Lord of Tarzan
The Edgar Rice Burroughs Memorial Collection
By Ron Cooper
Behind 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 worldwide.
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 in 1976.
"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 The 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 sung in 67 operas. His favorites include Puccini’s 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 modeling contests. He made use of that talent to perfect the famous Tarzan yell.
When 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."