STARVED AND FAILED
BEFORE HE WON SUCCESS
The Open Road ~ September 1949
By Edgar Rice Burroughs
Cowboy, professor, cop, soldier, writer,
Mr. Burroughs was still struggling at 35
Similar to How
I Wrote the Tarzan Books - 1929
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 a vacation
and for fully half of my working hours at that time I had suffered tortures
from headaches. Economize as we would, the expenses of our little family
were far beyond my income. Three cents' worth of ginger snaps constituted
my daily lunches for months.
I was thirty-five and I had failed in every enterprise
I had ever attempted.
I was born in Chicago and attended the old Brown School
on 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 la grippe and my parents shipped
me to a cattle ranch in Idaho. Unquestionably my destiny is closely woven
wit pestilences, which may or may not account for my having become 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 bronchos
to a sulky plough. 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 ws 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 "Banty"
who was then running Andover. He removed me at the beginning of the second
When I got home, my father, Major 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 Captain Charles King, author of the best army
stories that every were written; a man who has been an inspiration to me
all my life because of his outstanding qualities as a soldier, a cavalry
man and a friend. But the inspiration he gave me had nothing 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 member of army officers that proved extremely
helpful to me, especially after I had enlisted in the regular army. We
did a great deal of trick riding in those days: bareback, Cossack, Greaeco-Roman
and all the rest of it. It was known as "monkey drill."
During the senior years I received an appointment to West
Point where I went for examination with a hundred and eighteen other candidates.
Only fourteen of them passed, I being among the hundred and four.
Upon my inglorious return, 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 geology. The fact that I had never studied
geology seemed to make no difference. They needed a professor and I was
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 commission from the ranks. I landed in the Seventh
Cavalry at Fort Grant, Arizona.
There was always a lot of excitement at Fort Grant. The
Apaches were colralled at a post not far distant and there were constant
rumors of an uprising similar to those led by old Geronimo. The Apache
Kid and his band of renegades were giving trouble in the south and Black
Jack, the famous bandit, was raiding towns in our vicinity.
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 t he
army through Secretary of War Alger.
My brother Harry backed me in seeing up a store at Pocatello,
Idaho. It was a stationery store with a large newsstand route and I delivered
the papers myself on horseback. My store was not a howling financial success
and I certainly was glad when the men from whom I had purchased it returned
to Pocatello and wanted it back. Providence never intended me for a retail
Shortly after this I returned to Chicago and went to work
for my father, who was manufacturing storage batteries that were used principally
for train lighting and signaling. I started at the bench to learn the business
form the ground up.
In January, 1900, I married Emma Centennia Hulbert, the
daughter of Colonel Alvin Hulbert, a well-known hotel man of that time.
He had been the proprietor of the old Tremont House in the Chicago and
was then proprietor of the Sherman and the Great Northern n Chicago and
the Lindley Hotel in St. Louis.
When I was married I was getting fifteen dollars a week
and immediately thereafter I received a raise to twenty. 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 very nicely.
In 1903, my oldest brother George gave me a position on a
gold dredge he was operating in the Stanley Basin county in Idaho, and
Mrs. Burroughs and I went West. We pitched a tent on the hill while we
were building our house, the construction of which was original and not
too successful. Timber was plentiful and I felled what I needed at no great
distance from our cabin site.
Our 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 forty dollars. Forty dollars did not seem much to
get anywhere with, so I decided to enter stud game at a local saloon
and run my capital up to several hundred dollars during the night. When
I returned at midnight ot the room we had rented, we still ahd the collie
dog; otherwise we were 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. For the
next several months, I was kept busy rushing bums out of the railroad yards
and off passenger trains.
We were certainly povery-striken 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 my self. 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 and 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 Stoddards'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 my 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 and 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 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 -- well, 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 sub-agents were
out, trying unsuccessfully to sell the sharpener. I started to write my
I knew nothing about the technique of story writing and
now after 35 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 some forty books on my list. I had never
met an 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 N. 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 well without money.
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."
Success at Last
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 God 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 and 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, though 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 the United States turned down "Tarzan of the Apes," including
A. C. McClurg and Company, who finally issued it, my first story in book
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 its 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 and Company finally
cae to me after they rejected it and asked to be allowed to publish it.
With my career safely insured -- motion pictures, books,
newspaper comic strips and other royalties coming in regularly, and in
comfortable figures -- we move to California and "founded" Tarzana, where
I now work.
I think there is a moral lesson in this story. It might
even be a paradox : we win when we are defeated.