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09/07/1999 07:00:00

Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan novels and Tarzana suburb both reflected a "white flight" mentality, researcher says

PASADENA-Whether Edgar Rice Burroughs was writing his successful Tarzan novels or promoting his early-20th-century suburb, Tarzana, he always seemed to be making the world safe for bwana.

That's the conclusion of Catherine Jurca, an assistant professor of literature at the California Institute of Technology. Jurca is writing a book tentatively titled "White Diaspora: The Suburb and the Twentieth-Century American Novel." One chapter examines Tarzan in light of Burroughs' activities as a suburban real-estate developer in Los Angeles.

In the 1912 novel "Tarzan of the Apes," Tarzan is driven primarily to protect his jungle house from a tribe of unruly Africans and also to find other white people "like himself," Jurca explains in an earlier article in the Modern Language Quarterly.

Thus "'Tarzan of the Apes' begins to look more like a novel of white flight than white rule."

Though isolated since infancy from Western civilization, the savage jungle king grows into a strapping example of idealized Western manhood. The transition is fostered by his parents' house and its contents, which teach him about his noble Anglo-Saxon identity and birthright.

Jurca's main interest is in the ways that the original Tarzan series exemplified ways of thinking that led to the ascendancy of suburbia-particularly the urge many white Americans apparently felt to get away from the central city and minorities.

"The primacy of white community and isolation from minorities have been central to the development of the American suburb, as exemplified in Burroughs's 1920s subdivision of Tarzana-named, after all, for a character whose name means 'White Skin' in the language of the apes," she says.

When Burroughs got rich and famous in Chicago for writing the Tarzan books, he moved West and bought up several hundred acres in the San Fernando Valley, northwest of downtown Los Angeles-a property he named Tarzana.

"Burroughs actively encouraged 'the sort of folks to come here whom I want for neighbors,'" according to the journal article. His ambition was abetted by the racial covenants that subjected all property sold in the subdivision to the following constraints: "That said premises or any part thereof shall not be leased, sold or conveyed to or occupied by any person not of the Caucasian race."

Of course, such covenants have not been enforceable for many decades, but the similarities in attitude toward race seen in Burroughs' Tarzan character and the people the author hoped to lure to his suburb may speak volumes about the thinking that originally went into the expansion of American suburbia.

Burroughs apparently wasn't all that successful in subdividing and creating his own haven north of Los Angeles. But decades later, Tarzana and countless other suburbs indeed became for a time the predominantly white enclaves that Burroughs envisioned. According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times Sunday opinion section, the San Fernando Valley was the embodiment of white suburbia in the 1960s, with more than 90 percent of its inhabitants being white.

"True to the namesake who personifies 'White-Skin,'" Jurca writes, "Tarzana evolved along the lines of other 20th-century suburbs, as a place designed to ensure that Anglo-American civilization could thrive in isolation and where ordinary white people could become extraordinary Anglo-Saxons."

But this may be temporary-at least in the case of the San Fernando Valley. As the Times article pointed out, the suburbs of the Valley have become a bit more ethnically diversified in the last couple of decades. Tarzana, according to the Times demographics Web site, currently has a population of 71,680-80 percent of whom are white.

Though Jurca feels the original Tarzan novels are troubling in their attitude toward race, she points out that the myth and the character have been quite pliable in the hands of later artists. For example, the recent Disney film, far from embodying a segregationist message, has Tarzan make a vivid and compelling argument for diversity and cooperation.

Also ironically, the modern community of Tarzana has been more receptive to the Tarzan association in recent years, Jurca says. In past decades, the community wasn't too keen on the connection.

"Tarzana residents didn't really take to being associated with an ape-man, however noble," says Jurca, who grew up there. "For years the Tarzana public library refused to carry Burroughs' books."

"But all this has changed, especially with the film, as the Tarzan connection becomes a useful way to distinguish what is essentially a very unextraordinary postwar residential community from all the other unextraordinary postwar communities that constitute the San Fernando Valley."

Written by Robert Tindol