Edgar Rice Burroughs who regularly
lunched on three cents worth
of ginger snaps had varied career before
he starting writing.
Los Angeles Times ~ November 3, 1929
EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS
Readers of this newspaper who have been following
the "TArzan" stories in daily picture strips will be especially interested
in this autobiography of the author. Here for the first time Edgar Rice
Burroughs tells the story of his life in some detail. It is a very human
tale of a man who seemed doomed to failure and who created a way out for
himself that resulted in one of the most dazzling successes in writing
history. With the publication of his latest book, "Tarzan and the Lost
Empire," his sales are entering into their eighth million in the
American and British editions alone -- Ed. Note.
I have often been asked how I came to write. The best answer is that
I needed the money. I had worked steadily for six years without at vacation
and for fully half of my working hours at that time I had suffered tortures
from headaches. Economize as we would, the expenses for our little
family were beyond my income Three cents' worth of ginger snaps constituted
my daily lunches for months.
I was 35 years of age and I had failed in every enterprise I had ever
I was born in Chicago and attended the old Brown School in the West
Side, partially through the sixth grade, at which time there was a diphtheria
epidemic in the city and much to my horror my parents took me out of public
school and put me in a girls' school, which happened to be the only private
school available on the West Side.
I next went to the old Harvard School, Chicago, but there was an epidemic
of what was then known as the grippe and my parents shipped me to a cattle
ranch in Idaho. Unquestionably my destiny is closely woven with pestilences,
which may or may not account for my having b ecome a writer.
In Idaho 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. I did chores, grubbed sage brush and drove a team of broncos
to a suly plow.
BECOMES MAIL CARRIER
As I proved no good as a chore boy they appointed me mail carrier.
I carried the mail to the railroad at American Falls, sometimes on horseback,
or if there was freight to bring back, I took a team and wagon. When I
went on horseback, I made the round trip of sixty miles in one day. The
West was still a little bit wild and I met murderers, thieves and bad men.
I suppose they must have constituted another epidemic, because I was transported
away from them to Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass. I was elected president
of my class, but I guess I did not make much of a hit with __anty who was
then running Andover. He removed me at the beginning of the second semester.
When I got home, my father, Maj. George Tyler Burroughs, who had served
in the Civil War, took me to Orchard Lake where the old Michigan Military
Academy was located, and there I spent the next five years. The commandant
was Capt. Charles King, author of the best army stories that ever where
written; a man who has been an inspiration to me all my life because of
the outstanding qualities as a soldier a cavalryman and a friend. But the
inspiration he gave me had noting to do with writing. He made me want to
be a good soldier.
I was a member of the cavalry troop all the time I was there and received
instruction from a number of army officers that proved extremely useful
to me, especially after I had enlisted in the Regular Army.
I got a summer job as a collector for an ice company, but in the fall
I returned to Orchard Lake, having been appointed assistant commandant,
cavalry and gatling gun instructor, tactical officer and professor of geology.
The fact that I had never studied geology seemed to make no difference.
They needed a professor and I was it.
After having had the pick of the whole corps of cadets as my companions
for four years, being an assistant commandant was a lonesome job. I have
always been impatient of restrictions and now I had less freedom than I
had as a cadet. I still yearned for the Regular Army and I determined to
enlist and try for a commission from the ranks. I landed in the Seventh
Cavalry at Fort Grant, Ariz.
OUT OF ARMY
A weak heart developed and I was twice recommended for discharge. AS
it seemed wholly unlikely that I should pass a physical examination for
a commission, my father obtained my discharge from the Army through Secretary
of War Alger.
My brother Harry backed me in setting up a store at Pocatello,
Idaho. It was a stationery store with a large newstand and a cigar counter/.
I had a newspaper route and I delivered newspapers myself on horseback.
My store was not a howling success and I was certainly glad when the man
from whom I had purchased it returned to Pocatello and wanted it back.
Providence never intended me for a retail merchant.
In January, 1900, I married Emma Centennia Hulbert, the daughter of
Col. Alvin Hulbert, a well-known hotel man of that time.
When I was married I was getting $15 a week and immediately thereafter
I received a raise to $20. Owing to the fact that we could eat as often
as we pleased at my wife's mother's home or at my mother's, we got along
ON GOLD DREDGE
In 1903, my oldest brother, George, gave me a position on a gold dredge
he was operating in the Stanley Basin country in Idaho and Mrs. Burroughs
and I went West.
My next stop was in Oregon where my brother Harry 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 much to get anywhere with, so
I decided to enter a stud 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
I worked in Oregon until the company failed and then my brother got
me a job as a railroad policeman in Salt Lake City. For the next several
months I was kept busy rushing bums out of the railroad yards and off passenger
We were certainly poverty stricken there at Salt Lake, 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 this sort I volunteered
to do it myself. During those months, I half-soled my own shoes and did
numerous other things that school had not prepared me for.
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 it, I applied for the job and got it.
I am convinced that what are commonly known as the breaks, good or bad,
have fully as much to do with one's success or failure as ability. The
break I got in this instance lay in the fact that my employer knew even
less about the duties of an expert accountant than I did. I was with him
a couple of years and when I left it was of my own accord.
I had determined there was a great future in the mail order business
and I landed a job that brought me to the head of a large department. about
this time our daughter Joan was born.
Having a good job and every prospect for advancement, I decided to go
into business for myself, with harrowing results. I had no capital when
I started an d less when I got through. At this time the mail order company
offered me an excellent position if I wanted to come back. If I had accepted
it I would probably have been fixed for life with a good living salary,
yet the chances are that I would never have written a story, which proves
that occasionally it is better to do the wrong thing than the right.
When my independent business sank without a trace, I approached as
near financial nadir as one may reach. My son, Hulbert, had just been born.
I had no job and no money. I had to pawn Mrs. Burroughs's jewelry and my
watch in order to buy food. I loathed poverty and I would have liked to
put my hands on the party who said that poverty is an honorable estate.
It is an indication of inefficiency and nothing more. There is nothing
honorable or fine about it.
To be poor is quite bad enough. But to be poor and without hope-- sell,
the only way to understand it is to be it.
I got writer's cramp answering blind ads and wore out my shoes
chasing after others. At last I got placed as an agent for a lead pencil
sharpener. I borrowed office space, and, while subagents were out, trying
unsuccessfully to sell the sharpener, I started to write my first story.
STARTS TO WRITE
I knew nothing about the technique of story writing and now after eighteen
years of writing I still know nothing about the technique of story writing,
although, with the publication of my new novel, "Tarzan and the Lost Empire,"
there are thirty-one books on my list. I had never met any editor or an
author outside of Captain King, or a publisher. I had no idea of how to
submit a story or what I could expect in payment. Had I known anything
about it at all I would never have thought of submitting half a novel.
Thomas Newell Metcalf, who was then editor of the All-Story Magazine,
published by Munsey, wrote me that he liked the first half of the story
and if the second was as good he thought he might use it. Had he not given
me this encouragement, I would never have finished the story and my writing
career would have been at an end, since I was not writing because of any
urge to write nor for any particular love of writing. I was writing because
I had a wife and two babies, a combination which does not work well without
I finished the second half of the story and got $400 for the manuscript,
which at that time included all serial rights. The check was the first
big event in my life. No amount of money today could possibly give me the
thrill that that first $400 check gave me.
My first story was entitled "Dejah Thoris, Princess of Mars." Metcalf
changed it to "Under the Moons of Mars." It was later published in book
form as "The Princess of Mars."
HELD ON TO JOB
With the success of my first story, I decided to make writing a career,
but I was canny enough not to give up my job. But the job did not pay expenses
and we had a recurrence of great poverty, sustained only by the thread
of hope that I might make a living writing fiction. I cast about for a
better job and landed as a department manager for a business magazine.
While I was working there, I wrote "Tarzan of the Apes" evenings and holidays.
I wrote it in longhand on the backs of old letterheads and odd pieces of
paper. I did not think it was a very good story and I doubted if it would
sell. But Bob Davis saw its possibilities for magazine publication and
I got a check; this time, I think for $700.
I then wrote "The Gods of Mars," which I sold immediately to the Munsey
Company for All-Story. "The Return of Tarzan," which I wrote in December,
1912, and January 1913, was rejected by Metcalf and purchased by Street
& Smith for $1,000 in February 1913.
That same month, John Coleman, our third child, was born, and I now
decided to give up my job and to devote myself to writing.
Everyone, including myself, thought I was an idiot. But, my stories
were now selling as fast as I could write them and I could write pretty
rapidly, so I bought a second-hand automobile and became a plutocrat. The
Chicago winters were too cold. We went to California and wintered in Coronado
and San Diego.
We were a long way from home. My income depended solely upon the sale
of magazine rights. I had not had a book published at that time and, therefore,
no book royalties were coming in. Had I failed to sell a single story during
those months, we would have been broke again, but I sold them all.
I had been trying to find a publisher who would put some of my stuff
into book form, but I met with no encouragement. Every well-known publisher
in t he United States turned down "Tarzan of the Apes," including A. C.
McClurg & Co., who finally issued it, my first story in book form.
Its popularity and its final appearance as a book were due to the vision
of J. H. Tennant, managing editor of the New York Evening World. He saw
the possibilities as a newspaper serial and ran it in the Evening World,
with the result that other papers followed suit. This made the story widely
known and resulted in a demand from readers for the story in book form;
which was so insistent that A. C. McClurg finally came to me after they
had rejected it and asked to be allowed to publish it.