Tarzan Meets The Wizard

April 21, 2011

The Big Bwana

Tarzan Meets The Wizard


R.E. Prindle

     I opened the door…(this was way back in nineteen-fifty when I was twelve years old and bought my first Tarzan book)…and stepped inside the Argonaut Bookstore.  This America was in a parallel universe compared to what you see today.  What I’m telling you here seemingly happened millions of years ago on another planet in a different universe.  Believe me, you couldn’t function in the world I’m talking about.

     The Argonaut was downtown.  That won’t mean anything to you now, but in those days there were no shopping malls.  Things weren’t big and strung out.  Downtown was not only the center of activity, there was no other activity.  You had to shop downtown.  Thus if your store wasn’t located on the four main blocks of Genessee, and two didn’t really count, your store was, as they say, marginalized.  The Argonaut was half a block off Genesee but in the center street off the two good blocks on the right side, the left side was a lot weaker than the right.  There was a chance someone might turn the corner and see your store.  Not too likely though.

     The scale would amaze you.  This was small.  Imagine yourself as you playing with your Lionel electric train.  Yeah, it was that small in comparison.  Barnes & Noble mega bookstores weren’t even a gleam in a booksellers’ eyes.  The thought would have been incredible.  It would have taken up one of the two good blocks on the right side.  The Argonaut was maybe twelve feet wide and fifty feet deep.  Mahogany shelving down one side beginning waist high with storage underneath, nothing there, a couple display tables down the middle, check out to the right.  The prop. would have been lucky to take home two hundred fifty dollars a day.  So out of a hundred dollars markup he not only met all expenses but lived as a respected business man.  As I say, a different world.

     The owner dealt only with White people.  The only minority was the Black folk and they were confined to the First Ward.  The Italians were emerging from their ghettoes in the post-war world so pizza shops were showing as a novelty.  The owner only had to stock his shelves for one buying public.  Half of his inventory would have been ‘the classics.’   There were virtually no novels published after WWI on sale except for current literature and that was generally considered inferior to the classics.

     Great immigration changes were in the air while the last vestiges of the previously dominant English club style were slowly disappearing.  Thus the Argonaut was designed to look like it might have been Lord Greystoke’s personal library, mahogany, dark woods and all.

     I was only two years out of the Orphanage and feeling my way to some sort of identity.  I would never find it in my old home town, it wasn’t there.

     I hadn’t ever bought a book at the Argonaut before, as an Orphan I would have been shooed out in the most unkindly manner.  As it was the classiest  and only real book store in town I was anxious with anticipation.  The library at the Orphanage had been my refuge, a very nice library too, as big or bigger than the Argonaut and all kid’s books.  The other orphans viewed it as The Black Hole Of Calcutta so I had always had the place to myself.  Donations to the Orphanage  were terrific so I was familiar with the whole range of children’s books from Raggedy Ann And Andy to my favorites, the Oz series.  In those days I was mystified by the change of authorship after the first dozen books but I was quick to note the inferior style of his successors.

     I don’t remember any Tarzans or other Burroughs.

     I was a free rover back in the Orphanage days so I knew about the Argonaut as it was across the street from the magazine store where I bought my Blackhawks, Daredevil and Plastic Man comics.  They were only a dime so all I had to do was pick up five bottles with a redemption value of 2 cents each and I was in business; but now I was going to spend a dollar.  Don’t know where I got it.

     I had scouted the place and knew where everything was so when I entered and looked down the long row of shelves stocked with what would now be a miniscule library I knew to turn left just inside the door to the space alotted to Juvenile Literature.  Tom Swift and the Rover Boys among others were still available but nobody bought them.  Stiff stuff.   Swift was too stiff for words.  I never could enjoy the stuff although the oldtimers swore by him.  And there next to the Oz books was Tarzan.  There were only about eight of them available at the time along with five of the Martian series.

     The Burroughs stuff was all put out by Grossett and Dunlap, my favorite publishers.  Something about the paper and the binding.  There were several other publishers who put out classy kid books, Cupples And Leon.  They had the look and feel that made you feel like a man on the way.  Now the Barnes and Noble Juvenile section, bigger than the whole Argonaut, is a pile of indoctrination in generally offensive looking  and feeling volumes.  Lot of ’em made in China.  Chinese don’t know a thing about paper and books.  I’m glad I spent my youth in that other universe.

     Back then you could buy Whitman Co., Racine, Wisconsin, abridgments for fifty-nine cents if you didn’t have a dollar.  I could never get over why Whitman’s were published in Racine when everything else was published in New York City.  I’m sure there was some weird reason.  I had my dollar in my hand.  I focused my concentration in a steady beam and was intensely glancing from title to title comparing the dust jacket illustrations when, as though from afar, faintly a voice partially intruded into my conscious to say:  ‘I’m Jason, can I help you?’

     It was so faint I didn’t really hear it, the voice merely brushed past my concentration; then I felt what I thought was a very hard tap on my shoulder.  Wincing, I looked up.

     ‘I’m Jason, can I help you?’  he said more imperiously, left hand on hip with his left leg resting on the tip of his shoe.

     ‘Help me do what?’  I asked uncomprehendingly.

     ‘Find the book you’re looking for?’  He replied with a condescending, well, not a sneer, but you know what I mean.

     At the same time I realized that although I wanted a Tarzan book I didn’t have any idea which one was the best to start with.

     This guy Jason as I surveyed him in my pre-teen way was a pretty impressive guy  He was an easy six feet.  I was about four feet ten, imperially slim (a phrase I’ve always wanted to work in) dressed to the nines in a collegiate cut suit, blue button down oxford cloth shirt (still the only kind of shirt material), and rep stripe tie.  (Never liked rep stripes, prefer paisleys and foulards).  He was good looking, he could have stepped out of an Arrow shirt ad or modeled for one of those German postage stamps of the late thirties.  God, those Leyendecker ads were just awesome.

     Jason would have been a killer with the girls too, if he had just come unstuck from himself.  But, heck, if I looked like that I might have been satisfied with myself too.

     He stood there leaning on the counter with his right arm, his left arm cocked on his hip and his right leg across his left leg.  God, I’ve never seen a pair of pants with a crease like that and I never will again.  I’ve never been able to get it and I’ve bought more suits than Huey Long who couldn’t get that crease either.

     I can say that I was overawed by Jason.

     ‘I wanted to buy a Tarzan book.’  I began timidly.  ‘Do you know anything about them?’

     ‘Do I know anything about them?’  He said with a knowing chuckle as he brought his bent fingers up for a minute examination of his nails.  ‘I should think so.  I’ve read them all.’

     ‘OK.  Which one.  I’ve got my dollar.’

     ‘Which one?’  He asked irritatingly.  He had this annoying habit of repeating your question as well as his now constant steady admiration of his finger nails.  He did have a good manicure.  A manicure of any kind was a rarity in our town.  Hair cuts were pretty common.  First he would do one hand and then the other.  Sometimes both at once.  He was something to watch.  Enjoyed preening for me too.

     ‘Hmm.  For you?’  He said musingly as though I were a special case.  ‘Well, you know, there’s only eight available out of twenty so you can only choose from those eight.  I’ve got them all, every one.  Had to go to second hand stores which I’m loath to do but this case called for an exception.  Those eight are new though.  I’ve thought about the Tarzan novels a great deal.  I divide them into three categories for convenience.  The first four I call the Russian Quartet, the next eight I call the Jungle Rhapsodies and the eight after them, Political Undertones.

     These eight are all from Grosset and Dunlap and they’re all that’s available new.  The titles Burroughs self-published are all out of print…

     ‘What do you mean Russian Quartet?’  This was the beginning of the McCarthy Reaction and I was a pretty keen anti-Communist, or about to become one.

     ‘Well, it seems to me that Burroughs concieved the first four volumes as a unit without plans to go further.  Of course, the first volume introduces Tarzan but then he used the literary devices of the two Russian nihilists who are after Tarzan to continue the story through volumes two and to four.  He kills off the last Russian in Son Of Tarzan and then leaves no room for a continuation of the series.

     The Quartet is probably written in too literary a style for you.  Burroughs was trying hard to follow the rules of fine literature in the Quartet.’

     ‘What happened then?’

     ‘What happened then?’  There he went again bringing up both sets of nails for scrutiny and adopting that wide apart stance of that famous picture of Burroughs flexing his muscles.

     ‘I think he was at a loss what to do next.  I think he had written out his original conception of Tarzan.  I mean, Tarzan was virtually a moribund old man at the end of Son of Tarzan.’

     ‘Yeah, but you said there’s a whole bunch of other books.’

     ‘His original conception, I said.  About this time he went way out West in Hollywood, where I’m going soon, I’m going to be a big movie star with my looks, where he met L. Frank Baum.  Baum wrote a number of the Oz stories, have heard of him?’

     ‘Of course I have.’  I snuffed, deeply offended that anyone would think I didn’t know who L. Frank Baum was.  Ozma of Oz was the first book I ever read on my own.

     ‘Uh huh.”  He said, condescendingly looking down his nose, but impressed.  ‘I think that he and Baum had some long walks and summer talks and Baum gave him some pointers.  Baum was older than Burroughs.  He was born in eighteen fifty-fix and died in nineteen-nineteen just after he passed the torch to Burroughs, so to speak.’

     ‘How do you know when L. Frank Baum lived and died, I wonder?’

     ‘It’s my job to know these things.’  He smiled condescendingly.  ‘Just like Burroughs was born in eighteen seventy-five and died the day before yesterday.’

      ‘You’re kidding me, now?’   I said, unwilling to be taken in.

     ‘I kid you not, kid.  Day before yesterday he breathed his last breath.  Expired, just like that.  As I was saying, Baum probably told him to make Tarzan and Africa over on the model of Dorothy, the Wizard and Oz.  That way he could move Tarzan North, South, East and West just as Baum did with his characters in the Oz series.  Oz has its metropolis of the Emerald City and then the outlying areas where all these odd creatures live.

     Burroughs listened.  So in the fifth Tarzan book, Tarzan And The Jewels Of Opar, the story changes from a more or less realistic vision of Africa to one of hidden cities, lost empires and strange mythical locations like the giant boma of the Ant Men or Pal-ul-don.  Tarzan, as the Wizard, works out of his estate in East Africa as a substitute for the Emerald City.

      By adopting Baum’s formula Burroughs was able to keep his series going until he died, the day before yesterday.  His writing style changes too, from formal to Baum’s loose…’

     ‘Gridley,’  Came the voice of the proprietor, ‘You’ve got a customer over here if you can spare the time.’

     ‘What am I, a grilled cheese sandwich?’  I thought resentfully looking over to the cash register where I saw a man holding a copy of James Jones’ From Here To Eternity.  ‘Oh, that’s different,’  I rationalized.  That was worth two-fifty in this man’s Democracy so I could see why he was going for the big money first.

     Jason grabbed a copy of The Jewels Of Opar, thrust it in my hands and said:  ‘Here, kid, start with this one.’

     I was leery of the Russian Quartet for obvious political reasons while Jason had said that Jewels Of Opar was like Oz so taking his expert advice it was my first Tarzan.

     This guy having purchased his James Jones walked over me like I wasn’t there, didn’t even look down, he was only about five-six too.  I put my Tarzan and dollar on the counter, received my bagged book in return.

     ‘Come again, kid.’  Jason said flippantly as I opened he door.

     ‘I guess you’ll be off to Hollywood starring in movies before then.’  I waved.  ‘I’ll be back.’  Then it was down Genesee and back to home, the proud possessor of my first Tarzan book that I still have.

     Last I time I checked they were selling the same book for forty-five dollars without a dust jacket.  Mine still has an excellent jacket.

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