Many authors made childhood decisions to become writers. That wasn’t the case with Edgar Rice Burroughs, who was born in Chicago on September 1, 1875. For nearly two decades he worked at numerous occupations and found no success until trying his luck at writing stories.
In 1895 he graduated from the Michigan Military Academy (which he referred to as “a polite reform school”) and then failed the entrance exam to West Point. Undaunted, he enlisted as a private in the U. S. Cavalry and was sent to Fort Grant in Arizona Territory. He summarized his military career by saying “I chased a good many Apaches, but fortunately for me, I never caught up with any of them.”
After two years he was discharged from the Army, either because he was diagnosed with a heart problem, or because he asked his father – a Civil War veteran who’d become a major – to use his connections to get him out of the service.
He went from job to job, even after marrying his childhood sweetheart in 1900. In 1903 he went out to Idaho where two of his brothers were cattle ranchers and partners in a mining company. He was put in charge of managing a new gold mine, but the venture was not profitable. Burroughs got a job with a railroad, but soon quit. He worked as a shopkeeper, then tried to start of couple of businesses, but each one failed.
He became a wholesaler for pencil sharpeners, and hired salesmen to go out and try to sell them. The salesmen did much more trying then selling.
When Burroughs was 35 years old he had two children, with a third one on the way, and had to pawn his watch and his wife’s jewelry to buy food. At this, the lowest point in his life, he had an opportunity to read some pulp magazines – cheap periodicals, printed on wood pulp paper. It was then that he made one of his greatest decisions. After some thought he concluded: “…if people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines … I could write stories just as rotten.”
He came up with a novel-length story that he sent to Frank Munsey, who published pulp magazines. Munsey paid $400 for Under the Moons of Mars and serialized it in several 1912 issues of The All-Story. The Burroughs family could afford to buy groceries!
Burroughs started work on a novel about a young man raised by great apes after the death of his titled English parents – who’d been marooned on a remote portion of the African coast following a ship’s mutiny. Frank Munsey paid $700 for Tarzan of the Apes, and it became the most popular serial ever published in The All-Story. Burroughs started sending the manuscript to book publishers, but it was rejected by the country’s top publishers until finally being accepted by Chicago publisher A. C. McClurg and Company. It became one of the best selling novels of 1914.
Though Edgar Rice Burroughs had done almost no research on Africa, and some of his plot twists defied logic, he had a knack for writing adventure stories, and his work was not “rot”. He wrote about things that interested him, and was fortunate in sharing the same interests as a great many people.
After putting his family through years of poverty Burroughs wanted to wring every last bit of success out of his jungle hero so he wrote a sequel to his Tarzan novel. And then another, and another. In all he wrote about two dozen Tarzan novels, and all sold well. He also wrote other books, and his novels about life on Mars were popular – but not Tarzan popular.
The first few Tarzan books told about the main character’s courtship and marriage to Jane, and their son Jack. But then the family stopped being mentioned, and Tarzan became a man who never aged. Burroughs had written that Tarzan was born back in the 1880s, but stories written in the 1930s and 40s had the man raised by apes encountering motor vehicles and other equipment that was modern when the books were written, even though the hero continued to be portrayed as a young man.
In 1919 Burroughs moved his family to California and bought 550 acres near Los Angeles. He named his property Tarzana Ranch. Soon after, people began moving into suburbs surrounding the writer’s family home, and Edgar Rice Burroughs began selling off land for building lots. In 1930 a new post office was established, and a name was needed for the community. It became Tarzana, a city that now has a population of about 35,000.
The first of several dozen Tarzan movies produced during Burroughs’ lifetime was released in 1918. In 1923 the writer set up a company entitled Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. The company still exists, and keeps track of licensing rights to everything that Burroughs wrote that is still protected under copyright laws, and has not fallen into public domain. The writer trademarked the names of the major characters from his Tarzan and science fiction novels, and so no new story, movie, or any other product can use the name of Tarzan without the permission of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.
In 1927 a community in Texas became populous enough to require a post office. Area residents submitted names for the new post office address, and the name chosen was Tarzan. That must have met the approval of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. (About 80 people currently live in Tarzan, Texas.)
During the 1930s Burroughs hired people to produce a daily Tarzan comic strip, plus a Tarzan radio show. Experts advised him that too many Tarzan ventures would cause people to grow tired of the character, but that never happened. The comic strip was syndicated to over 250 newspapers around the world, and the radio show went through three different versions from 1932 through 1936.
Burroughs was 66 years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and he became one of the oldest war correspondents to travel to battle areas during World War II. After the war he continued to work on writing projects until dying of a heart attack on March 19, 1950, at the age of 74. He is buried in Tarzana, California.
Throughout his lifetime Burroughs appeared to be dismissive of his literary talents, claiming he never learned any of the proper rules of writing, but that may have just been a persona he presented to the world. He often remarked that he enjoyed writing, and I believe he was proud of having found his proper way in the world, after early decades of false starts.
Nowadays Tarzan books are no longer widely read, which is a shame, for I enjoyed reading several of the adventure stories when I was growing up. If you’d like to read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original version of his famous character many of the Tarzan novels can be downloaded, free of charge at: