Edgar Rice Burroughs
It's difficult to imagine that the man who would
create the character of Tarzan of the Jungle was born the son of a
successful Chicago businessman, but that's exactly what happened. As
George Tyler Burroughs watched his son grow through childhood, he enjoyed
regaling him with tales of savagery on the American western frontier.
The elder Burroughs, a Civil War veteran, told his son numerous
stories about the Sioux and the Apache, and young Edgar hung on every word.
How he would eventually make the leap from listening to those tall tales of
America's wild West to the creation of Tarzan of the Apes is a convoluted tale.
Edgar Rice Burroughs was born on September 1, 1875, to a
prosperous family. He was educated at several local schools. A
small boy, he learned to read early in life and relished the act. One
of the books that left the greatest mark on him was the strange tale of a
colony of ape-men in the heart of a small province in rural China. The
ape-men raided nearby villages and carried away the women, whom they kept in
captivity, repulsing the men who came to rescue them. Burroughs
finished the book and put it down; the seeds had begun to grow.
During the Chicago influenza
epidemic of 1891, Burroughs' parents--fearing for their son's health--sent him to
live for half a year on his brother's Raft River, Idaho, ranch. The
experience affected him deeply. When he returned from the West, his
father sent him to Phillips Academy in
Andover and then to the Michigan Military Academy. Graduating in 1895,
took the entrance exam for West Point, fully intending to make the military
his future. When he failed the exam, he enlisted as a soldier
with the Arizona Seventh Cavalry. Two years later, after being diagnosed with a heart
problem, he was discharged.
leaving the military and his dreams behind, Burroughs floundered. He
returned to Idaho where he drifted from one ranch-hand job to another.
In 1899, he returned to Chicago and found work at his father's firm.
The following year, he married
Emma Centennia Hulbert. In 1904, he left his job and found
less regular work, first in Idaho and then back in Chicago. For nearly
a decade, the family moved around, tottering on the brink of poverty while
Burroughs struggled to "find" himself. Whatever he did ended in
"My parents thought some of making a doctor out of me," he
told an interviewer years later, "and then again they considered a law
career. It seems to me that there were two or three other things they
thought of, just as all parents do, with the pleasing result that I became
nothing, much to my liking."
By 1911, after years of toiling away in menial jobs, he took
a position as a pencil sharpener salesman. In his spare
time--and there was plenty of that--he began fantasizing about becoming a
writer. He began reading the most popular pulp fiction
of the day. By the time his wife had bore him two children, he was convinced that he could write
stories just as
good as any that the pulps were publishing.
"...if people were paid for writing rot such as I read in
some of those magazines then I could write stories just as rotten. As
a matter of fact, although I had never written a story, I knew absolutely
that I could write stories just as entertaining and probably a whole lot
more so than any I chanced to read in those magazines."
Putting his best effort forward, Burroughs set about
getting his first story, "Under the Moons of Mars," serialized in
All-Story magazine in 1912. It earned him the then-princely sum
of $400. Suddenly the world seemed a brighter place.
his early success, Burroughs soon took up writing full-time, and by
the time the run of "Under the Moons of Mars" had finished, he had completed
two more novels, A Princess of Mars and Tarzan of the Apes, which was serialized from
October 1912 and went on to become his most successful brand, although he
still thought of himself primarily as a science-fiction writer.
Many of his earliest stories involved Earthly adventurers
transported to faraway planets (notably Barsoom, Burroughs' fictional name
for Mars), lost islands, and into the interior of the hollow earth in his
Pellucidar stories. He also experimented with writing westerns and
historical romances. Many of his lesser known stories were published in Argosy
By the 1920s, it had become obvious even to Burroughs that the pulps--soon to
fall from favor with the American reading public--could no longer satisfy the
nation's appetite for Tarzan. The author was determined to
capitalize on the popularity of the wild half-man, half-ape character he had
created in every way possible.
laid plans to exploit Tarzan through new and different
media, including a syndicated Tarzan comic strip, movies, and merchandise.
His promotional consultants warned against such a plan, fearing that the
media would simply end up competing against one another. But Burroughs
went ahead with the plan, anyway, and quickly proved the experts wrong.
The public, it seemed, could not get enough of Tarzan, and Burroughs could
not write fast enough to satisfy them. Today, the character
remains one of the most successfully franchised fictional characters in
"As the body rolled to the ground Tarzan of the Apes placed
his foot upon the neck of his lifelong enemy, and raising his eyes to the
full moon threw back his fierce young head and voiced the wild and terrible
cry of his people." - from Tarzan of the Apes, 1914
In 1923, Burroughs set up his own
publishing company, Edgar Rice
Burroughs, Inc., and began printing his own books, which he continued to do through the
1930s. Most of his Tarzan books were made into phenomenally successful
movies. In time, nearly 50 Tarzan films had been produced, with nearly
as many actors in the leading role. Among the most popular with
moviegoers was former Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan
in several films opposite Maureen O'Sullivan's "Jane."
In 1934, Burroughs divorced his first wife. He simply
couldn't devote enough time or energy to his marriage to make it work.
"I am interested in nearly everything," he told one interviewer, "and excel
The following year, Burroughs married former actress Florence
Gilbert Dearholt, the ex-wife of his friend, Ashton Dearholt. The
marriage lasted for eight years, after which Dearholt filed for divorce, and
Burroughs moved to Hawaii. When the
attack on Pearl Harbor struck, the author, 66 years old, spent the next four years as a war correspondent
in the South Pacific.
In all, Burroughs penned nearly 70 novels in five series.
His Martian series eventually reached 11 books and combined the Old
West with space/time travel. The Carson of Venus books blended
romance with comedy. The Pellucidar tales took place deep
inside the core of Planet Earth. The Land That Time Forgot was
a trilogy harkening back to prehistoric times. And the wildly popular
Tarzan series totaled more than two dozen titles.
Sprightly to the end, Edgar Rice Burroughs died of a heart
attack in Encino,
California, on March 19, 1950. He was 75. He had been stricken
in bed while reading a comic book. As his legacy, he left behind nearly 70
novels and an entire town--Tarzania, California--named after his most famous
creation. As tribute to Burroughs' contributions to science-fiction
writing, The Planetary Society named a crater on Mars in the author's honor.
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