I’m not sure which word I dislike more – woke or classic. The former implies being aware of racial and gender disparities I was previously unaware of (which, as a woman of Latin descent, I really don’t think I was), while the latter suggests something worth venerating by virtue of its age alone (which is not always the case). You can’t really apply both words to any one book, much less make a blog post about it, yet here we are. Because that’s what I found myself contemplating recently.
I’ve mentioned my love of classical novels (the adventurous types) before. Forget Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott and Charlotte Bronte and give me Mark Twain, Bram Stoker and Edgar Rice Burroughs books (we’ll save the obvious imbalance in the sexes for another post). Well, I have been making the most of my three-hour daily commute by listening to audiobooks; and a few weeks ago I decided to reread Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
I first read the book about twenty years ago and was amazed then at how much I enjoyed the story (this seems to my default reaction to these older novels). I never got to read the first sequel, nor the subsequent ones (twenty four total). But I enjoyed the book enough to start on Mr. Burrough’s Barsoom series, John Carter of Mars (I may be one of the few people who enjoyed the Disney adaption with Taylor Kitsch). Yes, both novels had their issues, but nothing so jarring that I couldn’t enjoy them.
Ah, what a difference two decades makes.
For those who haven’t read Tarzan of the Apes or have somehow missed the hundreds of adaptations throughout the years, Tarzan was the son of a British Lord, who along with his wife was shipwrecked on an African coast. They died in Tarzan’s infancy, leaving him to be raised by apes. As he grew, he began to see himself as something other than the hairless ape of the tribe, but he didn’t understand what he was until he found the cabin his father built; and in it, the books his father brought with him from England. There, Tarzan learned he was a man.
A white man.
A white man who was supposed to be culturally superior–to animals, to everyone who wasn’t British, but especially to the blacks who shared the land with the ape tribe.
So at this point into the book, I reminded myself that you have to suspend your natural desire to read the classical books through the lenses of the twenty-first century to truly appreciate the story as the author wrote it. And more than that, I firmly believe EVERYONE should have a voice. Each writer, each person is entitled to their own opinion and each vantage point is important. I continued reading (or in this case, listening), stuck on the irony that even as Mr. Burroughs described the blacks as savage, primitive and violent, Tarzan was taunting and killing members of the tribe to appropriate their jewelry, dress and weapons.
You didn’t see that in the Disney adaptation.
Then Jane Porter entered the story with her servant Esmeralda, who was described as a large negress from Maryland. The two end up on the same coast as Tarzan and seek refuge in the cabin. And while Jane bravely steels herself against the circumstances, Esmeralda, a two-dimensional, secondary character who has no bearing on the story, is portrayed as infantile, easily given to hysterics, almost like she is mentally incapable of understanding or bravery.
I had forgotten about that. And to be honest, it didn’t sit well with me. Yes, this book was was a reflection of the day and age it was written in, but because racial stereotypes and gender disparities still permeate every aspect of our society, listening to something that reinforces them is difficult. I don’t want to diminish anyone’s voice, because even if their view point is marred, there’s still a wealth of cultural information to be gained. But to what degree do we continue venerating these older books? Tarzan of the Apes is a classic story, written by a prolific author who changed the world (he popularized serials, went to Mars before we got to the moon, and revolutionized the science fiction genre. AND who doesn’t know Tarzan?), but at what cost? This is why the debate continues about whether Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain should be banned by schools, or why Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books were stripped of a children books award over her depiction of Native Americans. Are we being too sensitive? Or are we finally waking up to the reality that what we believe to be traditional or trivial may be hurting someone else? Is it possible to overlook these stereotypes and not be affected by them?
No book is perfect, none. And to be honest, I don’t have ‘the’ answer to any of these questions. Like I said, even the classics are valuable, if only as a window into our past. But whether we continue reading them or not, that’s a decision we have to make for ourselves. Just like everything else. I enjoyed Tarzan of the Apes once, and I am grateful for the impact it and Edgar Rice Burroughs have had on society, on me. But beyond that, maybe it’s time to put the book back on the shelf and give another author a chance.