Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) is a celebrated American novelist best known for the creation of the fictional character and immortal icon Tarzan as well as for the creation of the now famous hero John Carter. By and large, although Burroughs’s fictional production is often classified among ‘pulp literature’ by many a canonical critic, his numerous novels revolutionized the science-fiction novel and the adventure novel. Burroughs’s extraordinary characters rapidly found their way to other media than literature including cartoons, radio and cinema and thus made his fortune and fame.
Edgar Rice Burroughs was born in Chicago in 1875 to be educated in different schools. Tradition has it that as a teenager he had to move from one school to another for different reasons, mainly the influenza epidemic of 1891. At a certain point of his early life, his father who was himself a civil war veteran, decided to give his son a military education and sent him to the Michigan Military Academy. Burroughs nearly had a life-time career in the army was it not for his health problems that disqualified him from the service. He then engaged in different jobs in which he was not very successful. These included running a stationery store in Pocatello, Idaho, as well as working in his father’s firm. He later worked in his father’s American Battery Company before he got married to his childhood’s love Emma Centennia Hulbert in 1900.
Burroughs was almost obsessed with running his own business. This made him feel uneasy with the many positions that he fulfilled in private companies. After moments of financial crises, he eventually established a private business selling pencil sharpeners to retailers. The tradition goes that when Burroughs was waiting for his salesmen he used to browse through magazines to check the placement of the advertisements of his own business. Many of such magazines were pulp fiction magazines that published serialized stories belonging to the romance, crime and science-fiction genres. It was thus that the idea came to him to start writing similar stories and sell them to such magazines. Once famous, Burroughs never stopped evoking this story, relating that he believed himself able to write much better stories than the ones he chanced to read. By 1911, he started writing stories to be serialized in magazines with the aim of just making money. However, his stories happened to please the famous magazine publisher Frank Munsey and the editor Thomas Metcalf who paid him generously.
Under the pseudonym Norman Bean, Burroughs published his first story Under the Moons of Mars whose title was chosen by the editor. The story became popular and encouraged the author to follow it up with sequels to be later referred to as the ‘Barsoom’ series. Before the publication of the last installment of Under the Moons of Mars, Burroughs’s second novel was completed and entitled The Outlaw of Torn. Though the latter was to be posthumously hailed as one of his finest achievements, Burroughs’s editor refused to serialize it. The novel was then sent to be published in five installments in the New Story Magazine in 1914. It was, however, Burroughs’s third work that brought him to immediate and unprecedented success with the creation of the immortal character of Tarzan, a good-natured savage born in the African jungle to dead English parents. He is brought up by a monkey tribe to become a man of great physical and intellectual abilities. Tarzan’s perfection was often a subject of disagreement between his creator and cinema directors who rather tend to highlight the animalistic side of the character. Burroughs often explained that Tarzan should not be portrayed as the savage from a colonialist perspective. For him, Tarzan should rather stand for all the qualities and the goodness of natural life. Indeed, after a journey into the ‘civilized’ world, Tarzan eventually decides to regain to the jungle, realizing that the latter is actually more natural, more true to itself and thus more ‘civilized’.
Tarzan stories started in 1912 with the serialization of Tarzan of the Apes. Once published as a book, the latter became a constant bestseller and was followed by more than twenty books centered on the eponymous hero. Tarzan finally offered Burroughs a constant income to provide for his wife and three children. Burroughs was now a full-time writer and was even reported to have kept a ledger in which he counted the words that he had to write on a daily basis. The numerous professional failures that he went through early in his life seemed to transform into a goldmine of inspiration for his profuse fictional production. Burroughs’s books were later illustrated by his own son John Coleman Burroughs starting from The Oakdale Affair and the Rider. In addition to the adventures of his celebrated jungle man, Burroughs was also successful with science fiction and fantasy stories, mainly creating the popularized character of the space explorer John Carter. Most of these stories were serialized in magazines such as All-Story and The Argosy.
It is noteworthy to say that the plots of most of Burroughs’s novels are structured in serial form since they were originally written for magazines. Throughout most of his career, Burroughs often sold the serial rights of his stories to magazines while leaving the rights of book publication for himself. As his novels multiplied and were passionately received by readers, mainly after being translated to numerous languages and after being adapted to cinema and television, the royalties enabled Burroughs to live a much more comfortable life. In the mid 1910s, he bought a ranch in California and named it Tarzana. The neighborhood was later to officially adopt the name coined by the author after a popular vote by the local community. Burroughs was still obsessed with the idea of running his own business and becoming a successful businessman, rather than just a published writer. This obsession cost him a lot of the money he made through literature. In 1923, he founded his own publishing house that he named Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. At the time of Burroughs, it was not very popular and was rather seen as an imprudent adventure for a writer to publish his own books. Some believe that Burroughs was one of the pioneering writers who established this tradition that would become popular later in twentieth-century America.
The first novel to be published by the company was Tarzan the Invincible which was followed by numerous other novels that were crowned by the publication of I Am a Barbarian in 1967. Other successful novels written by Burroughs after his coming to fame belonged to different genres that ranged from Gothic romance and historic novels to Western novels. They included The Land that Time Forgot (1924), The Bandit of Hell's Bend (1925), The Cave Girl (1925), The War Chief (1927) and Apache Devil (1933). Burroughs continued writing until the last years of his life and ended up publishing about eighty novels.
In 1933, Edgar Rice Burroughs was elected mayor of California Beach. One year later, he divorced Emma. He then married the actress Florence Gilbert Dearholt and later moved with her to live in Hawaii. However, his second marriage only lasted seven years before he divorced anew. On December 7th, 1941, when he was playing Tennis with one of his sons in his Hawaii residence, 353 Japanese fighters executed a sneak military strike against the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The attack led to the participation of the United States in the Second World War. At the age of 66, Burroughs asked for permission to serve as a war correspondent to become one of the oldest men to play such a role during the Second World War. His son served in his turn as a war photographer. Old Burroughs accompanied the forces on many bombing raids, and in 1944, Burroughs published another Tarzan story with a different spirit under the title Tarzan and the Foreign Legion.
When the war was over following the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Edgar Rice Burroughs retired to Encino, California. He died there after going through a heart attack on March 19th, 1950. Burroughs’s life story and his rise from poverty to fortune, fame and immortality make of him a true legend and a typical American success story.