STARVED AND FAILED
I have often been asked how I came to write. The best answer is that I
needed the money.
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 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
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 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 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
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
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
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
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 first story.
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
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
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 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
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.