It Happened
in History!
(Go to It Happened in History Archives)

Edgar Rice Burroughs

It's difficult to imagine that the man who would eventually 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, Burroughs 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.

After 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 failure. 

"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.

Encouraged by 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 Magazine.

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. 

He 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 divergent 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 history.

"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  in nothing."

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.

Discover Edgar Rice Burroughs

Search Now:

Indulge Yourself - Check Out Today's Best-Selling
Fiction - Nonfiction - DVDs

- HOME -

NOTE: All material on this site is copyright protected.  No portion of this material may be copied or reproduced, either electronically,  mechanically, or by any other means, for resale or distribution without the written consent of the author.  Contact the editors for right to reprint.  All copy has been dated and registered with the American Society of Authors and Writers.  Copyright 2006 by the American Society of Authors and Writers.







Hit Counter