Edgar Rice Burroughs did not start writing until he was 36, but he eventually became one of the most successful authors of the 20th century. His Tarzan books sold 25 million copies worldwide, and the series spun off into comic strips, comic books, film, and radio and a television series. In addition, he wrote eleven popular stories about John Carter and Mars; seven stories that take place in a world located at Earth’s Core (Pellucidar); and five books set on Venus. He also produced another 18 miscellaneous novels.
Burroughs proved to be a master storyteller whose imagination could take readers with him far away from their everyday lives. He concluded each story with a cliffhanger ending—readers couldn’t wait to get their hands on the next installment.
Ray Bradbury on Burroughs
But perhaps science fiction master Ray Bradbury says it best in his introduction to Irwin Porges’s 700-page biography of Burroughs. Bradbury recalls the exuberance of youth and the excitement he felt because of Edgar Rice Burroughs:
“…Mr. Burroughs convinced me that I could talk with the animals, even if they didn’t answer back, and that late nights when I was asleep my soul slipped from my body, slung itself out the window, and frolicked across town never touching the lawns, always hanging from trees where even later in those nights, I taught myself alphabets and soon learned French and English and danced with the apes when the moon rose.”
Burroughs became wildly popular during his day, and his devotees continue on in the form Facebook pages, websites, and fan clubs.
Edgar Rice Burroughs is also remembered because he inspired a generation (or two) of readers to pursue careers in science. The great astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, and astrobiologist Carl Sagan (1934-1996) attributes his initial interest in science to none other than Edgar R. Burroughs. “Science fiction led me to science,” he wrote.
Who Was Edgar Rice Burroughs?
Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) was the fourth son born to Chicago-based businessman and former Union Army officer George Tyler Burroughs and his wife Mary Zieger. The Burroughs boys all attended school in Chicago.
In 1891 when Burroughs was 15, a terrible influenza epidemic crept into Chicago, killing many. Edgar was much younger than his siblings because two of his older siblings died in infancy. He was the only one living at home at the time, and his parents were desperate to keep him safe.
Their first decision was to move him out of the public school he attended. However, the only private school with openings was a girls’ academy. Burroughs and a couple of other classmates enrolled there briefly, but ultimately, Mary Burroughs wanted her son out of the city. Edgar was a sickly boy, and she wanted to minimize the risk to his health.
Edgar Burroughs to Idaho
The logical place to send Edgar was to live with his brothers in Idaho. Two of his brothers and a friend from Yale graduated college and moved West, purchasing property in Cassia County (south-central part of the state). The West offered clean air and a healthy lifestyle, and it keep Edgar many miles from the flu epidemic.
As for Edgar, it was a high school boy’s dream come true. He loved riding every day, helping with bronco-busting, and running errands for brothers George and Harry. He also soaked up stories from the westerners he met.
Return to School
When the flu epidemic passed, his parents wrote telling him it was time to return. His father enrolled Edgar in Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. He was due there soon. Burroughs was never a dedicated student, and he did not take well to the change in lifestyle. Despite his father’s prominence, the school soon asked young Burroughs to leave.
The next plan for Edgar was military school. Michigan Military Academy in Orchard Lake was well-regarded and not too far away. However, Burroughs got off to a poor start there. After only a few weeks, he boarded a train back to Chicago without permission creating a great deal of chaos.
He soon had to return. This time the commandant, Captain Charles King, focused on Burroughs. He placed him in the cavalry where he knew he would do well, and King devoted personal time to the young man. Edgar grew to respect him. (King went on to write popular military novels, which may have influenced Burroughs’s later life.) At any rate, Burroughs stayed in school and graduated in 1895.
With his father’s eyes set on him attending West Point, Edgar Rice Burroughs took—but failed—the entrance exam. At that point, he and his father agreed that a logical option for him was to enlist in the regular army. His riding ability was noted, and he was assigned to the cavalry in Fort Grant, Arizona, northeast of Tucson.
Fort Grant was desolate, and the road-building they were assigned to do did not interest Edgar. After only a few months, he came down with a severe case of dysentery. While in the infirmary, doctors discovered a heart defect. His father was consulted. Between the heart defect and family clout, Burroughs received an honorable discharge.
Burroughs moved north back to Idaho to live with his brothers. He opened a stationery store in town, but it did not do well. In 1899, he went back to Chicago to re-evaluate his possibilities. (Others in the West at that time included Jacob Davis, The True Inventor of Blue Jeans. )
Succession of Jobs
Once back in Chicago, he took a job working for his father’s company, The American Battery Company. The stability of a regular paycheck encouraged him to propose to his childhood sweetheart, Emma Hulbert in 1900.
They started wedded life in Chicago with Burroughs working at the Battery Company, but as always, he got restless. His brothers sold their ranch and invested in dredging for gold. They encouraged Edgar to return to Idaho to join them.
Gold dredging was not rewarding for any of them, so Edgar began a series of jobs in several locations with Emma trailing along. Most biographers describe his efforts as a succession of job failures, but “failure” is the wrong term. Burroughs was impatient, and he couldn’t find value in earning money for work that bored him. He ran a store, became a railroad policeman, sold electric light bulbs, and tried offering accounting services but nothing appealed to him.
Success at Sears
Then at Sears he met with success. He began as a clerk answering customer letters and was eventually promoted to oversee the stenography department. Sears management would have happily kept him, but Burroughs decided he needed to move on.
In the meantime, he and Emma started a family. The first baby was born in 1908. Burroughs knew he couldn’t support them if he had to pay rent, so they moved back into Emma’s family home. This eased the financial pressure, but he still had no clear path as to what to do.
Selling Pencil Sharpeners was Key
In 1905 or 1906, he bought licensing rights to a pencil sharpening business. He planned to oversee men he trained to go out to sell sharpeners. He took office space in downtown Chicago, and trained a small sales force. While the men followed sales leads out of the office, Burroughs stayed at his desk writing ads and verifying the ones he placed in newspapers and pulp magazines while the men followed their sales leads.
When he ran out of things to do, he read the news and stories in the pulp magazines. (Pulp magazine is the term for publications that published fictional stories on cheap paper, like newsprint). Cheaper than the glossy magazines, the pulps were extremely popular from the 1920s-‘50s.) For trolley commuters and people with time on their hands, they entertained. The stories ranged from quite good to poor, but like television today, the tales offered readers an escape from the world around them.
As Burroughs read, he was struck by a sentiment that has inspired many writers: “I can do better than that!”
Burroughs’ First Story
When the salesmen left the office in the mornings, Burroughs worked on his first story. The idea he wanted to develop came from reading the news. Astronomer Percival Lowell, who later founded the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, was on a lecture tour talking about the planet Mars. Lowell believed there might be water on Mars and that life could exist there. From this information, Burroughs chose to write a Martian romance.
Burroughs titled the planet Barsoom, and the main characters were a beautiful Martian princess and a daring hero, a Virginian soldier from Planet Earth. Burroughs created more heroes, gods, and villains as well as eight-legged beasts of burden and all type of incredible plants. Many of the characters spoke a new language Burroughs developed. Woven throughout this wildly imaginative world was lots of action.
Sending Out “Under the Moon of Mars”
When the story was complete, he sent it out and received a positive response from Thomas Metcalf, editor of All-Story, a pulp fiction magazine. Burroughs was paid $400, and “Under the Moon of Mars” was published in six installments. Burroughs earned $400 for the story. He was elated. (When the story was published as a novel, it was titled A Princess from Mars.)
Thomas Metcalf was eager for more material from this exciting new writer, and he suggested Burroughs try an Arthurian legend. Burroughs took him up on the idea. Writing the story involved an overwhelming amount of research, so Burroughs was annoyed when Metcalf didn’t like it. Burroughs was stubborn and after badgering Metcalf for a time, he vowed he would sell the story no matter what. Three long years later, he sold Outlaw of Torn to a magazine called New Story.
Burroughs Introduces Tarzan
In the meantime, Burroughs had another character he wanted to develop: Tarzan the ape-man.
Despite his irritation with Metcalf, Burroughs gave him the first chance at “Tarzan of the Apes.” Metcalf knew not to toy with this opportunity. The story concerned a royal couple, John and Alice Clayton, Viscount and Lady Greystoke of England. They were returning to England via ship in 1888 when they are marooned off the coast of equatorial Africa. Alice is pregnant and gives birth to a boy, but she dies shortly after. Lord Clayton is killed by a tribe of apes, but the baby is saved by a female ape named Kala who takes the human baby with her to raise as one of her own.
Instead of breaking it into serial form, Metcalf published Tarzan of the Apes in full, filling the October 1912 issue of The All-Story magazine with Burroughs’ full tale.
With that sale of $700, Burroughs knew he could write full-time.
Through all his work experience, Burroughs gained a certain business sophistication. He knew that maintaining control over his work would be important. He sold first serial rights to the pulp magazines but always retained reprint and book rights for himself. This was an unusual arrangement as writers were generally just relieved to make a sale. Burroughs knew he was the only one who could wring the most money out of each property.
Burroughs was meticulous, creatively and from a business standpoint. For each story, he drew reference maps, created glossaries of the words he made up, and kept complete lists of all characters and their characteristics.
He was equally careful about bookkeeping. In that day, authors were paid by the word. Burroughs kept careful track of word count on each story and questioned editors if he was underpaid based on his own word count. If an editor asked for changes, Burroughs always added to the story—and then charged the editor more money.
Though Tarzan and the Barsoom stories occupied most of his time, Burroughs enjoyed writing just about anything. He wrote westerns, detective stories, social commentaries, and memoirs. Much later he remarked: “I still write as I did 30 years ago; stories which I feel would entertain me and give me mental relaxation.”
The trilogy that is considered his most artistically successful is his fantasy prehistory story that started with The Land That Time Forgot. It was first published in The Blue Book Magazine in 1918.
Edgar and Emma Burroughs had three children, Joan (1908-1972) Hulbert (1909-1991) and John (1913-1979). Edgar was a devoted father. He worked from home much of the time, and he never discouraged the children from coming into his office for a quick visit.
Burroughs also loved family vacations. He and Emma enjoyed local trips as a couple. When the kids came along, Burroughs just packed everyone into the car each summer. Auto touring was new in that era, and they tended to stop at auto camps as they drove. There they would find like-minded travelers and could compare notes on directions and road conditions.
Burroughs also found ways to make money from their travel. He sold travel articles and found there was also a market for premium sales to auto-related companies. His Auto Biography, which he sold to Republic Trucking Company is a good example.
Popularity of Burroughs
The reading public loved Edgar Rice Burroughs. A.C. McClurg & Company, publisher of Tarzan and the Apes, continued to publish the Tarzan series. Twenty-nine more books came out from 1914-1929. But Burroughs continued to sell to the pulps…he knew this fed his popularity. Burroughs also had no fear of saturating the market. He sold a Tarzan daily comic strip in 1920 with Hal Foster as illustrator. Later he added a full-page Sunday comic drawn by Rex Maxon. (Burroughs’ youngest son, John Coleman Burroughs eventually became one of his illustrators.)
From 1932-34, Tarzan was on radio. His own daughter, Joan, played Jane opposite James H. Pierce, who became her husband.
As early as 1916, Tarzan of the Apes was made into a silent film. An actor named Elmo Leonard was cast as the first Tarzan. But Burroughs was frustrated by the pace of film-making, didn’t like the loss of control over his stories, and felt they could have done better than actor Elmo Leonard. But the money was good. Tarzan of the Apes was one of the first six films to gross more than $1 million.
Several other men played the role of Tarzan before 1932 when the director found Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller. He was cast to play opposite actress Maureen O’Sullivan. From 1932-1948, Weissmuller appeared in twelve more Tarzan films, but there were so many films being made that if Weissmuller was busy, other Olympians were given a chance. Among them were Buster Crabbe, Herman Brix, and Glenn Morris.
After Weissmuller’s retirement, several others played the role of Tarzan, but Weissmuller is the name remembered for the part.
In 1917, Burroughs packed up the family and rented a house in California for a time. Several months later, they returned to Chicago, but Burroughs came back in 1919 to buy property. He invested in a 540-acre ranch in the San Fernando Valley of California. He named the ranch Tarzana. Over time, the town that grew up around it, called itself by the same name. (Today Tarzana is among the many communities that make up the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County.)
In 1923, Burroughs took another unusual step for a writer. He set up his own corporation to manage all aspects of his work. He published and sold his own books and made all his own decisions. In addition to comics, novels, serialized stories, film, radio, and eventually television, his novels alone were translated into 34 different languages. He also packaged radio differently; he pre-recorded the shows so that they could be shipped to foreign markets.
John Carter and Barsoom Not Forgotten
Tarzan and his multiple series and spin-offs are by far the best-known and most financially successful property created by Edgar Rice Burroughs. However, John Carter of Mars must not be forgotten. These stories captured imaginations and led both children and adults to dream of space travel and many other scientific advancements.
Burroughs did not have a scientific background to theorize about how certain inventions might come about, but he put forward the concepts of radar, sonar, television before it existed, the radio compass, auto pilot, homing devices on bombs, torpedoes, and anti-gravity propulsion. He also envisioned a world that had genetic cloning of living organs for transplant. All these things were seen as fantastic at the time, yet by today most have come to pass.
Scientist Carl Sagan noted that even as teenager, he realized that some of Burroughs creations were not actually possible scientifically, but as Sagan wrote: “…he made me think.”
Fans and More Fans
Fan clubs sprouted everywhere and actually still thrive. There are numerous Tarzan clubs, websites, and Facebook pages devoted to Burroughs, Tarzan and John Carter of Mars.
The Martian stories featured a game called Jetan, and in the book, 21 Chessmen of Mars, Burroughs—an avid chess player himself—described it carefully. In the early 1920s, Burroughs received a letter from two prisoners at Leavenworth. They used the descriptions in the book to craft game pieces and to play games of Jetan, or Martian Chess. Burroughs—who always answered his own fan mail—wrote back congratulating them for having created the first-ever actual set of Jetan.
Trouble in Tarzana
Edgar and Emma struggled after the move to California. Their new life and connections in the film business meant that their house was frequently the site of cast and industry parties. Emma found that alcohol made life easier. For a time, Edgar put a stop to the at-home parties, but it didn’t help. In 1934, he felt divorce was the only answer.
Within a year or so he wed a former actress and adopted her children, but after 8 years, that marriage, too, ended.
But Burroughs had provided himself with a social life. In addition to the numerous business contacts, he joined a social group that called themselves The Uplifters. Including among their members was another great writer and dreamer—L. Frank Baum, who doubtless moved to California because of the film sales of The Wizard of Oz.
Burroughs as War Correspondent
In 1944, Burroughs and his son Hulbert were vacationing in Hawaii when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. Hotel guests were warned the day before that the Americans would be doing a lot of test-firing on Sunday. When the commotion began, hotel guests thought it was just American testing. Soon they received word that the Japanese had attacked. To read a description from Burroughs of that time, click here. Edgar, Hulbert, and other guests immediately volunteered to do what was needed.
After the flurry of the first few days, Burroughs knew he wanted to be involved in the war. At age 67 he was too old to fight, but he was not too old to write. He signed up to be a war correspondent, and the United Press news service said yes.
Ironically for a man who created worlds in equatorial Africa, on Mars, on Venus, and at the Earth’s core (Pellucidar), Burroughs never traveled beyond the continental United States (with the exception of Hawaii). Burroughs was thrilled when his assignments sent him to Australia and some of the Pacific atolls for stories. He also went on several bombing missions.
Return to Tarzana
After the war, Burroughs returned to Tarzana. The ranch house was gone and much of the property was subdivided by then. There were no houses that were right for him, so he bought a house in Encino, the neighboring town. He spent the last few years re-reading all that he had written. He died in 1950.
Gift from Edgar Rice Burroughs
In an essay in The New York Times in 1978, Carl Sagan writes that science fiction opens our world by hinting at knowledge unknown or inaccessible to the reader. “These are the works you ponder over as the water is running out of the bathtub or as you walk through the woods in in an early winter snowfall.”
“Accommodation to change, the thoughtful pursuit of alternative futures, is the key to the survival of civilization and perhaps of humanity,” writes Sagan.
In writing science fiction, Burroughs and those that surrounded and later followed him, help prepare us for the evolution of civilization.