The professor comparison

Readers of the Tarzan stories have a variety of reactions to the characters. Though many diehard fans will deny the claim, critics from several perspectives find instances of caricature and prejudice, often especially in terms of race. For me, one painful caricature has to do with Jane’s father, Professor Archimedes Q. Porter. Let me lay my cards on the table: I am an academic, having taught at the college level for most of two decades. ERB’s portrayal of Professor Porter goes far beyond the fairly common academic focus on minutiae and lack of common sense; ERB’s professor borders on dementia. The character is rounded out only slightly by concern for his daughter when he realizes she has been abducted and probably will not return. His assistant, Samuel T. Philander, is only slightly better.

Professor Porter is much changed in Robin Maxwell’s Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan, though Mr. Philander does not appear. Professor Porter is an American teaching at Cambridge, he is much taken with fast driving, and he has some sort of problem with his heart. (The heart problem provides a major plot development which is never resolved.) Unlike in ERB, his wife is still alive and very much involved in the development of the story; she appears to be part of the British aristocracy, though to the best of my recollection she does not have a title. Mrs. Eddlington-Porter and her daughter both refer to the Professor as ‘Archie.’ He is thoroughly committed to finding Darwin’s Missing Link (nevermind that Darwin never posited such a link) and is convinced that fossil evidence will be found in West Africa. Oddly, he largely disappears from Maxwell’s novel something over halfway through, although her Jane occasionally claims to be concerned that her father has supposedly died. In ERB’s Tarzan of the Apes and in the two novels below, he remains present and active throughout the narrative.

In The Diary of Miss Jane Porter (available at erblist.com/fanfiction), Professor Porter is little changed from ERB’s portrait, except for the dementia. ERB does not specify the Professor’s age, but I put it at seventy, fifty years older than his daughter. The good professor remains rather more deeply absorbed in his academic pursuits than in the world around him. Rather than being on a treasure hunt, he has come to Africa to study the native religions, a purpose more in keeping with the life of an academic. On a side note, I have long wondered why ERB or anyone else would imagine that the academic life would put any put anyone in the upper economic classes. Notable exceptions do, of course, present themselves, but most of the academics I have known are middle class, and their children tend to be bookish nerds rather than wealthy ingenues. My attempt was to make both Professor Porter and his assistant Mr. Philander into believable academics, who are funny at times but are quite willing and able to contribute their talents to the good of the group.

Diana’s Diary (for sale  at www.amazon.com) presents a much changed portrait of the father of the central character. The names are changed, as ERB informs us that he did, so here we meet Professor Marcus Aurelius Howard on a safari with (among others) his daughter Diana and his colleague Professor Edmund Pitt. In this work, I have placed Professor Howard’s age at near fifty. Thus, though he is not by any means athletic, he is in what could be reasonably understood as his prime years. He is a scholar of languages and linguistics and is actually in Africa for the second time, having been recruited for this safari because of having been on another safari to the same area some twenty years before. The previous expedition had been led by the late Professor Jayne Diana Custer, Diana’s mother, who died soon after she and Professor Howard returned to America, leaving him to raise Diana. Though he can become pedantic, he is quite talented in understanding languages and often provides the communicative link between others in the story. Professor Pitt, who has been promoted from being Professor Porter’s assistant in ERB’s version and my earlier one, is more of the pompously arrogant academic, but when the need arises late in the story, he transcends himself to do more than anyone would have expected of him.

It’s unlikely that many readers of ERB are bothered by his portrayal of Professor Porter, but these novels offer three more modern treatments of the character. Each of them is interesting for the fresh ways that readers will be led to consider the characters and the story. In Diana’s Diary, you will meet an academic who is quite talented and knowledgeable in his field of study, quite dedicated to his daughter’s well-being, and quite ready and willing to exercise his subtle humor.

7 thoughts on “The professor comparison

  1. You’re right, Professor, that this comparison does not consider your analysis of the character. My primary defense is that I have not yet acquired or read “Archimedes Q. Porter Tells All.” My purpose with these comparisons is to situate my two novels in relation to ERB’s foundational stories and Maxwell’s recent reinterpretation. When my novel has generated enough sales to cover the cost of the Panthan book, I will purchase it.

  2. I think that perhaps you have a modern pair of glasses on rather than a pair from a century ago. The comment you make about wealth and academics is a modern reality. In ERB’s day, very few people ever got to university. Only those with both smarts and finances were likely to make it that far, and sometimes smarts was not the critical factor. Those who became the instructors, professors and such in those places were most likely not to be the first born, and their pay was not what made them wealthy. Sometimes wealth was used to procure a professorship.
    It takes wealth to create freedom. Freedom to think about things. Freedom to investigate ideas. Freedom to dare to postulate an idea that flies in the wisdom of the day.
    In today’s world, in our Western society, that wealth is the community’s and the community pays people, professors and such, to do this, knowing that advancement requires this expenditure. However, it took a century or so to develop such a system and it is in jeopardy.

    • Doug, you make a good point. Both ERB and Maxwell depict Professor Porter as independently wealthy. I do not. My reading of historical records has not focused on the question of how much wealth professors might have and where it might have come from, but I do not recall many instances of the academic life automatically entailing wealth. Is the image of the poverty-stricken scholar starving in a garret simply a figment of our collective imagination?

  3. Since I’m the one who chose “Archimedes Q. Porter” as my on-line handle, I think I should contribute my own impression of the character. There’s much more to Professor Porter than meets the eye, as evidenced by the following quote in APES (p. 210):

    “Look here, Skinny Philander, … if you are lookin’ for a scrap, peel off your coat and come on down on the ground, and I’ll punch you head just as I did sixty years ago in the alley back of Porky Evans’ barn.”

    There’s evidence of a completely different Archimedes Porter here, and from this and other hints elsewhere in the first two Tarzan books, I extrapolated the biography which I presented in “Archimedes Q. Porter Tells All”, which Prof. Kaye-Skinner completely ignores in his analysis. It was published in the National Capital Panthans’ publication, EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS — THE SECOND CENTURY, which is available through Amazon.com.

  4. This wasn’t planned to be the next comparison, but because my friend who uses the nom de plume of Professor Porter read and responded to my Jane comparison, his comparison got moved up.

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