Edgar Rice Burroughs was one of the most successful novelists in the English language. Burroughs, often referred to as ERB by his fans, is best known as the creator of Tarzan. He wrote adventure novels, science fiction, fantasy, westerns, and many which defy easy categorization. Friday, September 1, 2023 will be the 148th anniversary of his birth.
His first Barsoom story, Princess of Mars, was printed in 1911, fifteen years before Hugo Gernsback published the first issue of Amazing Stories. His first Tarzan story was serialized in All-Stories Magazine in 1912. Before and during World War I, he was one of the principal authors of Argosy Magazine and All-Stories. His works have been adapted into movies, TV shows, radio shows, andcomic books, and as new forms of media are invented, will doubtless be adapted again. His influence on speculative fiction writers who came after him is so huge as to be incalculable. Heinlein often referred to the Barsoom novels in his books, even naming the heroine of The number of the Beast after Martian Princess Dejah Thoris. The late great Ray Bradbury said, I love to say it because it upsets everyone terribly – Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world.”
Some of Burroughs’ attitudes, although perfectly normal before WWII, are distasteful and offensive to modern readers in a more multicultural society. A very WASP-ish WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant), ERB took it for granted that a white American or an English nobleman was inherently superior to Black Africans, wild desert Arabs, or green Martians. Thus, Tarzan became lord of the jungle, being superior to the Great apes and the local natives, Prince Michael woo’d and wed a sheik’s daughter, and if I remember correctly, succeeded her father as leader of the tribe, and John Carter flourished on Mars. Like cream, all three rose to the top, outdoing those around them by sheer force of their heritage. ERB felt the same way about Anglo-Saxon heritage as Hitler did about Aryan.
ERB did not invent the sword-and-planet subgenre (basically sword-and-sorcery stories set on alien planets) his Barsoom and Amtor series certainly helped make the genre more popular. Barsoom focused on the adventures of John Carter on Mars. Amtor focuses on the adventures of Terran astronaut Carson Napier on Venus. Carson of Venus used to be a continuing serial in DC Comics’ Korak, Son of Tarzan comic book in the Seventies.
Between 1912 and 1946, ERB wrote 26 Tarzan stories. Tarzan, as most of us know, was orphaned as an infant in Africa, adopted by Kala the Great Ape, and grew up to be master of all the jungle creatures. Tarzan also appeared as a guest in some of his other series. Without knowing a word of English, he taught himself how to read out of his father’s books, a remarkable achievement for anyone, but par for the course for the scion of English dukes.
[Find and insert photo of Nichelle Nichols guest starring on Tarzan TV show here.]
ERB wrote two “Ruritanian” adventures, The Lad and the Lion, which was made into a movie in 1917, before Hollywood took Tarzan to their hearts, and The Mad King. In the Mad King, Barney Custer, the American son of a foreign princess, is mistaken for his cousin, Mad King Leopold, and is told noblesse oblige and his mother’s blood bind him to his duty to the fictional kingdom of Lutha. In The Lad and the Lion, ERB takes the opposite point of view. Prince Michael chooses his own happiness over claiming the throne that is rightfully his and prefers living with the “noble savages” of the desert with his wife, the sheik’s beautiful daughter and his pet lions.
The Eternal Lover crosses The Mad King with Tarzan and throws in time travel and reincarnation for good measure. The four novellas of The Custer siblings series consist of The Eternal Lover,1914, The Mad King, 1914, Sweetheart Primeval,1915, and Barney Custer of Beatrice, 1915. The four novellas were serialized in All-Stories from March 1914 to August 1915. When I was younger, I found The Eternal Lover disappointing, one of ERB’s weaker books. Literary criticism is by definition, a matter of opinion. But when an author is as prolific as ERB was, not all of his books will be of equal quality. Even Star Trek had “Spock’s Brain.” Or as the Romans said: Quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus, even Homer nods.
The Rider might be considered a third Ruritanian adventure, or it might be considered a romance novel. Although ERB is considered a writer of he-man’s stories, he almost always included a romantic subplot. Tarzan and Jane, Jefferson and Victory, Barney and Emma, John Carter and Dejah Thoris, Michael and Nakhla, etc.
Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote multiple science fiction series. In addition to the eleven Barsoom books written between 1912 and 1943, and the five Venus (Amtor) books, he wrote seven books set in Pellucidar, probably the most famous Hollow Earth in modern fiction. ERB wrote a Lost World trilogy in 1918, The Land That Time Forgot, The People That Time Forgot, and Out of Time’s Abyss. Between 1923 and 1925 he wrote The Moon Maid trilogy: The Moon Maid, The Moon Men, and The Red Hawk. Independent novels included The Resurrection of Jimber-Jaw, Beyond the Farthest Star, which Marv Wolfman and Dan Green adapted for DC Comics, The Monster Men, and The Lost Continent, originally published as Beyond Thirty.
Like Sir Walter Scott and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote historical adventures, one set in medieval Britain, The Outlaw of Torn, and I am a Barbarian, set in Caligula’s Rome, as well as four westerns: The Bandit of Hell’s Bend, Apache Devil, The War Chief, and The Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County.
In addition to the twenty-six Tarzan books written between 1912 and 1946, ERB also wrote The Lad and the Lion, The Cave Girl, The Eternal Lover, The Man-Eater, and Jungle Girl.
Although most of ERB’s novels were set in exotic locations like African jungles, distant planets, Cambodia, Hollow Earth, etc., some few were set in contemporary America. These include the semi-autobiographical The Efficiency Expert, The Mucker series, about a Chicago thug, Pirate Blood, The Girl from Hollywood.
Influences and Legacy
In addition to Heinlein, many writers have alluded to the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs in their own writings. Mystery and science fiction author Barbara Hambley had a British widow refer to 1920s Hollywood as Barsoom in The Bride of the Rat God. In David R. Palmer’s award-winning novel Emergence, we see allusions to Tarzan, as well as to the real life feral children case of Amala and Khamala in 1920s India, an event which influenced both Kipling and Burroughs. In her vampire espionage novellas, steampunk author Cynthia Ward uses some of ERB’s settings , especially Pellucidar.
Although every author is influenced by everything he reads, ERB was especially influenced by Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, H. Rider Haggard, and Anthony Hope Hawkins. From 1911 to World War II, he was an incredibly prolific author, writing and selling multiple books a year. He was always more popular with readers than with literary critics. I suspect he preferred it that way. Carl Sagan admitted in a New York Times interview that “Science Fiction has led me to science,” and he specifically credited ERB’s Barsoom novels for piquing his interest in astronomy. ERB’s Tarzan inspired the 1967 Jay Ward cartoon, George of the Jungle. ERB certainly inspired Lee Falk, creator of The Phantom. Rudyard Kipling wrote “My Jungle Books begat Zoos of [imitators]. But the genius of all the genii was one who wrote a series called Tarzan of the Apes. I read it, but regret I never saw it on the films, where it rages most successfully. He had ‘jazzed’ the motif of the Jungle Books and, I imagine, had thoroughly enjoyed himself.” He almost certainly was an influence upon Andre
Edgar Rice Burroughs was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 2003. An impact crater on Mars was named after him, in recognition of his influence on real life space exploration. Burroughs’ ranch in southern California was named Tarzana, after his most famous character. Tarzana is now a prosperous suburb of Los Angeles, bordering Topanga State Park.
Edgar Rice Burroughs, proud of his Anglo-American heritage, was related to seven signatories of the Declaration of Independence. He was born in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, September 1, 1875. He married his childhood sweetheart, Emma Hulbert (1876-1944) in 1900. They had three children, sons Hulbert and John, and daughter Joan. ERB and Emma Hulbert Burroughs divorced in 1934. In 1935, he remarried, this time to silent film actress Florence Gilbert (1904 -1991). They divorced in 1941. ERB adopted Florence’s two children from her first marriage.
After attending the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Connecticut. From there he went on to Michigan Military Academy. After graduating from MMA in 1895, he attempted to enter West Point, but failed the rigorous entrance exam. Instead, he enlisted in the U. S. Cavalry, serving in what was then the Arizona Territory. He received a medical discharge from the army in 1897, after being diagnosed with a heart problem. He returned to Michigan Military Academy as an instructor. That would be the end of his military connection until WWII, when he became the oldest war correspondent.
He drifted from job to job after leaving the army; Ike many authors, he tried several careers before finding his true vocation in 1911. He worked as a cowboy on his brother’s ranch. He went back to Chicago and worked at his father’s battery factory. He managed a goldmine. He sold pencil sharpeners wholesale. He worked for a railroad. After seven years of low wages as a pencil-sharpener wholesaler, Burroughs began to write fiction in 1911. Like Robert Louis Stevenson before him and Rosemary Edghill after him, he decided I can write better dreck than this, and proceeded to do so. At the time he was reading pulp fiction magazines.
In His Own Words from the NEW YORK WORLD SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT- “THE WORLD MAGAZINE” October 27, 1929
“I have often been asked how I came to write. The best answer is that I needed the money. When I started I was 35 and had failed in every enterprise I had ever attempted.
I was born in Chicago. After epidemics had closed two schools that I attended, my parents shipped me to a cattle ranch in Idaho where I rode for my brothers who were only recently out of college and had entered the cattle business as the best way of utilizing their Yale degrees. Later, I was dropped from Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts; flunked examinations for West Point; and was discharged from the regular army on account of a weak heart. Next, my brother Henry backed me in setting up a stationery store in Pocatello, Idaho. That didn’t last long either.
When I got married in 1900 I was making $15 a week in my father’s storage battery business. In 1903 my oldest brother, George, gave me a position on a gold dredge he was operating in the Stanley Basin country in Idaho. Our next stop was in Oregon, where my brother Henry was managing a gold dredge on the Snake River. We arrived on a freight wagon, with a collie dog and $40. Forty dollars did not seem like much to get anywhere with, so I decided to enter a poker game at a local saloon and run my capital up to several hundred dollars during the night. When I returned at midnight to the room we had rented, we still had the collie dog. Otherwise, we were not broke.
I worked in Oregon until the company failed, and then my brother got me a job as a railroad policeman in Salt Lake City. We were certainly poverty-stricken there, but pride kept us from asking for help. Neither of us knew much about anything that was practical, but we had to do everything ourselves, including the family wash. Not wishing to see Mrs. Burroughs do work of that sort, I volunteered to do it myself. During those months, I half soled my own shoes and did numerous odd jobs.
Then a brilliant idea overtook us. We had our household furniture with us, and we held an auction which was a howling success. People paid real money for the junk and we went back to Chicago first class. The next few months encompassed a series of horrible jobs. I sold electric light bulbs to janitors, candy to drug stores, and Stoddard’s Lectures from door to door. I had decided I was a total failure, when I saw an advertisement which indicated that somebody wanted an expert accountant. Not knowing anything about its I applied for the job and got it.”
Edgar Rice Burroughs decided, “If people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines, that 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.” With a wife and children to support, he had no choice but to be successful. He told a rousing, rip-roaring good story. Editors bought and published his thrilling adventure tales. Hollywood fell in love with his adventure tales. Variety claimed ERB earned more from his movies than any other writer in the history of Hollywood. Hollywood is a town that depends on writers, but as the current WGA strike complains, has never respected them. At the time of his death, twenty-seven Tarzan movies had been made which brought him more than $1,000,000.
Edgar Rice Burroughs died Sunday, March 19, 1950, in Encino, California, of a heart attack at the age of 74. He is buried in Tarzana, CA.
ERB is not Shakespeare, but he was a grand storyteller. His books remain popular more than a half-century after his death. If you only know the movies and the cartoons, go to the library, or your nearest bookstore, and investigate them for yourself. You’ve got a treat ahead of you.
Ray Bradbury called ERB “one of the most influential writers in the entire history of the world.”
Anyone here going to argue with Ray Bradbury? No, I didn’t think so.
Susan Macdonald is the author of the children’s book “R is for Renaissance Faire”, as well as 26 short stories, mostly fantasy in “Alternative Truths”, “Swords and Sorceress #30”, Swords &Sorceries Vols. 1, 2, & 5, “Cat Tails” “Under Western Stars”, and “Knee-High Drummond and the Durango Kid”. Her articles have appeared on SCIFI.radio’s web site, in The Inquisitr, and in The Millington Star. She enjoys Renaissance Faires (see book above), science fiction conventions, Highland Games, and Native American pow-wows.