the plain walls and doors in the basement of the Ekstrom
Library lurks something unexpected: a jungle.
It's a jungle full of color that would spark the wonder
of children and adults alike. George
McWhorter lords over this candy-colored world of pop cultural artifacts,
just like the fictional hero Tarzan commands the lively jungles of Edgar
Rice Burroughs' tales of exotic adventure.
Teasing movie posters, vintage toys, rare books and rare
paraphernalia of every imaginable type command attention atop cabinets
and shelves and inside glass cases.
At the enticing Edgar
Rice Burroughs Memorial Collection, the visitor will find more than
100,000 items that account for the largest such collection at any institution
The author of Tarzan is revered here, in the Special Collections
Department of the University of Louisville's Ekstrom Library. Sixty-three
full-length novels, 21 short stories, and 26 literary sketches, collected
and published in 75 first editions, are housed in the collection.
Depictions of Tarzan, his lady-love Jane and their inseparable
furry pal Nkima the monkey (Cheeta in the movies) are in plentiful supply
in this collection. On hand are original art and sculpture, games, pulps,
and Tarzan collectibles that include knives, bows and arrows, belt buckles,
watches, glue, figurines, candy, bread, pop-ups, Big-Little-Books, coloring
books, costumes and all manner of commercial merchandise from the United
States and abroad.
"This is one of the most unique collections of the UofL
Libraries where we get visitors from around the world," says Hannelore
Rader, dean of UofL Libraries.
Working his magic touch in this wonderland of
the imagination is the inimitable McWhorter, founder of the collection
who formally dedicated it to the memory of his mother following her death
"George qualifies as the world's foremost authority on
Burroughs," says Delinda Buie, UofL curator of Special Collections.
There is a definite twinkle in his eye when the 77-year-old
McWhorter, amiable and bemused, talks about his hero, Burroughs. It was
this oft-described "Grandfather of American Science Fiction" whose works
got McWhorter interested in reading at the tender age of 5. The first Burroughs
story he read was
Princess of Mars (1917).
His mother, Nell Dismukes McWhorter, used Burroughs' fanciful
prose to persuade her son to take imaginary trips to Mars or Africa through
Burroughs' books, which were treasured in the McWhorter household in Washington,
D.C. That made a marked impression on the young man, whose collection of
Burroughs' books and memorabilia had already numbered 6,000 by the time
of his mother's death.
"I used to smuggle a flashlight to my bed to read Burroughs
after lights out," McWhorter says. "When mother read to me, I'd ask her
the definition of the words and we looked them up in the dictionary."
He adds, "The happiest day of my life was when my father
drove me to the train station to pick up a new collection of Burroughs'
books. I was 12 at the time."
McWhorter has a "blessed obsession" when it comes to anything
Burroughs (1875-1950). It's gotten to the point that he lives and breathes
the versatile author who not only invented the vastly popular Tarzan, but
also wrote about Mars and the American West.
This obsession played itself out for McWhorter when he
became the editor and publisher of the Burroughs Bibliophiles, and when
he helped organize the Bibliophiles' annual gatherings worldwide.
"Burroughs was a great storyteller," he says. "He takes
the reader right into the story. He captures your imagination after the
first paragraph. He was a great human being with a great sense of humor,
yet he was also philosophical."
McWhorter didn't start out to become a curator of a Tarzanian
treasure trove. His first career goal while still a young man was to become
a professional opera singer. He spent 10 years plying his trade at Radio
City Music Hall and met up professionally in New York City with the likes
of diva Beverly Sills. He also did ocean-cruise gigs on the strength of
a good voice.
In all, McWhorter sang in 67 operas. His favorites include
Tosca and Turandot.
But in the late 1960s, he suffered a condition that severely
afflicted his vocal chords, forcing him to enter a quiet, reflective period.
Out of that came his decision to throw his energies into library science
and to earn a degree in that field from the University of Michigan in 1972.
Soon after, UofL offered him the rare books' position at Ekstrom.
McWhorter is Every Man's scholar. Decidedly encyclopedic
in his knowledge of the great author, he comes across as conversational
and approachable. Burroughs, he says, taught geology at a military school
and sold pencil sharpeners for a living. But he didn’t really come alive
until he picked up a pen and began writing.
Burroughs gained some notoriety for western titles that
included Apache Devil and The Bandit of Hell's Bend. But
it was Tarzan that would propel him to fame and fortune. The UofL collection
has artwork of all 23 screen actors who have played Tarzan. Perhaps the
most famous was Johnny Weissmuller (1904-84), who as a youth had won yodeling
contests. He made use of that talent to perfect the famous Tarzan yell.
it comes to building the collection, McWhorter is a man possessed. He has
an inner circle of close friends who either donate or bequeath their own
pieces to the collection or put him onto who has an item that he may want.
And some times he turns to the Internet to get what he wants.
"The most the university ever paid for an item was $6,500
paid through a Sotheby's (e-auction) for a first-edition of the (1921)
book Tarzan the Terrible," he says.
Fellow Burroughs bibliophiles live around the world, infusing
the collection with a distinctly international flavor.
"I have a friend who lives in Iceland," he says, "and
that explains why we have Burroughs' books in Icelandic."
Rader, the libraries dean, says you can't talk about the
collection without talking about George McWhorter.
"He is a unique character who has devoted his life to
building that collection," she says. "He's amazing, and we're very fortunate
to have the collection."
McWhorter sees his future, and all eternity in fact, tied
to the collection. His sister, a ceramicist, has made him an urn where
his cremated ashes will be placed. The urn will be placed in the collection—with
the university's blessing.
"I'll stay where my life has been ... in the Burroughs
collection," he says.
The collection itself also appears headed for perpetuity.
McWhorter has bequeathed $1 million from his estate to fund the McWhorter
Professor and Curator of the Edgar Rice Burroughs Collection, which means
that his work will continue with a successor.
McWhorter's is a single-minded purpose. "I want people
to be smitten with the desire to read." he says. "And Edgar Rice Burroughs
can help spur that."