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Volume 1579

THE MASTER STORYTELLER
By John Allen Small
Note: The following essay was originally published as two separate newspaper columns in 1997, which were intended to serve as an introduction to ERB for readers not familiar with his work, and has been revised to include more recent information. All opinions are those of the author.
 
I'm telling you, I could have stood up and cheered.

Or, perhaps more appropriately, beat my chest and given the victory cry of the mangani, the great ape.

I was sitting there on the sofa watching a documentary on the American Movie Classics cable television network one night when it happened. Right there, in front of God and an indeterminable number of TV viewers, one of the subjects being interviewed actually had the guts to describe Edgar Rice Burroughs as "America's greatest undiscovered natural resource."

There had been a time when I honestly thought I was the only one who felt that way. I was so glad to learn I was wrong.

Although his work continues to be dismissed by many "serious" literary critics, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Ed or "Old Burroughs" to his family and friends, ERB to his legion of fans) remains one of the most popular and influential authors in American literature – not to mention one of the great storytellers of all time. His science fiction tales of Mars, Venus, the Moon and the fictional world of Poloda are the forebears of "Flash Gordon," "Star Trek" and "Star Wars"; his legendary "lost world" trilogy, The Land That Time Forgot, makes Jurassic Park (the book, at any rate) seem pretty bland by comparison. And his two great western novels - The War Chief and Apache Devil - presented the Native American culture in a sympathetic light over half a century before Kevin Costner gave us "Dances With Wolves."

Then, of course, there is John Clayton. Lord Greystoke. Better known to several generations as Tarzan. King of the Apes, Lord of the Jungle, hero of hundreds of Saturdays at the matinee and subject of that aforementioned television documentary.

The jungle lord has been, from his very first appearance in the October 1912, issue of All-Story magazine, one of the most successful fictional creations in history. A number of pop culture historians – author Richard Lupoff, novelist Harlan Ellison, even Yours Truly in a newspaper column or two over the years – have gone so far to suggest that millions around the world who may be woefully unfamiliar with many of our real-world heroes can tell you all about Tarzan.

Unfortunately, many of the "facts" they might recite are often nothing of the kind. Thanks primarily to the long-running series of motion pictures, many fans have a false impression of who their hero really is.

At the risk of dispelling fond childhood notions, it must be pointed out – again! – that Burroughs' hero was a far cry from the illiterate, chimp-loving vine-swinger portrayed by Johnny Weissmuller or Buster Crabbe. The "real" Tarzan (Burroughs' Tarzan) spoke a number of languages quite fluently, thank you very much. Contrary to what Hollywood would have us believe, he and Jane Porter – an American, not an Englishwoman as is usually depicted in the films – were indeed married at the end of the second novel – the ceremony performed by Jane's father, no less!

And their son – Jack Clayton, a.k.a. Korak the Killer, NOT "Boy" - was their natural offspring, conceived in thoroughly conventional fashion (between stories, naturally – this was before the sexual revolution, remember, back in the days when such things took place discreetly offstage without a lot of leering readers underlining certain passages to share with their buddies at school) as opposed to being the only survivor of a plane crash. Did MGM really expect us to believe that Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan would only exchange the occasional chaste kiss all those years? (And in all fairness - would YOU have been satisfied with such a relationship if you were Johnny Weissmuller? Especially after you'd seen her swimming nude in the second film?)

After all these years I still find myself amused at those librarians who banned the original ERB novels on the assumption that Tarzan and Jane were just frolicking together in the jungle out of wedlock, because it's obvious they've neither read the original books (a pretty sad commentary on librarians, if you ask me) nor paid much attention to the Weissmuller films that raised the ruckus in the fuss place. Although there has admittedly always been an undercurrent of sexuality in much of ERB's work, Burroughs - a product of the Victorian Age - never addressed the subject in a manner which would have detracted from the virtuousness that helped make his heroes and heroines so popular in the first place.

Of course, other storytellers who have made use of his characters have not felt quite so constrained either by the Victorian era attitudes that Burroughs brought to his work, or by Hollywood’s Hays Office restrictions of the Weissmuller era. Philip Jose Farmer has suggested more than once that Tarzan was not as faithful to his beloved Jane as ERB would have had us believe. And among the great “lost projects” of Hollywood is a script for a proposed Tarzan film written in 1971 by Gene Roddenberry, creator of "Star Trek," whose plot would have revolved around efforts by an Amazon tribe to capture the jungle hero for use as a sex slave. Roddenberry failed to sell the proposal, which he once referred to as his “dream project,” although parts of his storyline bear certain similarities to the poorly-made, overly sexual Miles O’Keefe-Bo Derek version of "Tarzan The Ape Man" released about a decade later.

There have been a few screen treatments which have come close to capturing the spirit of the original novel, in one way or another. The producers of the very first Tarzan film, the 1917 silent version of "Tarzan Of The Apes," stuck reasonably close to the original plot but erred slightly in casting the somewhat beefy Elmo Lincoln in the title role. At the other end of the spectrum was 1984's "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes"; significant changes were made in the storyline, but Christopher Lambert's portrayal of Tarzan was probably the closest we've seen to a accurate depiction of the character as Burroughs actually imagined him.

That is, unless one considers the Saturday morning animated series – "Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle" – that ran on CBS in the late 1970s. How ironic that the single most faithful screen version of this classic creation, in terms of both characterization and content, has been a Saturday morning cartoon. (Disney’s wonderful 1999 animated feature film "Tarzan," which fell somewhere in between the Weissmuller films and "Greystoke" as far in terms of faithfulness to characterization vs. faithfulness to ERB’s original story, had not yet been released when the original version of this essay was first published.)

For the record: Burroughs completed a total of 25 Tarzan novels, produced two Tarzan films of his own, and was instrumental in the creation of the Tarzan radio series. In fact, Burroughs' daughter Joan was the first radio actress to play Jane; Joan's husband, a one-time college football hero named Jim Pierce, portrayed Tarzan – a role he had first played in the 1927 silent film "Tarzan And The Golden Lion," produced by Joseph P. Kennedy (yes, THAT Joseph P. Kennedy, the one-time ambassador to England and father of President John F. Kennedy.)

To date there have been 50 or so Tarzan feature films; several movie serials; a total of six television programs (including the aforementioned CBS cartoon series and an animated spin-off of the Disney feature); a stage play or two; a "Disney On Ice" show based on that studio's animated feature; numerous board games, video games, toys, model kits and trading cards; countless comic books; and a number of Tarzan novels written by authors other than ERB. Most of these later novels were unauthorized by the Burroughs estate; the two most notable exceptions were Fritz Leiber's Tarzan And The Valley Of Gold, a novelization of a Tarzan film of the late 1960s but written to adhere more closely to Burroughs' originals than the movie on which it was based; and Philip Jose Farmer's Tarzan: The Dark Heart Of Time, a 1999 novel whose storyline was conceived with input from ERB's grandson, Danton Burroughs.

Not bad for a character whose first adventure was written out in longhand on the backs of old letterheads...

After what might best be described as a brief sabbatical from our collective pop culture consciousness, the past decade or so has seen Tarzan making something of a comeback. It began in 1995 with the publication of Tarzan: The Lost Adventure, the legendary Tarzan novel left unfinished at the time of Burroughs' death in 1950. Completed by novelist Joe Lansdale with the blessing of Burroughs’ heirs, this book was serialized in the style of the old pulp novels over four months by Dark Horse, a publishing firm which has also produced a new series of Tarzan comics. (Two of my favorite storylines of that particular comics line was the four-issue mini-series which pitted Tarzan against the creatures from the Predator films in Pellucidar, and a later intercompany crossover between Dark Horse and DC Comics which teamed Tarzan up with Batman for a four-part adventure set back in the 1930s.)

Lansdale, best known for his western and horror titles, did a fairly admirable job of taking the untitled, uncompleted manuscript – which reportedly stood at roughly half the length of the standard ERB novel when Burroughs set it aside – and turning it into a publishable book. Interestingly, however, Lansdale still left the story somewhat unfinished; the novel concludes with Tarzan, presumed buried alive following a typically Burroughsian battle to the death, forsaking both his jungle home and his beloved Jane and setting out on a return trip to Pellucidar, the land at the earth's core. (For the uninitiated, Burroughs' Tarzan At The Earth's Core is both Volume 13 of the Tarzan series and Volume 4 of his Pellucidar series.)

Did Lansdale or Burroughs' heirs intend to one day produce a sequel? One can only speculate at this point – although it bears noting that another western author, J.T. Edson, had a number of years earlier written a novel entitled Bunduki, about an adopted son of Tarzan's, in which it was revealed that Tarzan and Jane - along with other members of their family - eventually made a new home for themselves in Pellucidar. So the potential for further adventures linking the Lansdale-Burroughs collaboration to Edson's novel is there, should Burroughs' heirs ever see fit to pursue it. (And besides, I always thought the idea of having Tarzan retire to the eternal jungles of Pellucidar made more sense than having him become the time travelling John Gribardson depicted in another Farmer novel, Time's Last Gift.)

In early 1996, Dark Horse released Tarzan: The Lost Adventure in a limited-release hardcover novel format; Ballantine Books, which has held the paperback rights to the Tarzan novels since the early 1960s, released a paperback edition of "The Lost Adventure" the following spring. (And Edson wrote several sequels to "Bunduki," although only the original novel in that series was ever published in America; the rest were published in Great Britain, but unfortunately I've thus far not been able to obtain copies.)

The release of The Lost Adventure was followed by the subsequent publication of several other previously unreleased Burroughs works: Marcia of the Doorstep, a very good “realistic” novel that was both Burroughs' longest single work and, by all accounts, his most disappointing failure when it was rejected by all publishers he submitted it to; You Lucky Girl, a three-act play written for his daughter Joan when she was a young aspiring actress; Forgotten Tales of Love and Murder, a collection of short mysteries and puzzles; and the bizarrely titled but perfectly lovely Minidoka 937th Earl Of One Mile Series M, which was essentially a bedtime story concocted for the entertainment of his children and which was committed to paper some years before his first professional attempts at writing.

Then the toymaking firm of Trendmasters Inc. made something of a splash with its Tarzan: The Epic Adventures action figures, which I'm told recorded fairly impressive initial sales figures despite heated competition. Tarzan: The Epic Adventures was also the title of a well-made but short-lived syndicated television series starring Joe Lara which likely (and unfortunately)  owed its existence to the success of such inferior, overrated programs as "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" and "Xena: Warrior Princess." There was even a novelization of the premiere episode, written by acclaimed fantasy author R.A. Salvatore (whose other works include one of the better "Star Wars" novels, Vector Prime).

The plot of that pilot episode (and Salvatore's novelization) was a curious blending of plotpoints from two of Burroughs' original novels, The Return Of Tarzan and Tarzan At The Earth's Core. Jane is mentioned briefly but never seen, and Tarzan is said to have renounced his claim to her hand just as he had at the conclusion of the very first novel. The primary villains are taken from The Return Of Tarzan, but the bulk of the plot revolves around a mystical pendant and a voyage to Pellucidar. No other novelizations ever appeared so far as I am aware (the series itself lasted only a single season, although a second season with another actor replacing Lara had been planned), but Salvatore's Tarzan is every bit as "Burroughsian" as Fritz Leiber's had been 30 years earlier.

In fact, the publication of Salvatore's novel creates an interesting game for those Tarzan fans who never have encountered ERB's original novels. Those who wish to get to know the hero as Burroughs created him, but who may not necessarily wade through the remaining series of 24 novels, can instead follow up the original Tarzan Of The Apes with Salvatore’s book instead (assuming you can still find a copy, that is).

Tarzan became a full-fledged move star all over again in 1999, when Walt Disney Productions released the aforementioned animated musical version of the jungle hero's saga; the film wowed audiences and critics alike, making it a rarity among the more recent Disney releases (it was the first such Disney animated feature to be so universally praised since "The Lion King" some five years earlier, and as of this writing none of the studio's subsequent theatrical release have fared anywhere near as well), and spawned not only a wealth of merchandising but two direct-to-video sequels and a television series.

Unfortunately this latest Tarzan renaissance hit a bump in the road a few years back when the WB network aired a thankfully short-lived "Tarzan" TV series which tried to put a modern spin the jungle hero - Tarzan is shown as having been rescued from the jungle by his uncle, an unscrupulous business tycoon who keeps Tarzan captive in the urban jungle of New York City. Since then the only new adventure as of this writing has been the second Disney direct-to-video sequel - actually a “prequel”, since it goes back to tell a story from Tarzan's childhood, much as Burroughs himself did in Jungle Tales Of Tarzan.

As I write this, however, there are reports that a film version of ERB’s A Princess Of Mars is in the works. Disney is set to produce a stage version of its animated "Tarzan" film, similar to the company's earlier acclaimed stage versions of "The Lion King" and "Beauty And The Beast." Burroughs' characters are still very much a part of our popular culture and stand poised to thrill yet another generation of fans as we near the 100th anniversary of his first appearance in print back in 1911.

And Burroughs himself has turned up a time or two in fictional adventures of his own in recent years. One of these was in an episode of Disney's animated "Tarzan" TV series, which depicted a visit to Africa by Burroughs – who has heard some of the legends about Tarzan and wants to write a book about him!

Better still was Max Allen Collins' 2001 novel The Pearl Harbor Murders, in which Burroughs and his son Hulbert – recently transplanted to Hawaii from California, just as they had been in real life - investigate the murder of a lounge singer and eventually learn that it is connected with the Japanese attack on the island. This book was the third (and the best thus far, though they are all quite good) in a series of novels by Collins featuring real authors playing amateur detective and solving fictional crimes revolving around historical events, sort of a neat twist on the "Murder, She Wrote" television series; each book features a different writer, with settings ranging from the sinking of the Titanic to the Hindenberg disaster to Orson Welles' infamous "War of the Worlds" broadcast. I think Burroughs, who enjoyed a good mystery story, would have liked Collins' tale very much.

One may well wonder why your humble columnist is waxing so enthusiastic over a writer who has been repeatedly dismissed as barely literate by too many "serious" (i.e. self-important) critics, banned by ignorant librarians, denounced by teachers as being totally without merit of any sort, and misunderstood by those whose only exposure to his works has been through the Tarzan movies.

There are many reasons for my enthusiasm. Partly it has to do with nostalgia. Burroughs literally helped me learn to read - thanks to my dad's collection of the ERB volumes published in the 1960s by Ace, Ballantine and Canaveral Press. The Land That Time Forgot was the first "adult" book I ever read – I was in the third grade at the time, and my classmates were just starting to struggle through The Bobbsey Twins – and by the time I'd finished the fourth grade I had completed the entire Tarzan and Pellucidar series and was midway through the Venus series.

Mostly, however, it has to do with wanting to see an incredibly gifted storyteller get his due. I'll be the first one to admit that Burroughs may not have been the kind of wordsmith whose works generally end up becoming standard fodder for high school and college literature classes. But in all fairness, he never set out to be that. Although there was the occasional attempt at more serious fare – particularly the aforementioned Marcia Of The Doorstep, which Burroughs reportedly had hoped might propel him into the ranks of the more critically acclaimed "serious" authors, but which was rejected by every publisher he sent it to and remained unpublished for 75 years – all Burroughs ever really wanted was to entertain his readers.

And for that he has been reviled by most "serious" literary critics. Most of whom wouldn't know a good book if it reared up and bit them in the tuckuss, as far as I'm concerned.

One especially hostile critic, apparently hoping to make a point about certain authors' ability to crank out story after story, referred to ERB as "the Stephen King of his day." While he didn't mean it as a compliment, it was nevertheless a valid point.

Consider: like King, Burroughs was an incredibly prolific writer best known for his work in a particular genre. Like King, Burroughs usually had little good to say about Hollywood's efforts to retell his stories. And like King - perhaps moreso than King - Burroughs defied the critics to become one of the most popular authors of all time. And rightfully so.

And it bears noting that very few authors have covered quite so wide a field of genres in their fiction as did Burroughs. Though the Tarzan series and the various science fiction stories remain his best known and most popular works, ERB's vivid imagination knew few bounds.

His western novels – the aforementioned The War Chief and Apache Devil, as well as The Bandit of Hell's Bend and The Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County - are in my opinion as colorful and exciting as any tale that Zane Grey or Max Brand ever set down on paper.

His historical novels are also among the best of their kind. I have long maintained that The Outlaw Of Torn is worthy of placement alongside such works as Ivanhoe or The Three Musketeers, and persuading one of my college professors to read Torn – which led to his agreeing with my assessment of the book – is something I still consider to have been one of my greatest accomplishments in life. And the ancient Roman adventure I Am A Barbarian ranks easily as not only one of ERB's very best works, but as one of the most thrilling tales of its type ever told. (And it occurs to me as I write this that the film "Gladiator," released in 2000, appears to owe a great deal to  I Am A Barbarian.)

There were also mysteries (The Oakdale Affair), rough-and-tumble "he-man" pulp adventures (The Mucker, Pirate Blood), tales of royal intrigue (The Mad King, The Rider) - even soap opera-like romances (The Girl From Hollywood, The Girl From Farris's, The Efficiency Expert) which, although generally considered to be lesser entries in the Burroughs Bibliography, are certainly no worse than the typical Harlequin Romance or those comtemporary novels of the so-called "bodice ripper" variety.

Unlike the 1960s and '70s - the years of what Lupoff once termed the "Burroughs renaissance," when it seemed that a new Burroughs book was turning up on paperback shelves every time you turned around - it unfortunately appears that the majority of ERB's works may have once again gone out of print. Those previously unpublished works which appeared in the mid-to-late '90s were, with the exception of Tarzan: The Lost Adventure, limited editions which never got the widespread distribution they deserved. And a recent visit to several of my favorite bookstores revealed precious few Burroughs titles being kept in stock; Tarzan and John Carter were still on the shelves, as always, but even very few of those. And when I asked the clerks at these stores why they didn't keep more Burroughs in stock, I was told by one that "nobody reads that stuff anymore" and met with "Who's he?" by the other. (The only thing that kept me from slapping both obnoxious know-nothings across the back of their skulls was the very real fear that I might be taken into custody for child abuse....)

But even as the availability of many Burroughs titles seems to have waned to almost that of the period just after his death in 1950, there has been in recent years a certain degree of re-evaluation of ERB's impact on American literature. Perhaps the best evidence that he is being held in higher regard than ever came when no less an authority than Writer's Digest magazine included Burroughs on its list of the 100 most important writers of the 20th century! Such placement would have been unheard of back when I was a kid bugging my father if I could reread his Ace paperback edition of At The Earth's Core for the umpteenth time.

In my humble opinion, however, such re-evaluation has been long overdue. Compared to the more polished, more "literary" efforts of the so-called "giants" of literature, Burroughs may well have been something of a hack; in fact, he often said so himself, though perhaps not in those exact words. It doesn't matter. Burroughs' fans revere him not because he was a great writer (though he was, in his own way), but because he was a great storyteller. The two are not necessarily one and the same, which to my mind goes a long way toward explaining why Burroughs, King, Louis L'Amour and other writers typically embraced by the masses are so often met with upturned nose by snooty "literati" types.

In the end, Burroughs' technical skills as a writer are of far less importance than the great gift he gave (and continues to give) readers through the sheer magic of his storytelling: an opportunity to escape the confines of their humdrum everyday lives into a world where every man can be a dashing hero, every woman can be a beautiful princess, and each turn of the page brings new adventure.

(Some have said this business of every man being a hero and every woman a princess smacks of sexism. I say it's an unfair charge. For one thing, Burroughs lived in a different era and his stories reflect the notions of the time. For another, he made sure his stories had their share of heroic female characters, too; Tarzan's Jane was doing quite well for herself long before many had ever heard of the term "women's lib," and Dejah Thoris, Princess of Mars, is the spiritual ancestor of "Star Wars'" Princess Leia. And for a third, it's only MAKE-BELIEVE! So lighten up already.)

Hemingway? Overblown. Fitzgerald? Boring. Faulkner? Yeecchh - that guy gives me the hives. If you want a writer who can give you colorful characters, memorable dialogue and entertaining tales that never lose your interest, ERB is the real deal.

Whether you're a science fiction fan, a western buff, an adventure enthusiast, a devotee of romance or an aficionado of  historical fiction, Burroughs is your man. The adventures of Tarzan, wonderful as they are, are merely the tip of an incredibly diverse and imaginative literary output.

Burroughs truly is "America's greatest undiscovered natural resource." Maybe it's time a new generation put away their video games and rediscover him.

So what are you waiting for?

All Rights Reserved. Copyright © 2005 by John Allen Small

 
Meet the Author: 
John Allen Small

Having learned to read with the aid of his father's collection of Edgar Rice Burroughs novels (he'd completed the entire Tarzan series and The Land That Time Forgot by the time he finished the third grade), John A. Small grew up to become an award-winning journalist, columnist and broadcaster whose work has been honored by the Oklahoma Press Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Associated Press, the National Newspaper Association, the Oklahoma Education Association and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. 

A graduate of Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School in Bradley, Illinois, and of Olivet Nazarene University in nearby Bourbonnais, he has also served as project editor on a book entitled The Men On The Sixth Floor, concerning the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; has written a stage play, a cookbook, and numerous short stories and poems; and is a contributor to the anthology Myths For The Modern Age: Philip Jose Farmer's Wold Newton Universe.

He and his family - wife Melissa and sons Joshua and William - currently reside near Tishomingo, Oklahoma, where John serves as news editor for the local newspaper, the Johnston County Capital-Democrat. A lifelong fan of the Kingston Trio, the Chieftains and the Monkees, he has been known to throw heavy objects at people who say they don't like the sound of the banjo, the bagpipes or Michael Nesmith. 

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