…the great cats roamed this strange valley of the gorillas.
~ Edgar Rice Burroughs
And the Great White Ape stood before the wall that surrounded London of Africa. Cats, gorillas, walls, doors, London
England deep in the Heart of Darkness…he was the Lord of the Jungle, Tarzan Of The Apes.
Tarzan is alone as usual as was, one suspects, his creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. The year is 1933 both in Burroughs’
imaginary Africa and temporal Los Angeles where the writer plied his trade.
After a lifetime of trying to break into society Burroughs has Tarzan standing outside the wall of London into which he
must break like a burglar or thief in the night.
Within the walls is the citadel of ERB’s desires, the great city on the hill, the castle of redemption. Now fifty-eight years
old Burroughs had achieved all the material attributes of success only to have the prize dashed from his hands.
Symbolically he enters the castle of his dreams to find instead only a prison. The long climb up the stairway to heaven
leads only to jail.
Nineteen thirty-three was the one hundredth anniversary of his father’s birth. The old ghoul who had imprinted him so
evilly had come back from the grave to haunt him, to deny him what he had worked so hard to attain.
As in real life where MGM had stripped him of his life’s work in one deft move so now in his imagination his castle
was destroyed by a raging fire storm. Symbolically he portrays his relationship with his father as an old coot who had
led him around with a halter round his neck. In his great apocalyptic dream ERB reverses the roles and puts the halter
about his father’s neck.
Too late ERB realized he had signed away his great creation to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. In a desperate attempt to reclaim
him ERB formed a movie company in which for a logo he adopted the MGM symbol but replaced the roaring lion, Leo,
with an image of Tarzan shouting Tar-man-gan-eeee. ERB failed to detourne the image and MGM added insult to injury
by forcing ERB into exile in Hawaii. Now seventy years old our big cat was exactly where he had been in Chicago
when he entered manhood- on the other side of the wall. Still outside. It wasn’t supposed to be that way as Burroughs
How did it come to pass? How could he succeed so magnificently and yet fail so egregiously? How could life treat him
so bad. ERB was just born under a bad sign.
His life began propitiously. He was in effect a little prince in his family for his first seven or eight years but then things
began to mysteriously unravel and the little prince became a pauper. And that was more or less how ERB explained his
life to himself. The three most influential books in his life were Mark Twain’s The Prince And The Pauper, Frances
Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy and Owen Wister’s The Virginian.
Burroughs apparently understood his life at least until 1930 in terms of these three books. The Prince became a Pauper
then a Prince again. Little Lord Fauntleroy, a disinherited prince lived his young life as a pauper realizing his destiny as
a prince at last. These two books were published in Burroughs’ childhood. One assumes he first read them as a boy.
The Virginian was published in 1902. Burroughs said that he had read all three books six or seven times by the early
twenties. It is impossible to know when he read The Virginian the first time but as his life was in a turmoil during
1902-03 and ‘04 I wouldn’t think that his first reading was before ‘05 but one can’t be certain.
It would appear that ERB modeled his adult life on Lin McLean, the Virginian.
McLean was essentially a loner who went West to Wyoming much as ERB had repeatedly gone to Idaho. Wister tells
the story of the famous Johnson County War through the eyes of his hero, McLean. ERB was in Idaho when the
Johnson County War was in progress so Burroughs would have understood the novel with an intimacy denied the rest
of us. McLean was a Tarzanic figure who wooed and won a school marm who was culturally far above him. This was
perhaps not unlike ERB and Emma. Emma always referred to ERB as a lowbrow.
The most memorable episode in The Virginian is McLean’s marriage. He and his bride honeymoon in the wilds, in
romantic scenery quite reminiscent of Burroughs’ dream Africa. Perhaps his taking Emma to Idaho in 1903 was an
attempt to recreate this romantic honeymoon. A basis of Tarzan then can be found in Lin McLean the silent Virginian.
Also ERB’s apparent vision of himself.
As Burroughs complained that ‘it wasn’t supposed to be like this’ his condition changed began to go wrong about the
fifth grade. Here his father began his role as the monstrous ‘God’ of Tarzan And The Lion Man. ERB had attended
Brown School up to this point. At this age his father moved him from Brown and sent the young boy to, of all places, a
girl’s school. One can only imagine the young boy’s anguish at attending a girl’s school. ERB’s connections with his
early schoolmates was disrupted. He had barely begun his tenure at the girl’s school when his father transferred him to
a Latin school named Harvard for two and a half years. There is no indication ERB formed any abiding friendships at
While the kids in his neighborhood were walking to Brown everyday ERB was riding his pony alone to Harvard.
Undoubtedly the students of Harvard were drawn from all over Chicago so that apart from seeing his fellows in class
ERB had little else to do with them.
His father then pulled him from Harvard School sending him off to his brothers’ ranch in Idaho. At this point then he
had no contact with his fellow Chicagoans while he was thrown into a delightful situation but one in which he
associated with rough cowboys with little education while he attended no school himself.
Why his father was doing this is open to interpretation. Certainly he must have known what the effects would be on his
son. His father’s next move was to transfer young ERB to the snobbery of the East at Phillips Academy where he
essentially flunked out within a year.
One can only imagine the turmoil in the young man’s mind as he returned to a Chicago he no longer knew and more
importantly where no one knew him. It doesn’t seem possible that he could have any but a few acquaintances in
Chicago to whom he would still have been a near stranger. So already at sixteen young Burroughs had been placed
beyond the pale of society. He was already an outsider. The most he could hope for was to be allowed to return to
Brown to finish high school. There at least he had a viable connection with Emma however he would be a rough cut
diamond lacking the polish and sophistication that would have appealed to Emma’s father.
Such an opportunity was not to be. At this point ERB’s father placed him in the Michigan Military Academy. ERB
described the Academy as a place where parents warehoused their young juvenile delinquents. The resentment is clear
in ERB’s attitude. Indeed he rebelled at this latest insult from his, by this time, inscrutable father.
The boy ran away from the MMA returning to his father’s house in Chicago. One wonders if he hopped freights to get
there. One can only imagine the anguished pleading of Burroughs as he begged, perhaps on his knees, to be allowed to
stay home and attend Brown. His old martinet of a father would have none of it. He packed the boy off again to the
Military Academy! How distasteful the very sound is. To be packed off again to a place where you knew no one and
they as ERB believed, were juvenile delinquents. One can only imagine how crushed the boy’s spirit was. He became a
class clown. What his fate might have been if his Commandant hadn’t been one who commanded his respect by the
name of Charles King one can only guess. King who was not as well remembered by his classmates as he was by
Burroughs nevertheless he bucked the boy up perhaps saving his life. At any rate Burroughs developed a dual
personality as a class clown while at the same time being responsible enough to lead the football team to undreamed of
heights while becoming an outstanding horseman and trick rider.
It was at the MMA that Burroughs formed the only long term friendship of which we are aware; this was a young man
from Beatrice, Nebraska by the name of Herb Weston. Weston’s correspondence with Burroughs over the next forty
years or so has been preserved for us by Matt Cohen in his book Brother Men.
Burroughs knew Weston only from September to May of the year before he left to join the Army. They saw each other
but seldom after that apparently neither corresponding or meeting from 1896 to 1905 or so, but still the friendship
flourished in later years.
In 1896 ERB joined the Army requesting the worst post they had and that was willingly given to him. So at this point
ERB severed whatever and all ties that he had with anybody. He was the quintessential outsider. He was flying solo.
He apparently took a train to the end of the line wherever that may have been taking a stage coach into his post, Fort
Whatever his fantasy of the Army was he was immediately disabused. He and four other fellows formed an informal
club romantically named The Might Have Seen Better Days Club. There’s an element of self pity in the name. It
deserves further comment.
The name implies a certain amount of depression. That is implied in Burroughs’ asking for the worst post in the Army.
Only one fairly deeply depressed would ask for such a post. It’s the same as the fit of depression in which men used to
join the French Foreign Legion.
Burroughs says he joined the Army with the intent of working his way up through the ranks to become an officer. I’m
sure it didn’t take long to disabuse himself of that notion. Thus he began to petition his father to get him out of his
commitment. His father had enough pull to do so.
So in 1897 he was back on the outside without a plan, presumably just as depressed. At that point in his life he was free
to go anywhere, California, New York, the Bay Area, within a year the Yukon Gold Rush would be on. Heck he might
even have traveled North with his future hero, Jack London. But ERB took his depression back home to Chicago.
Chicago was his home town but he knew no one there except Emma. ERB went to work for his father. Probably
difficult enough but more importantly the office was located on Madison Avenue. That street was the main stem of
Chicago’s huge hobo population. These were really outsiders, the men who didn’t fit in to use Robert Service’s
ERB saw them everyday and must have spoken to many of them, had conversations so that he probably recognized
some affinity with them. Hobos would certainly figure large in his writing from time to time.
He undoubtedly fantasized embracing the life of the road and may have on an experimental basis. He was to form a
relationship with one of the foremost Hobo poets, H.H. Knibbs later in life. So the pull of the road was there.
He still had no idea what to do with his life. He had joined the Army without telling anyone including his future wife
Emma Hulbert. She had sent a letter to him at Fort Grant in September of 1896. When he returned he discovered that he
may have been away too long. As improbable as it may sound she was then being courted by a millionaire’s son, Frank
Martin. As ERB had no real wish to be married he probably should have let Martin marry Emma.
It seems quite obvious Emma preferred the impoverished ERB to the wealth of Martin. These things obviously do
happen. In the denouement thirty-five years later it would have been better for Emma if she had gone with Martin..
At this time ERB chose to return to Idaho. That didn’t work out well so he bounced back to Chicago. Now comes a
very critical moment in his life. Perhaps Martin had been on the verge of success with Emma who may have been hurt
and confused at the latest abandonment by the man she truly, truly loved.
When Burroughs returned heartening Emma once again Martin very obviously became exasperated at what he
considered a bad penny who kept turning up at disadvantageous times.. It appears that he decided to settle ERB’s hash.
Martin’s father was a railroad magnate possessing his own private rail car. Martin invited this nemesis of his to take a
round trip to New York City with the return trip through Canada and Toronto.
It would appear that he set up a murder attempt to remove his rival in Toronto. On a night on the town in Toronto ERB
was either lured into a fight with a couple thugs or accosted by them. The thug delivered a vicious blow to ERB’s
forehead with a sap or leaded pipe that ripped his scalp open and laid ERB low.
While the injury was not obvious ERB was seriously hurt. Apparently internal bleeding formed a clot between his
forebrain and skull hat had a profound effect on his personality as well as giving him excruciating headaches half the
day for every day of his life at least through 1913-14.
Judging from his writing the pressure caused memory lapses during which he was unable to recall people he was
familiar with. As this trait would not have been understood ERB was misinterpreted and become even more of an
outsider. After his injury in Toronto ERB married Emma probably to spite Martin as he later said he regretted getting
married. Nevertheless he now had a wife along with what must have seemed a very peculiar personality.
It is difficult to imagine what options ERB had open to him now that he had to abandon his rough and rowdy ways to
take care of his young wife. Working for his father must have been a difficult experiences as it most often is for a son.
In addition to that problem ERB came down with typhoid fever. The convalescence completely disrupted his finances.
Now having excruciating headaches, a mind that just came and went and no money, no prospects, no future and little
hope the man must have been plunged into the depths of despair.
Perhaps in all those Tarzan stories when Tarzan loses his memory they may reflect ERB’s actual experience at this time
being periodically bereft of his memory for more or less short periods of time.
Obviously not thinking very clearly he decided to return to Idaho with his new wife and absolutely no prospects of
making a living. Well, it worked for the Virginian.
Now, the Yukon Gold Rush had occurred in 1898. Out of that gold rush came a young writer by the name of Jack
London. Burroughs was an inveterate reader in those days before movies, TV and radio so that his imagination was
fired by London’s stories. London had also been a hobo as a boy.
On the way out to Idaho ERB had Emma riding in an open boxcar so as to comfort their dog. So in his strange way
ERB was actually hoboing and doing it with his wife.
Two years later they returned once again to Chicago. Already an outsider ERB now embarked on a career that pushed
him further out. Already declassed by his father’s treatment he now declassed himself further by taking an odd
assortment of jobs. This period has not been inadequately covered in existing biographies. Perhaps the job that pushed
him beyond the pale of social acceptability was his association with a patent medicine man by the name of Stace. Patent
medicines were among the most disreputable vocations a man could have. ‘Snake oil’ pitchmen have been parodied in
so many movies one has visions of their being run out of town one step ahead of the sheriff.
Burroughs association with Stace occurred just after the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and an expose of
the business by Samuel Hopkins Adams. A most unpropitious time to be in the patent medicine business. Stace was run
out of business by the authorities. It was probably at this time that Burroughs picked up his experiences with grand
juries and the police that he displays in The Girl From Farriss’s
Rather than dissociate himself from Stace as he should have done ERB joined with him in a successor venture named
Burroughs-Stace. This could not have helped his reputation but would have implicated him as a principal in the snake
oil outfit. One can only believe that it wasn’t very desirable to know Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Thus as his mind began to jell around the fiction that would make him famous his prospects were getting slim and
slimmer. Perhaps he was grooming himself for the solitary profession of writer.
His experiences and reading all came together in 1911 when he wrote and sold his first effort, A Princess Of Mars.
Unusually for a new writer he had more than one good story in him so that within two years he had achieved literary
success being able to quit his day job to take up writing full time.
By this time ERB had been outside the loop for so long, from the fifth grade on that his behavior was gauche. He didn’t
know how to behave or discourse in polite society. So at this point it didn’t matter how much money he made or how
famous he became he was truly a man who couldn’t fit in. Nowhere is this more obvious than in his writing.
One is astonished that between 1912 and 1918, a mere six years, Tarzan became a household word. It was that by the
time the first movie was released there was virtually no one in America who hadn’t heard the name Tarzan. This is a
level of success rarely attained.
And yet one is mystified as to how this came about. Certainly the penetration wasn’t achieved by a pulp magazine like
All Story. The fiction magazines while popular had limited distribution. If we are to believe the sales figures Tarzan Of
The Apes had substantial success but nothing like the novels of Zane Grey for instance.
His publisher, McClurg’s made no effort to capitalize on the phenomenon. Their hard cover first issue was very limited
in numbers going into reprint status almost immediately. At the end of the decade ERB was reduced to urging them to
print at least 40,000 copies before they turned a book over for republication. McClurg’s was loath to do so and I have
seen no evidence they did. So one has the phenomenon of Tarzan being a household word with no clear evidence of
how it came to be.
Today such success would make an author a celebrity yet the evidence is Burroughs was scorned in his own home
town of Chicago. The city had a vibrant publishing scene in those days. There were plenty of famous authors in town
with clubs and gathering places yet Burroughs apparently was welcome in none of them.
It is true that he was a pulp writer which was the lowest rung on the literary ladder. It is possibly true that he was the
first truly imaginative writer in the sense of today’s sci fi, horror and fantasy genres. One may argue that Wells was first
and while his stories are highly imaginative they are still extensions of reality.
Burroughs severed the connection with reality; he deals in impossibilities as if they were possible. One can’t stretch
reality far enough to possibly cover Mars, Tarzan’s Africa and Pellucidar. They are clearly impossible. The Land That
Time Forgot? Get out of here. So, as an originator of something new, a term I hate to use, Burroughs was a pioneer
way out in front of the van. Hence he would have been incomprehensible to the average mind. In the language of the
fifties he would have been a phenom. Weird, strange and that’s the way he seemed to have been treated.
In today’s terms his personality would have been vulnerable. Already an outsider the doors were politely shut in his
face. Indeed, if one reads his stories they are full of closed doors that won’t open or can’t be opened. In Tarzan And
The Lion Man, and this is a great scene, one of an array of doors is standing ajar while all the others are shut tight. The
one open door is a trap that puts Tarzan in prison.
So we may assume that all doors were closed to him in Chicago. Whether his reputation followed him or his subject
matter put people off or a combination of the two ERB was firmly kept outside. Chicago had that unwanted sign upon
There was one club that was open to Burroughs. That club was a catch all called The White Paper Club that was open
to anyone who made marks on white paper. I suppose that could include anyone who intended to write that novel but
had yet to put pen to paper.
Thus the man who had created a household word was forced to mingle with anyone who had soiled a piece of paper. Is
it any wonder that ERB wanted to move.
Porges records ERB’s farewell dinner as though it were some sort of complimentary send off but Mr. Prindle dissents.
Among a number of unusual things ERB did that I don’t want to go into here was to circulate the story that he was
going West to raise prize hogs. Now, Carl Sandburg called Chicago the Hog Butcher to the World. So one wonders
what ERB was thinking. He actually did raise hogs at Tarzana but pig farming darn near broke him.
I can only guess what his fellow White Paperers thought but drawn on the menu was a picture of a pig with wings
flying West. If I were ERB I might laugh with the fellows but I wouldn’t think it was a very funny joke. After all the
phrase ‘when pigs have wings’ means something impossible while if I were ERB I might think that pig meant me and I
might think the message was ‘good riddance and keep going.’ But, maybe I’m hypersensitive.
At any rate Burroughs went and he didn’t come back. He never seemed to miss Chicago a lot although there are many
references to the city in his later work so he kept a watchful eye on the town.
So, at the age of forty-three ERB began a new life in sunny SoCal. The world had changed: without possibly
understanding why there was no place in the new world for people like Edgar Rice Burroughs. Part of his problem was
caused by himself. As a newcomer in town ERB took it upon himself to be morally outraged by Hollywood. Hollywood
had itself outraged the morals of the nation so the town was tender and sensitive on the subject. By the time ERB
published his book in 1923 Hollywood was mired in some serious scandals not least of which was the Fatty Arbuckle
murder trials. ERB’s novel discussing the seedier side of Hollywood life offended some sensibilities. As a newcomer to
Hollywood the novel, The Girl From Hollywood, was ill considered. While an excellent novel, in the circumstances it
had been better left unwritten.
In combination with his novel the political situation of the world had changed. The World Revolution had succeeded in
Russia in 1917. Everyone not in sympathy was anathema and ERB was not in sympathy. He was not loath to advertise
this fact. Hence the Communists reacted: in the years 1920-24 his novels were neglected in Britain; they were under
assault in Germany; his movie revenues dried up in Hollywood while one wonders if his books received the circulation
their popularity demanded.
Another social issue forcing him to the outside was his response to a questionnaire forwarded to him from Chicago
sent by the American Jewish Committee. The questionnaire apparently wanted to know his opinions on Jews - was he
unequivocally a supporter or did he have reservations. ERB had a reservation that was reasonable but not reasonable
enough for the American Jewish Committee. ERB was apparently black listed as all income from the movies ceased
from 1921 to 1928. Tarzan was persona non gratis in Hollywood.
When his income dried up ERB was no longer able to support his magnificent estate of Tarzana. Thus began years of
economic problems. Hollywood does not tolerate economic problems so there is no record of ERB having a social
history in Tinseltown.
ERB began having problems with his publishers most likely because of his anti-Red politics. This resulted in his
forming his own publishing company in 1930. So, really by 1930 ERB was virtually outside society. Like his creation
Tarzan he was backing down a limb followed by a panther. Undoubtedly it was thought that he would fail as a
publisher but he didn’t.
His movie fortunes had changed in 1928 when the ‘anti-Semite’ Joseph P. Kennedy, Jack Kennedy’s father, broke the
black list and released a Tarzan movie.
This caused a reaction in the Jewish community that apparently sought to undermine the FBO film Tarzan And The
Golden Lion that is available today and a very good silent film starring ERB’s son-in-law, James Pierce who draws a
mean bow on the cover.
Two quick films were released by a Jewish film company that held the rights to two novels purchased in 1922 but
never filmed. One of these is currently available Tarzan The Tiger, while the other isn’t. Frank Merrill of Tarzan The
Tiger isn’t a bad Tarzan either.
Apparently heads were put together for a long term solution to Burroughs. A plan was put in effect by
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, MGM. In 1931 ERB signed a contract with them that virtually stripped him of control of his
creation. Although MGM’s 1932 Tarzan The Ape Man was a hit there is good reason to believe it was a clownish attempt
to finish the career of Tarzan. No one was more surprised than MGM when the movie became a box office smash. This
was the first sound movie and maybe the famous Tarzan yell, that also might have been meant as a joke, put the movie
over. But the career of Tarzan was effectively out of Burroughs’ hands. He fought back with a couple really good
Tarzan novels. The last of that batch, Tarzan And The Lion Man, ridiculed MGM’s fabled African epic Trader Horn in
revenge for MGM’s treatment of Tarzan.
That Burroughs realized he had been frozen out is evident by the scene with which I started this essay where Tarzan is
standing outside the walls of London wanting in. This is some of the most masterful writing of a dream sequence
imaginable. The room for interpretation is almost unlimited. For this essay I choose to see the scene as representing
Burroughs/Tarzan in 1911 when he was standing out in the cold wondering how to be become a success.
Symbolically Tarzan leaps up grasping the down pointed sharpened stakes impossibly lifting himself straight up then
rolling forward past the stakes. Burroughs success as a writer was about that impossible and sensational.
Once inside the symbolic London that is populated by a colony of apes who are literal descendants of Henry the Eighth
and his court Tarzan skirts the partying crowd to begin a solo attempt to ‘heaven.’ So in real life as Burroughs was
shunned by society Tarzan avoids it here. The apes as descendants of Henry the Eighth have been created by a renegade
Englishmen known as God to the apes who created them by a process similar to DNA
God’s castle then is known as Heaven and it is that to which Tarzan ascends. As noted earlier he enters a door and is
trapped in prison. There is no viable way out so that Heaven is torched going up in flames just as Burroughs career had
with the loss of Tarzan. Thus everything Burroughs had worked for for twenty years went up in smoke. This is a very
simple interpretation. A more complete one would take fifty or more pages.
Now in control the Judaeo-Communists set about ridding themselves of Burroughs in much the same way, perhaps,
that Chicago did.
Burroughs rashly undertook to make his own Tarzan movies. He was led into this disastrous effort by Ashton Dearholt.
This man was the husband of Florence Gilbert Dearholt who left Dearholt to marry Burroughs at just this time. Linking
up with Dearholt was a recipe for disaster it seems to me.
Burroughs’ venture into film making was disastrous. He had antagonized the radio people so the successful and
lucrative Tarzan series were off the air until after his death. His productive years as a writer were behind him so he was
almost entirely dependent on MGM for his income. While MGM could have successfully made two or three Tarzan
films a year profitably they chose to make a movie only every two or three years keeping Burroughs on a short
Unable to sustain a high profile Hollywood life style ERB was forced into exile in 1940 leaving the film capitol for
Thus the process of placing him outside begun in the fifth grade in Chicago was completed in 1940 when he was run
out of Los Angeles virtually stripped of his great creation Tarzan.
With their nemesis gone MGM tired of the game giving up the lucrative character a couple years later to Sol Lesser.
Lesser’s Tarzan movies redeemed ERB’s declining years allowing him to return to Los Angeles to quietly live out his
life without worries.
I have presented here only as aspect of ERB’s life but in many ways what a life it was. One wonders if ERB was joking
when he told a reporter he lived an uneventful life.
The Old Tiger capped his astonishing career in 1950 when he passed to the outside one last time. He passed through an
open door that softly closed behind him allowing no return.
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