Tarzan and the City of Gold:
A Tale Born in a Troubled Mind
by Alan Hanson
Down out of New York and its halls of finance upon
a confused population came the Great Crash of October, carrying depression
and prosperity across the plains to Southern California, bringing frustration
and despair and hope and prosperity to Edgar Rice Burroughs.
As the above parody of Tarzan and the City of Gold’s
opening passage indicates, the early years of the Depression brought both
good and bad times to Edgar Rice Burroughs. Certainly, he did not suffer
the complete financial meltdown experienced by so many Americans. In fact,
more than ever his style of imaginative fiction provided a much needed
transitory escape for a troubled population. Still, the early 1930s was
arguably the worst period of combined personal and economic tumult in his
life. His marriage was disintegrating and distrust of his business associates
was nearing the breaking point.
In the early years of his career, Burroughs' joyful writing
style reflected the newfound stability in his life. The same could not
be said of his work in the early 1930s. As the imaginative content of his
fiction decreased, reflections, both direct and indirect, of his personal
and business troubles began to appear more and more in his stories. Tarzan
and the City of Gold, written between November 1931 and January
1932, is a good example of this trend.
Tarzan and the City of Gold has always been
my favorite among the formula-written latter half of Burroughs' Tarzan
series. Certainly, it has its drawbacks. The lost city idea and its dueling
cities version were tired strategies that Burroughs had already overworked
in earlier Tarzan stories. And the occasional glimpses of a mysterious
“golden lion” drawing ever closer lacks the suspense it had when Burroughs
first used the tactic with Korak in Tarzan the Terrible.
Still, Tarzan and the City of Gold has much
to recommend it. First, the story contains some of the most humorous scenes
to be found in all of Burroughs’ fiction. For example, it is impossible
to read Tarzan’s banter with the dull-witted Phobeg without smiling, and
the same can be said of the scene prior to the Grand Hunt when Tarzan and
Xerstle, each believing a surprise is in store for the other, simultaneously
wink at a friend. Second, among all female characters in the Tarzan series,
only La of Opar can rival the erotic and enigmatic Queen Nemone of Cathne.
Finally, from beginning to end, it is a real Tarzan story, the first since
and the Ant Men, written 12 years earlier. The ape-man appears
on the opening page of Tarzan and the City of Gold and remains
on stage as the story’s central figure until its closing page. There is
no Jason Gridley nor James Blake nor Lady Barbara Collis to take the spotlight
In reality, though, Tarzan and the City of Gold
is more than just a Tarzan story. In fact, it is really two stories in
one. The first is the surface story of Tarzan’s visit to the valley of
Onthar. The second story, to be found not so subtly between the lines of
the first, is the tale of a distressed author in the throes of what could
be called a mid-life crisis. Edgar Rice Burroughs had much on his troubled
mind when he sat down to write Tarzan and the City of Gold,
and those troubles can be seen as having spilled over into his writing.
Take, for instance, one of the most obvious features of
and the City of Gold — its caustic criticism of the human race.
In earlier Tarzan stories, Burroughs had disparaged his fellow man at times,
but not in so direct a manner as he did in Tarzan and the City of
Gold. In Chapter 2 ERB referred to man as “the archenemy of
all created things,” and then went on to give the following condemnation
“It was difficult for Tarzan to think of himself as
a man, and his psychology was more often that of the wild beast than the
human, nor was he particularly proud of his species. While he appreciated
the intellectual superiority of man over other creatures, he harbored contempt
for him because he had wasted the greater part of his inheritance. To Tarzan,
as to many other created things, contentment is the highest ultimate goal
of achievement, and health and culture the principle avenues along which
man may approach this goal. With scorn the ape-man viewed the overwhelming
majority of mankind which was wanting in either one essential or the other,
when not wanting in both. He saw the greed, the selfishness, the cowardice,
and the cruelty of man; and, in view of man’s vaunted mentality, he knew
that these characteristics placed man upon a lower spiritual scale than
the beasts, while barring him eternally from the goal of contentment.”
Does this commentary represent ERB’s personal attitude
at the time he wrote it, or was it simply an author setting the tone for
a piece of fiction? One has only to note ERB’s interactions with his fellow
men in the years immediately preceding to conclude it was the former. In
an article entitled, “My Diversions,” written in 1929 at the request
of Max Elser of Metropolitan Books, ERB expressed some of the real bitterness
he felt toward the human race. The article was never published, but in
his Burroughs biography, Irwin Porges commented on its human bashing as
“Burroughs periodically reached states of disgust or
extreme dissatisfaction with people and the world, but probing deeper one
might suspect that the root causes were feelings of personal rejection
(as an author), a belief that individuals often attempted to take advantage
of him or exploit him, and a general sense of inadequacy.”
Clearly, in the years just prior to the Depression, ERB
felt time and time again that his business associates were taking advantage
of him. Hollywood was one quarter he distrusted. In the summer of 1927,
he thought he was being deprived of royalties by Film Booking Offices of
America, distributor of the film “Tarzan and the Golden Lion.” A
couple of years later he was so disgusted with Universal’s serials of “Tarzan
the Mighty” and “Tarzan the Tiger” that he refused to attend
performances of either.
Book royalties was another source of frustration. The
Russians brazenly robbed him of royalties, and what ERB thought were unfair
charges of racism nearly wiped out his book sales in Germany. Even in England,
Burroughs was disappointed with sales and royalties under a contract with
Methuen & Company. In a 1929 letter to old friend Joseph Bray, ERB
confided of Methuen, “I am quite certain that I am being systematically
gipped.” Firmly convinced that he was being underpaid compared to other
serial writers of the day, such as Zane Grey, Burroughs finally lost all
trust in book publishers. On November 20, 1931, the day before he started
writing Tarzan and the City of Gold, Edgar Rice Burroughs
began publishing his own books. Considering his distrust of moviemakers
and book publishers over the previous five years, Burroughs’ negative comments
about his fellow man in Tarzan and the City of Gold are understandable.
Aside from what his fellow men had done to him personally,
Burroughs also took civilized man to task in Tarzan and the City
of Gold. Consider this pungent passage about the blessings of civilization
as Tarzan first looked upon the Valley of Onthar in Chapter 4.
“As he looked down upon the seemingly deserted and
peaceful valley he could not but conjure another picture — a picture of
what it would be if word of these vast riches were carried to the outside
world, bringing the kindly beneficences of modern civilization and civilized
men to Onthar. How the valley would hum and roar then with the sweet music
of mill and factory! What a gorgeous spectacle would be painted against
the African sky by the tall chimneys spouting black smoke to hang like
a sable curtain above the golden domes of Cathne!”
Of course, Burroughs might be accused of calling the kettle
black here. After all, as early as 1923 ERB had begun subdividing his own
Tarzana ranch as development spread from Los Angeles to the San Fernando
Valley. The following year he turned over a sizeable part of his property
to a country club development in Tarzana. At the same time he was investing
in a valley airport project and in Apaches Motors, an airplane engine corporation.
But all of his development projects went sour. An agent mismanaged the
real estate subdivisions so badly that Burroughs received little if any
profit from the sale of his land. The El Caballero Country Club project
eventually failed. In the foreclosure proceedings of 1930, Burroughs got
some of his land back, but had to sell it off to pay his debts, and his
airport and Apache Motors investments were wiped out in the crash of 1929.
All of the forgoing must have convinced ERB that development was only another
way for people to take advantage of him.
By the early Depression years, another group became an
irritant in ERB’s life — hunters. Early on in his writing career, Burroughs
was generally accepting of hunters in his fiction. In The Son of
Tarzan, Lord Greystoke allowed European hunters to take trophies
on his African estate. However, by the time Burroughs entered his fifties,
he had developed a decided dislike for recreational hunting, and he couldn’t
resist expressing his disgust for it in his writing, fictional and otherwise.
In August 1927 Burroughs began publishing a monthly newsletter
called “The Tarzana Bulletin.” Although Ralph Rothmund, ERB’s new
secretary, was listed as the editor, it was obvious that Burroughs wrote
much of the content. The second issue included an article in which ERB
expressed his anger with hunters. Specifically, ERB voiced his concern
about preserving Tarzana wildlife, including deer, rabbits, and roadrunners.
“This life is a distinct asset to the value of your property in Tarzana,”
Burroughs explained to his neighbors. “Help protect it. The pleasure
of destroying it (if there can be any pleasure in destroying a beautiful
and harmless creature) is ephemeral at best and if it is destroyed it can
never be replaced.”
In the “My Diversions” article of 1929, Burroughs
wrote of sitting near a roadrunner “in silent communion.” “He
is a very fine gentleman,” Burroughs commented. “He is much better
company than the majority of the so called human race …”
When he wrote Tarzan and the City of Gold
two years later, Burroughs included his disgust with the human pastime
of killing animals. First, he satirized the practice of taking trophies.
In Cathne the warriors had mounted heads on their walls, but they were
not of animals. They were heads of men, which on the surface might seem
more barbaric than mounting animals heads. ERB, though, through Tarzan,
didn’t see it that way. "In the world from which I come," Tarzan
explained to a Cathnean friend, “men fill their trophy rooms with creatures
who are not their enemies, who would be their friends if man would let
them. Your most valued trophies are the heads of your enemies who have
had an equal opportunity to take your head. Yes, it is a splendid idea!”
Burroughs also gave the Cathnean nobles a tradition called
the Grand Hunt, obviously based on the traditional British foxhunt. A human
quarry was given a head start, and then chased down by a group of hunting
lions. If the quarry climbed a tree, the lions were leashed while the man
was driven from the tree and sent on the run again. The object of the nobles
conducting the hunt was to be on the scene when the lions tore the defenseless
quarry to pieces.
Invited to participate in a grand hunt, Tarzan, a British
noble, was disgusted when he learned the unfair rules of the hunt. “Of
course you hunt much in your own country,” presumed a Cathnean noble.
“I hunt for food only or for my enemies,” replied Tarzan. “I
take no please in killing.” It is apparent from these passages in Tarzan
and the City of Gold that it was the inherent unfairness of recreational
hunting that irritated ERB.
Questioning as he did the right of man to kill animals
for pleasure, it is not surprising that in his fiction Burroughs often
compared men and beasts, always with unflattering results for the former.
In Tarzan and the City of Gold, Burroughs was especially
cutting in his comparison, as in the following conversation between Tarzan
and a Cathnean friend.
“There are no sycophants among the beasts,” said Tarzan.
“What do you mean by that?” demanded Gemnon. “Erot
is almost a beast.”
“You malign the beasts. Did you ever see a lion that
fawned upon another creature to curry favor?”
“But beasts are different,” argued Gemnon.
“Yes; they have left all the petty meannesses of man.”
“You do not think very highly of men.”
“None does who thinks, who compares them with the beasts.”
“We are what we are born,” rejoined Gemnon; “some are
beasts, some are men, and some are men who behave like beasts.”
“But none, thank God, are beasts that behave like men,”
retorted Tarzan, smiling.
And so, it could be that as 1931 gave way to 1932, Edgar
Rice Burroughs, never a fan of the human race, was never more down on his
own species as he was then? Perhaps inserting his feelings into Tarzan
and the City of Gold as he wrote it over that holiday season provided
him some much needed therapy.
— the end —