“If you write one story, it may be bad; if you write a hundred, you have the odds in your favor,” Edgar Rice Burroughs lectured young authors. In his case, though, it took far fewer to hit the mark. Tarzan of the Apes, written when he was thirty- six years old, was only the third story Burroughs submitted for publication. It ran in full in the October 1912 issue of The All-Story, taking up virtually the entire magazine.
The reception exceeded the wildest dreams of author and editors alike and triggered a phenomenon unprecedented in publishing history. Dazzled readers proclaimed Tarzan one of the best adventure tales ever and pleaded for ore. And so Burroughs Obliged: twenty-three more Tarzan novels over the next third years, plus another fifty non-Tartans, including eleven set on Mars. Six at the center of the Earth, and five on Venus.
A formal accounting of Burroughs total sales has never been made, but the most conservative estimate is thirty million books sold during his lifetime; a more generous tally is sixty million. Considering that Burroughs titles have been published in more than thirty languages and given the broad circulation of his stories in magazines and comics, there can be little question that he was the most widely read American author of he first halt of the twentieth century. L had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or any other, ” he begins his chronicle of an orphaned child raised by apes. More truthfully, his tale was guided by a number of distinguishable sources, including the legend of Romulus and Reams, wild children of early Rome; Mowing, the boy raised by wolves in Sibling’s The Jungle Book; and travelogues of colonial Africa from the end of the nineteenth center)L Burroughs had never heard of Rousseau noble savage or Nietzsche њbranches, and though he owned a copy of Darning’sOrder now
The Descent of Man, he never got much beyond sketching a monkey on the title page. Nevertheless, he had acquired a layman’s grasp of one of the burning issues Of the post-Victorian era–and for that matter, every period since. “I was mainly interested in playing with the idea of a contest between heredity and environment,” he wrote in Writer’s Digest twenty years after the first publication of Tarzan of the Apes. For this purpose I selected an infant child off race strongly marked by hereditary characteristics of the finer and nobler sort, and at an age at which he could not have been influenced by association with creatures f his own kind threw him into an environment as diametrically opposite that to which he had been born as I might well conceive. ” Baby Tarzan, as nearly everyone knows, grows up to become lord of the apes, He is a crafty woodsman and a silent stalker. His eyes, ears, and nose miss nothing.
He “fills his belly by the chase” and prefers his meat raw, He backs down to neither man nor beast and does not recognize tear. “l know the word,” he says in Tarzan and the Leopard Men, “but what has it to do with death? ” Every Tarzan tale is full of stupendous action: mortal combat with apes and lions and rethinking aerial traverses of the “middle terraces” of the African forest, In its sheer passion, Tartan’s yell, the victory bellow of the bull ape, is the supreme crib De corer, and his romance with Jane is as primal and star-crossed as those of Romeo and Juliet or Beauty and the Beast.
But what many people forget-”particularly those more familiar with Metro- Golden-Mayor’s and Johnny Weissmuller film version Of the Tarzan story– is that Tarzan, besides being king of the jungle, is also the son and rightful heir Of England’s Lord and Lady Grottoes, and in the final pages of Tarzan Of the Apes. E must come to terms with his gentility. Loincloth, knife, and bow remain his preferred wardrobe, but he adjusts to tailored suits and cafe society with remarkable ease. In later episodes, he flies a plane, quotes Latin, and oversees English and African estates.
Blood-”in his case, blue blood-”always tells, an axiom that Burroughs stresses in nearly all of his stories. In his sublime synthesis of nature and nurture, Tarzan is as timely as he is timeless. By the turn of the nineteenth century, America’s idol of earthy virtue, the frontiersman, had been crowded out by the decadent city slicker and by a ewe class of immigrants, mostly Mediterranean and Eastern European, who, in contrast to the fin De icicle bourgeoisie, were deemed too uncouth, too thick- wrested to enrich the American commonweal.
Enter Tarzan, the embodiment of Teddy Roosevelt “strenuous life, ” a latter-day Leathernecks whose exuberant physicality and solid pedigree provided a welcome antidote to the mongrel’s modern age. And in short order, he became a superhero, the first pop icon to attain global saturation. As such, he was the forefather of Superman and more recent real-life marvels such as Michael Jordan. Before Tarzan, nobody understood just how big, owe ubiquitous, how marketable a star could be. But while there can hardly be a person on the planet who has not heard of Tarzan, very few are familiar with Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Most who recognize the stuffy triple name assume that, like Lord Grottoes, he must be British, when in fact he was a native of Chicago and the founder of-”what else?.. Tarzan, California. Despite his enormous appeal, his work is not taught in schools or welcomed in the American canon; as a result, only diehard Burroughs buffs– most of whom cherish their collections of Burroughs books and memorabilia like planters from the true cross–have any feel for the clever and complex creator of the century’s most popular hero.
One reason for Burroughs undeserved ostracism is the stigma attached to pulp fiction. According to the laws of the cultural jungle, writers like Hemingway or Fitzgerald are literary lions; Burroughs and other paid-by-the-word authors of science fiction, westerns, whodunits, and romantic confessionals are monkeys with typewriters-”hacks. Burroughs pretended not to mind his lowbrow status. “I don’t think my work is ; literature,’ I’m not fooling myself about that,” he told the Los Angels Times.
Writers of his ilk, he volunteered with a shrug, belong “in the same class with the aerial artist, the tap dancer, and the clown. ” Even so, he tried again and again to break out of the pulp ghetto and place his stories in “slicks” The Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Colliers-”where the money and prestige were better. Because Of his low regard for his profession and because he had backed into it at such a late age, Burroughs was always uncomfortable with his accomplishments. If I had striven for long years Of privation and effort to fit myself to become a writer, might be warranted in patting myself on the back,” e confessed to his brother George in 1929, “but God knows I did not work and still do not understand how happened to succeed. ” Nevertheless, his imagination was evident from the start. He drew delightful caricatures and wrote clever verse as a young boy, creativity that was curbed by his short attention span and his unshakeable sense that he did not meet the standards of his father, Mac. George Tyler Burroughs, a well-to-do Civil War veteran.
His academic record was erratic, demotions and dismissals negating any bursts to achievement. He won an appointment to West point only to fail the entrance exert, and he never asset long at jobs, even the ones at which he did well, such as supervising the stenography department at Sears, Roebuck, By the time he started writing in earnest, he did so more out of resignation than avocation. “l was sort of ashamed of it as an occupation for a big, strong, healthy man,” he confessed. To thrive in the pulp market, where a good rate was a penny a word, a natural flair for storytelling avgas essential. Plots are in the air. All you have to do is reach out and take them,” Burroughs said of his knack for spinning yarns With such apparent ease. But without his array of other talents, he might easily have ailed. His energy was titanic, like that Of his fictional heroes. In a morning he could conjure and conquer entire worlds, pecking thousands of words or filling a half-dozen dedication cylinders, even With his children crawling at his feet and creditors buzzing around his ears. More remarkable still was his head for business.
In 1923, he because one of the very first writers to incorporate, and over the years, Edgar Rice Burroughs. Inc. , grew into a complex organism. Most of his stories were first serialized in inexpensive magazines-”known as pulps, for the low-grade paper on which they were printed. After that, they were published in book form. Then the “first edition” books became “popular” editions, or cheap hardcover’s, the forerunners of paperbacks, This progression was not unusual: most of Jack Loon’s yarns of the Far North, Zane Grey westerns, and H.
Rider Haggard African adventures also appeared in magazines before they became best-selling books. But in one very important respect, Burroughs was in a league all his own. In 1931, he grew weary of having to share his income with he called them–and began publishing his own books under the ERE, Inc. , imprint, Still not content with the return on his creative UAPITA, he struck deals to turn Tarzan into a radio show, a daily newspaper strip, a Sunday comic page, and, most lucrative of all, motion pictures.
Though marketing experts and syndication agents warned that Tarzan on the radio would compete with Tarzan in the comics or that serial motion pictures would steal audiences from feature motion pictures, Burroughs was convinced that the total would exceed the sum of the parts. As he saw it, there was no such thing as overkill, and well before Walt Disney ever hawked his first mouse ears or Ninja Turtle “action figures” became film stars, Burroughs was already a grand aster of a concept that would one day be known as multimedia.
He licensed Tarzan Statuettes, Tarzan bread, Tarzan ice cream, bubble gum, bathing suits, and puzzles, and he founded a national nonvoter of Tarzan “clans” to convert American youth to the Tarzan way. Yet for all his ingenuity and diligence, too often his successes were offset by disappointment and liability. With only a couple of exceptions, he never did graduate from the pulps. He failed at two marriages and was obliged to subdivide his beloved Tarzan ranch, paving the way, literally and ironically, for a suburb of drive-ins, drive-thorough, and mini-malls.
Despite his extraordinary popularity, he never made a killing on any one deal. Royalty checks came frequently, but they never amounted to more than a few thousand dollars. Even in years when his income exceeded one hundred thousand dollars–most years it was far less–his appetites and expenses always seemed to leave him cash poor. He had a weakness for Thoroughbreds and fast cars, and after he met his second wife, Florence, he made the mistake of trying to keep pace with the spendthrift elite of Hollywood and Palm Springs.
Nor did it help his pocketbook and peace of mind to be perennially repelling lawsuits, mostly disagreements ever permissions and royalties, or making legal thrusts of his own. And through it all, he had mouths to feed. Florence and her two children were but his latest dependents; his own children, Joan, Hull, and Jack, were on the ERP, Inc. , payroll for much of their adult lives, as were his alcoholic first wife, Emma, his daughters deadbeat husband, Jim Pierce, and his trusted man Friday, Ralph Rotund. Because Of this relentless overhead, he could never afford to Stop writing.
The beast had to be fed constantly. Some years he wrote three or four hundred thousand words, four or five books’ worth. Tarzan, naturally, was his mainstay; he averaged one a year. Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss the other fifty titles as chaff. His painstakingly researched a pair of novels about the Apache warrior Shoo-Dijon are noteworthy for their progressive characterization of Native Americans. The Girl from Hollywood, his autobiographical novel about a California ranch family ruined by booze, dope, and monoplane promiscuity, is an equally fascinating cultural document.
He may not have been the first writer to fantasize about Mars, but in light of recent astrophysical evidence suggesting hat life might once have existed there, and Anna’s pledge to one day land on its surface, Burroughs, who grew up in an era before airplanes or automobiles, deserves a salute for tanning the dream. It is true that some of his stories are duds. They suffer from continuity problems, and the gimmicks are threadbare. But considering how quickly he crafted his plots, most of them are amazingly tight and considered.
He imbues each of his worlds, ape or alien, with what H. G. Wells called “practical incredibleness. ” Burroughs visualized them so completely, in fact, that he worked up maps of their kingdoms, sketches of their costumes, and alphabets ND glossaries of their languages, including a comprehensive “Ape-English/ English-Ape” dictionary. He took particular care in the taxonomy Of monsters and beasts: for instance, the cyclopean Plant Men of Mars have hair follicles “the bigness Off large angle-worm” and the nose Of “a fresh bullet hole that had not yet begun to bleed. (“Of the few stories that I have had rejected,” he told a fan, “gruesomeness was the principal cause. “) In a typical Burroughs tale, the hero is a stranger in a strangulations in the jungle, John Carter on Mars, David Nines in the Inner World, Carson Napier on Venus. He is a warrior by both breeding and training. Repeatedly he is chased, outnumbered by savage hordes, and thrown into a “Stygian” cell of “Zimmerman” darkness. Where there is life there is hope,” exclaims John Carter when the going gets roughest, an optimism shared by all Burroughs protagonists, By application to brawn, brains, and valor, he eventually prevails over his adversaries and either makes his way home or else finds a new and better home, Always, too, the leading man is called on to rescue a damsel in distress with whom he inevitably falls in love. Boy meets girl was hardly a new motif by the mime Burroughs got around to employing it, though, remarkably, he was the first to introduce it to science fiction. The submerge would come to be labeled “scientific romance In most instances, the object of the hero’s affections is well-born, beautiful, and though indubitably chaste, often provocatively in some instances, virtually unclad. Deja Theorist, the Princess Of Mars, parades through eleven novels Seminole. ‘Entertainment is fiction’s purpose,” Burroughs insisted time and time again, and he pleaded innocent to “disseminating any great truths or spreading any sort of propaganda” in his stories.
Glib demurrals aside, however, he frequently held forth, usually allegorically but sororities quite overtly, on a wide range of political and social issues. His vicious attacks on Germany during World War in Tarzan the Untamed and The Land That Time Forgot eventually cost him his lucrative German audience. Infected by the postwar Red Scare, he railed against socialism at home and abroad in The Moon Maid and a number of other stories. All to his plots, especially the Tartans, boil down to survival of the fittest, a theme both romantic and political.
Burroughs, like so many of his interpolates, believed in a hierarchy to race and class. In the Tarzan stories, blacks are generally superstitious and Arabs rapacious. On Mars, the races descend from a Tree of Life and, like fruit, are color-coded red, green, yellow, and black, Burroughs was obsessed with his own genealogy and was extremely proud of his nearly pure Anglo-Saxon lineage. He came from “good” stock, a critical ingredient for good standing. He asserters Over time, his fervid appreciation of genetic predetermination led him to the radical fringe of Darwinism: eugenics.
At one point, he even wrote a column for the Los Angels Examiner calling for the extermination of all “moral imbeciles” and their relatives, a doctrine that would soon be trumpeted by Doll Hitler. In an unpublished essay, “I See a New Race,” Burroughs offered his own Final Solution to the world’s problems. But he was also canny enough to play both sides of the street. Even as he was stressing Tartan’s and John Carter’s superior bloodlines, he honored the Legislature notion of the common man pulling himself up by the bootstraps.
In 191 1, when he submitted his first Story, A Princess Of Mars, to the Menses family of magazines, he chose the pen name Normal Bean to signify that he saw himself s just a regular fellow, a man of the people. On one hand, he assumed a certain aristocratic detachment from his work; on the other, he attributed his success to the fact that he shared “a common weakness with other Americans. ” Not surprisingly, Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper was one of his favorite books, and he borrowed Twain’s trick of role reversal in many of his own stories.
Another mentor was Jack London, whose proletarian heroes survive more through grit than through grace. No matter how well-born (or low) one might be, Burroughs realized, no one was perfect, least of all himself. Are the heart and soul of man any better because of civilization,” he asked, “or is the apparent betterment [of civilization) merely veneer? ” Indeed, there were periods when Burroughs blithe hauteur failed him entirely, when self-effacement edged toward self-loathing. One of the worst occurred in 1940 and 1941, after he and Greece moved to Hawaii.
He had first brought her to AAU on their honeymoon in 1935, after a delicate divorce from his first wife and a bizarre courtship; Florence, a former silent-movie actress, had been married to one Of his business partners and trusted friends. When they returned in April 1940, they were accompanied by Florescence’s two children, Cary’ Lee and Lee. Burroughs was turning sixty-five: his Wife was half his age. Back in Los Angels, they had been living far beyond his means, and he had exhausted hamstringing to keep up with her. Once in Hawaii, though, his strength returned and his spirits improved.
As the celebrated master of Tarzan, he was welcomed by a loose fraternity of navy and army men with an unlimited quantity of booze on their hands. “All my plans for retiring into a hole and pulling the hole in after me have been shot to hell,” he joked after one particularly enthusiastic run of revelry. “You just can’t say no to the people over here. ” Florence, too, was a welcome addition to the mostly male gatherings, though to hear her tell it, her role soon devolved into chauffeuring her tipsy, sunburned husband home from luaus and wee-hour card games.
It anything, she was having trouble keeping up with him. But while Hawaii provided a welcome change of scenery, it offered no escape. Between bridge, cocktails, and sunbathing, Burroughs still had to keep the pages coming By the end of 1940, he had finished Mars, Inner World, and Tarzan manuscripts and avgas commencing a new Venus story. Over a period often days before Christmas, he wrote more than forty thousand words. That month, he, Florence, and the children had moved into the Minimal Hotel in Honolulu, their third address since arriving in Hawaii.
They had their CNN bungalow and most of their neighbors were long-term residents. Still, it was by no means a proper home. The rooms were cramped, buggy, and damp, and the family took their meals communally in the hotel’s dining room. By mid-March, Florence had had enough. On the fourteenth, she and the children sailed for California. Pour months later, she would sue for divorce, citing mental cruelty. Her chief complaint was that Burroughs had made her feel old, or, contrarily, that because she was thirty years younger, he had made a show of acting more youthful. UT had succeeded only in behaving childishly. She, however, was not entirely exempt from blame herself. Money was always an issue with her: the De Burroughs she had first been attracted to was a natty, venerable, and, she assumed, prosperous gentleman. According to Burroughs allies, she was crestfallen when he informed her that they had to hold their expenses, including .NET, to two hundred and fifty dollars a month, which was all the salary he was drawing from ERP, Inc. , in 1941. With money, he was doubtless a father figure, potent and protective.
On a budget, he was just another bald, slightly overweight old man, Alone for the first time in forty years, Burroughs became a virtual shut-in, hiding behind the drawn blackout curtains of his Minimal bungalow and talking to no one for days. An old bladder problem flared up, and he was hospitalized. He suspected he was dying. Somehow he managed to keep plugging away at The Wizard of Venus, though is introductory paragraph reads like a note in a bottle. “I believe it was Roy Chapman Andrews who said that adventures were the result Of incompetence and inefficiency,” the story’s hero, Carson Napier, declaims. If that be so, must be the prize incompetent of two worlds; for I am always encountering the most amazing adventures. It seems to me that I always plan intelligently, sometimes over meticulously; and then up jumps the Devil and everything goes haywire. However, in all fairness, I must admit that it is usually my fault…. I am rash. Take chances. Now that that is stupid. The thing that reflects most discredit upon my intelligence is the fact that oftentimes I know the thing am about to do is stupid, and yet go ahead and do it, gamble with Death; my elite is the stake. Burroughs was writing about the blunder that had first steered Carson Nipper’s spaceship in the direction of Venus, but he was also reflecting on his own decision to move to Hawaii, where his elite was now very much in jeopardy. He might easily have perished in Honolulu if two events had not intervened. One was the arrival of his son Hull}’ on an undisguised mission of mercy. The second was an event that changed millions of lives besides his own, though he was among the few who witnessed it firsthand.
Unlike his fictional alter-egos, Burroughs had never been to war, He had been a cowboy and gold miner in Idaho and served in the United States Cavalry in Arizona. He had sailed through the Panama Canal, but never set foot in Africa, a continent he virtually owned in the popular imagination. He wrote about action, but his published words spoke louder than his own experience. “All the interesting things in my life never happened,” he once confessed to an editor. “l am always late for the thrill. Always get to the fire after it is out. ” until Sunday, December 7, 1941.
That morning, Burroughs and Hull woke early to play tennis but were distracted by the sound of what they believed to be antiaircraft practice. They soon learned the truth: the Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor. That night, Burroughs and Hull patrolled the waterfront as volunteers in a civilian guard, and over the next four years, Burroughs made three trips to Pacific war zones and enjoyed the distinction of being the oldest American correspondent to cover World War II. His dispatches were not widely read, and he was far from a hero.
Still, the tours of duty made up for a lot: his disillusionment as a cavalryman, his rejection by the Rough Riders in 1898, his relegation to the reserves during World War l, and the general sense of qualified achievement that had nagged him for most of his career. He had never explicitly yearned for his life to imitate his art; just the same, it finally did If writing Tarzan of the Apes had been the first big turning point in his life, World War II was the second and, in away, it was the climax, as well. After the war, Burroughs returned to California, where he was at long last reunited with his children and grandchildren.