by Oliver Poole
(An Interview with the Author of Tarzan)
Writers' Markets and Methods
To get to Edgar Rice Burroughs' home, you head for the sea. You drive out along Hollywood Boulevard to Sunset and along Sunset toward Beverly Hills. Just before you get to Beverly you come to a stretch of new Georgian-fronted shops and office buildings, with here and there a popular night club... a little white village known as "The Strip," not because it's any relation to Sally Rand (the fan dancer) but because it is literally a strip of road bordered by tiny smart shops and the swank new offices of important motion picture agents. I drove past art galleries, interior decorators, modistes, de luxe antiquarians, gay restaurants and gift shops (including Eddie Cantor's). Though it was January by the calendar the weather was as balmy as it is in June... it was one of those blue and gold, let's-be-happy days. Everything glittered in the sunlight, especially the white front of the famous "Trocadero" cafe (where the stars dine and sometimes wine). There I swung about, crossed the boulevard and drove up into the hills through a newly opened section of bare brown land where the brand new Sunset-Plaza Apartments are located. These are the latest thing in the way of apartments... really a series of white houses joined together about a huge terrace.
It isn't at all the sort of place in which you'd expect to find the author of the "Tarzan" books. I don't know exactly what I did expect unless it was a rustic house set in a bit of wild woodland and Mr. Burroughs swinging from the chandelier. Certainly not this spick and span up-to-dateness with nary a woodland in sight... only immaculate concrete tennis courts.
And he's a surprise too... the man who created "Tarzan." He's decidedly a cosmopolitan, a gentleman-author (they're rare as hen's teeth in these days of roughneck writers). He is tall, slim and as carefully dressed as a picture in Esquire. He has a grand sense of humor, a genial manner, and his wife calls him "Ed." He has the most soothing, the most bland, voice I have ever listened to, and it told me interesting things about the writing of books and stories that sell.
"I think," he began, "that it is rather necessary these days, as it always has been, to create a lovable, or at least an interesting character around which to weave your story. That is, if you intend to continue writing and keep your public interested. And a main character with serial possibilities is a good idea. Remember, the public is growing more and more serial-minded. The radio is more or less responsible for this desire for serials. It has trained its listeners (who constitute the greater part of the American world) to grow curious about one certain character, or set of characters. Take, for instance, Charlie McCarthy, Amos and Andy, "One Man's Family." The comic strip began it and the screen (with its early serials and its later Charlie Chan plays) helped.
"I believe too, that the leading character or characters of a story should have a romantic setting or go through romantic adventures... mild or hair-raising ones... if you wish to hold your readers. But be the adventures mild or wild they should be romantic."
"But, Mr. Burroughs," I objected, "I thought the new trend was to pooh-pooh romance and go after the unadorned facts of life. I thought romance was supposed to be dead."
"Don't you ever believe it!" Mr. Burroughs answered hurriedly. "Romance *isn't* dead... never was dead... and never will be dead as long as man exists! We need it, so we will always demand it! What kind of fiction sells year after year, steadily and with no lessening of the public's interest? Romantic fiction... doesn't it?"
"That's why people continue to buy the Tarzan stories, why Tarzan's adventures continue to be popular as picture serials in the daily paper and as screen attractions. What else could it be?"
"Where," I asked curiously, "did you get the idea for Tarzan?" Was he carefully planned or just an accidental thing?"
"Rather accidental. He was just a character that happened to catch the public's fancy; interest in him grew until it astonished me. As a boy I loved the story of Romulus and Remus, who founded Rome, and I loved too, the boy Mowgli in Kipling's 'Jungle Books.' I suppose Tarzan was the result of those early loves. Perhaps the fact that I lived in Chicago and yet hated cities and crowds of people made me write my first Tarzan story... Tarzan was, in a sense, my escape from unpleasant reality.
"Mrs. Burroughs calls me a low-brow. I guess I am, but then so are the most of us, aren't we? Perhaps that is another reason why Tarzan appeals to the mass of people rather than to a select few."
"It's more than that," I retorted. "And I object to the term low-brow applied to you. You are one of the few significant names in American letters today, and despite depressions and rumors of war you continue to well. Maybe you're right... maybe romance is the best entertainment."
"Well, my sales dropped off considerably during the depression, as the sales of most books did, because few people had the price of a book but almost everyone had a radio and the radio offers excellent entertainment. Who knows but what future generations may cease reading books altogether and take for their mental amusement the screen, radio and television? It's a changing world.
I took this without blinking.
"That last remark of yours brings us to the subject of Writers' Markets and Methods." I said. "We hope to arouse a wide interest in writers and writing... we want to keep the author before the public eye. We want to build him up as a personality and thus awaken an interest in the things he writes. We want to make America author-conscious. We want books to continue... not to dwindle away. The writers seem to us to be the Forgotten People of today... forgotten as personalities."
Mr. Burroughs considered this carefully.
"You probably won't succeed," he said, "for the writer has become too nebulous a personality today... screen and radio stars have taken his place. This is because the stars' faces are kept constantly before the public. My face and the faces of other authors are not kept before the public... probably for the very good reason that we, as a rule, are not beautiful to look at. Today it is exteriors and externals that count, not ideas t hat come out of ones head.
"Just the same," I objected, "we intend to plug for the writer, for books, for bigger and better stories and to discover and praise style and fiction characters if they are worth praising. Literature is one of the arts... along with music, sculpture, architecture and painting. The arts are said to be the soul of a nation, aren't they? Without them we can have nothing but economic plans and political views. And in order that these arts exist we must create an appreciative circle for them, some group to support them and maintain a high standard... and we are going to do our best toward creating this appreciative circle for the writers."
Mr. Burroughs eyes danced.
On the wall of the charming sitting room where we were chatting was an astonishingly good painting... a gorgeous bit of color.
"My son is the artist," Mr. Burroughs told me proudly. He nodded toward a child's head and a painting of old Mexico on another wall. "He has an exhibition now at Robinson's. He illustrated my last book. I'm very proud of him."
I studied the paintings carefully... they held a certain sultry quality in their coloring that cried "Jungle!" It was much more believable to me that Edgar Rice Burroughs's son should paint as he does than that Mr. Burroughs should be a thorough-going cosmopolitan, that he should live far from any wood in an ultra-modern apartment, and that there should be no literary props around... just his son's paintings and Mrs. Burroughs' grand piano standing in the sunlight of a great bay-window and bowls of garden flowers everywhere. Somehow I expected that the man who writes of jungle apes, of stone-age men, of life on Mars and Venus would be unconventional! The contrast between the picture in my mind and reality was dramatic, as contrasts always are. Probably that's why I got such a "kick" out of the interview... a "kick" which I have tried to pass on to you.
If we think carefully we see that once we have thought the truth, we have already told it -- to ourselves, that is, by virtue of the unity of thought and speech. But as for telling it aloud, that is a serious matter. Truth is not a bundle that can be passed along from hand to hand: it is thought itself in the actuality of thinking. How communicate that actuality ot others?
In fact, we never really communicate the truth. At best, when we address other people, we send out a series of stimuli which we hope will move them into a state of mind identical with ours, so that they will think the truth that we are thinking. We do not tell the truth even, let us say, in a prepared lecture before an audience. We do not tell the truth because the most we can do is to send out sounds, which will in their turn provoke consequences quite beyond and apart from anything that is going on in ourselves.-- From the Italian by Benedetto Croce.
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