30,000 people make their homes in the town named for Burroughs' best-known character.

-- Carolyn Kellogg