CHAPTER ONE: The Sum of the Parts
By John Taliaferro ~ Scribner ~ Reprinted from The New York Times
"If you write one story, it may be bad; if you write a hundred, you have the odds in your favor," Edgar Rice Burroughs lectured young authors. In his case, though, it took far fewer to hit the mark. Tarzan of the Apes, written when he was thirty-six years old, was only the third story Burroughs submitted for publication. It ran in full in the October 1912 issue of The All-Story, taking up virtually the entire magazine. The reception exceeded the wildest dreams of author and editors alike and triggered a phenomenon unprecedented in publishing history. Dazzled readers proclaimed Tarzan one of the best adventure tales ever and pleaded for more. And so Burroughs obliged: twenty-three more Tarzan novels over the next thirty years, plus another fifty non-Tarzans, including eleven set on Mars, six at the center of the Earth, and five on Venus. A formal accounting of Burroughs's total sales has never been made, but the most conservative estimate is thirty million books sold during his lifetime; a more generous tally is sixty million. Considering that Burroughs's titles have been published in more than thirty languages and given the broad circulation of his stories in magazines and comics, there can be little question that he was the most widely read American author of the first half of the twentieth century.
"I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or any other," he begins his chronicle of an orphaned child raised by apes. More truthfully, his tale was guided by a number of distinguishable sources, including the legend of Romulus and Remus, wild children of early Rome; Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves in Kipling's The Jungle Book; and travelogues of colonial Africa from the end of the nineteenth century. Burroughs had never heard of Rousseau's noble savage or Nietzsche's Übermensch, and though he owned a copy of Darwin's The Descent of Man, he never got much beyond sketching a monkey on the title page. Nevertheless, he had acquired a layman's grasp of one of the burning issues of the post-Victorian era--and for that matter, every period since. "I was mainly interested in playing with the idea of a contest between heredity and environment," he wrote in Writer's Digest twenty years after the first publication of Tarzan of the Apes. "For this purpose I selected an infant child of a race strongly marked by hereditary characteristics of the finer and nobler sort, and at an age at which he could not have been influenced by association with creatures of his own kind I threw him into an environment as diametrically opposite that to which he had been born as I might well conceive."
Baby Tarzan, as nearly everyone knows, grows up to become lord of the apes. He is a crafty woodsman and a silent stalker. His eyes, ears, and nose miss nothing. He "fills his belly by the chase" and prefers his meat raw. He backs down to neither man nor beast and does not recognize fear. "I know the word," he says in Tarzan and the Leopard Men, "but what has it to do with death?" Every Tarzan tale is full of stupendous action: mortal combat with apes and lions and breathtaking aerial traverses of the "middle terraces" of the African forest. In its sheer passion, Tarzan's yell, the victory bellow of the bull ape, is the supreme cri de coeur, and his romance with Jane is as primal and star-crossed as those of Romeo and Juliet or Beauty and the Beast.
But what many people forget--particularly those more familiar with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's and Johnny Weissmuller's film version of the Tarzan story--is that Tarzan, besides being king of the jungle, is also the son and rightful heir of England's Lord and Lady Greystoke, and in the final pages of Tarzan of the Apes, he must come to terms with his gentility. Loincloth, knife, and bow remain his preferred wardrobe, but he adjusts to tailored suits and cafe society with remarkable ease. In later episodes, he flies a plane, quotes Latin, and oversees English and African estates. Blood--in his case, blue blood--always tells, an axiom that Burroughs stresses in nearly all of his stories.
In his sublime synthesis of nature and nurture, Tarzan is as timely as he is timeless. By the turn of the nineteenth century, America's idol of earthy virtue, the frontiersman, had been crowded out by the decadent city slicker and by a new class of immigrants, mostly Mediterranean and Eastern European, who, in contrast to the fin de siècle bourgeoisie, were deemed too uncouth, too thick-wristed to enrich the American commonweal. Enter Tarzan, the embodiment of Teddy Roosevelt's "strenuous life," a latter-day Leatherstocking whose exuberant physicality and solid pedigree provided a welcome antidote to the mongrel modern age.
And in short order, he became a superhero, the first pop icon to attain global saturation. As such, he was the forefather of Superman and more recent real-life marvels such as Michael Jordan. Before Tarzan, nobody understood just how big, how ubiquitous, how marketable a star could be.
But while there can hardly be a person on the planet who has not heard of Tarzan, very few are familiar with Edgar Rice Burroughs. Most who recognize the stuffy triple name assume that, like Lord Greystoke, he must be British, when in fact he was a native of Chicago and the founder of--what else?--Tarzana, California. Despite his enormous appeal, his work is not taught in schools or welcomed in the American canon; as a result, only diehard Burroughs buffs--most of whom cherish their collections of Burroughs books and memorabilia like splinters from the true cross--have any feel for the clever and complex creator of the century's most popular hero.
One reason for Burroughs's undeserved ostracism is the stigma attached to pulp fiction. According to the laws of the cultural jungle, writers like Hemingway or Fitzgerald are literary lions; Burroughs and other paid-by-the-word authors of science fiction, westerns, whodunits, and romantic confessionals are monkeys with typewriters--hacks. Burroughs pretended not to mind his lowbrow status. "I don't think my work is `literature,' I'm not fooling myself about that," he told the Los Angeles Times. Writers of his ilk, he volunteered with a shrug, belong "in the same class with the aerial artist, the tap dancer, and the clown." Even so, he tried again and again to break out of the pulp ghetto and place his stories in "slicks"--The Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Collier's--where the money and prestige were better.
Because of his low regard for his profession and because he had backed into it at such a late age, Burroughs was always uncomfortable with his accomplishments. "If I had striven for long years of privation and effort to fit myself to become a writer, I might be warranted in patting myself on the back," he confessed to his brother George in 1929, "but God knows I did not work and still do not understand how I happened to succeed." Nevertheless, his imagination was evident from the start. He drew delightful caricatures and wrote clever verse as a young boy, creativity that was curbed by his short attention span and his unshakeable sense that he did not meet the standards of his father, Maj. George Tyler Burroughs, a well-to-do Civil War veteran. His academic record was erratic, demotions and dismissals negating any bursts of achievement. He won an appointment to West Point only to fail the entrance exam, and he never lasted long at jobs, even the ones at which he did well, such as supervising the stenography department at Sears, Roebuck. By the time he started writing in earnest, he did so more out of resignation than avocation. "I was sort of ashamed of it as an occupation for a big, strong, healthy man," he confessed.
To thrive in the pulp market, where a good rate was a penny a word, a natural flair for storytelling was essential. "Plots are in the air. All you have to do is reach out and take them," Burroughs said of his knack for spinning yarns with such apparent ease. But without his array of other talents, he might easily have failed. His energy was titanic, like that of his fictional heroes. In a morning, he could conjure and conquer entire worlds, pecking thousands of words or filling a half-dozen dictaphone cylinders, even with his children crawling at his feet and creditors buzzing around his ears. More remarkable still was his head for business. In 1923, he became one of the very first writers to incorporate, and over the years, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., grew into a complex organism. Most of his stories were first serialized in inexpensive magazines--known as pulps, for the low-grade paper on which they were printed. After that, they were published in book form. Then the "first edition" books became "popular" editions, or cheap hardcovers, the forerunners of paperbacks. This progression was not unusual: most of Jack London's yarns of the Far North, Zane Grey's westerns, and H. Rider Haggard's African adventures also appeared in magazines before they became best-selling books. But in one very important respect, Burroughs was in a league all his own. In 1931, he grew weary of having to share his income with middlemen--"parasites," he called them--and began publishing his own books under the ERB, Inc., imprint. Still not content with the return on his creative capital, he struck deals to turn Tarzan into a radio show, a daily newspaper strip, a Sunday comic page, and, most lucrative of all, motion pictures. Though marketing experts and syndication agents warned that Tarzan on the radio would compete with Tarzan in the comics or that serial motion pictures would steal audiences from feature motion pictures, Burroughs was convinced that the total would exceed the sum of the parts. As he saw it, there was no such thing as overkill, and well before Walt Disney ever hawked his first mouse ears or Ninja Turtle "action figures" became film stars, Burroughs was already a grand master of a concept that would one day be known as multimedia. He licensed Tarzan statuettes, Tarzan bread, Tarzan ice cream, bubble gum, bathing suits, and puzzles, and he founded a national network of Tarzan "clans" to convert American youth to the Tarzan way.
Yet for all his ingenuity and diligence, too often his successes were offset by disappointment and liability. With only a couple of exceptions, he never did graduate from the pulps. He failed at two marriages and was obliged to subdivide his beloved Tarzana ranch, paving the way, literally and ironically, for a suburb of drive-ins, drive-throughs, and mini-malls. Despite his extraordinary popularity, he never made a killing on any one deal. Royalty checks came frequently, but they never amounted to more than a few thousand dollars. Even in years when his income exceeded one hundred thousand dollars--most years it was far less--his appetites and expenses always seemed to leave him cash poor. He had a weakness for Thoroughbreds and fast cars, and after he met his second wife, Florence, he made the mistake of trying to keep pace with the spendthrift elite of Hollywood and Palm Springs. Nor did it help his pocketbook and peace of mind to be perennially repelling lawsuits, mostly disagreements over permissions and royalties, or making legal thrusts of his own. And through it all, he had mouths to feed. Florence and her two children were but his latest dependents; his own children, Joan, Hully, and Jack, were on the ERB, Inc., payroll for much of their adult lives, as were his alcoholic first wife, Emma, his daughter's deadbeat husband, Jim Pierce, and his trusted man Friday, Ralph Rothmund.
Because of this relentless overhead, he could never afford to stop writing. The beast had to be fed constantly. Some years he wrote three or four hundred thousand words, four or five books' worth. Tarzan, naturally, was his mainstay; he averaged one a year. Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss the other fifty titles as chaff. His painstakingly researched a pair of novels about the Apache warrior Shoz-Dijiji are noteworthy for their progressive characterization of Native Americans. The Girl from Hollywood, his autobiographical novel about a California ranch family ruined by booze, dope, and movieland promiscuity, is an equally fascinating cultural document. He may not have been the first writer to fantasize about Mars, but in light of recent astrophysical evidence suggesting that life might once have existed there, and NASA's pledge to one day land on its surface, Burroughs, who grew up in an era before airplanes or automobiles, deserves a salute for fanning the dream.
It is true that some of his stories are duds. They suffer from continuity problems, and the gimmicks are threadbare. But considering how quickly he crafted his plots, most of them are amazingly tight and considered. He imbues each of his worlds, ape or alien, with what H. G. Wells called "practical incredibleness." Burroughs visualized them so completely, in fact, that he worked up maps of their kingdoms, sketches of their costumes, and alphabets and glossaries of their languages, including a comprehensive "Ape-English/English-Ape" dictionary. He took particular care in the taxonomy of monsters and beasts: for instance, the cyclopean Plant Men of Mars have hair follicles "the bigness of a large angle-worm" and the nose of "a fresh bullet hole that had not yet begun to bleed." ("Of the few stories that I have had rejected," he told a fan, "grewsomeness [sic] was the principal cause.")
In a typical Burroughs tale, the hero is a stranger in a strangeland--Tarzan in the jungle, John Carter on Mars, David Innes in the Inner World, Carson Napier on Venus. He is a warrior by both breeding and training. Repeatedly he is chased, outnumbered by savage hordes, and thrown into a "Stygian" cell of "Cimmerian" darkness. "Where there is life there is hope," exclaims John Carter when the going gets roughest, an optimism shared by all Burroughs protagonists. By application of brawn, brains, and valor, he eventually prevails over his adversaries and either makes his way home or else finds a new and better home.
Always, too, the leading man is called on to rescue a damsel in distress with whom he inevitably falls in love. Boy meets girl was hardly a new motif by the time Burroughs got around to employing it, though, remarkably, he was the first to introduce it to science fiction. (The subgenre would come to be labeled "scientific romance.") In most instances, the object of the hero's affections is well-born, beautiful, and though indubitably chaste, often provocatively clad--or in some instances, virtually unclad. Dejah Thoris, the Princess of Mars, parades through eleven novels seminude.
"Entertainment is fiction's purpose," Burroughs insisted time and time again, and he pleaded innocent to "disseminating any great truths or spreading any sort of propaganda" in his stories. Glib demurrals aside, however, he frequently held forth, usually allegorically but sometimes quite overtly, on a wide range of political and social issues. His vicious attacks on Germany during World War I in Tarzan the Untamed and The Land That Time Forgot eventually cost him his lucrative German audience. Infected by the postwar Red Scare, he railed against socialism at home and abroad in The Moon Maid and a number of other stories.
All of his plots, especially the Tarzans, boil down to survival of the fittest, a theme both romantic and political. Burroughs, like so many of his contemporaries, believed in a hierarchy of race and class. In the Tarzan stories, blacks are generally superstitious and Arabs rapacious. On Mars, the races descend from a Tree of Life and, like fruit, are color-coded red, green, yellow, and black. Burroughs was obsessed with his own genealogy and was extremely proud of his nearly pure Anglo-Saxon lineage. He came from "good" stock, a critical ingredient for good standing, he asserted. Over time, his fervid appreciation of genetic predetermination led him to the radical fringe of Darwinism: eugenics. At one point, he even wrote a column for the Los Angeles Examiner calling for the extermination of all "moral imbeciles" and their relatives, a doctrine that would soon be trumpeted by Adolf Hitler. In an unpublished essay, "I See a New Race," Burroughs offered his own Final Solution to the world's problems.
But he was also canny enough to play both sides of the street. Even as he was stressing Tarzan's and John Carter's superior bloodlines, he honored the Algeresque notion of the common man pulling himself up by the bootstraps. In 1911, when he submitted his first story, A Princess of Mars, to the Munsey family of magazines, he chose the pen name Normal Bean to signify that he saw himself as just a regular fellow, a man of the people. On one hand, he assumed a certain aristocratic detachment from his work; on the other, he attributed his success to the fact that he shared "a common weakness with 120,000,000 other Americans." Not surprisingly, Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper was one of his favorite books, and he borrowed Twain's trick of role reversal in many of his own stories. Another mentor was Jack London, whose proletarian heroes survive more through grit than through grace. No matter how well-born (or low) one might be, Burroughs realized, no one was perfect, least of all himself. "Are the heart and soul of man any better because of civilization," he asked, "or is the apparent betterment [of civilization] merely ... veneer?"
Indeed, there were periods when Burroughs's blithe hauteur failed him entirely, when self-effacement edged toward self-loathing. One of the worst occurred in 1940 and 1941, after he and Florence moved to Hawaii.
He had first brought her to Oahu on their honeymoon in 1935, after a delicate divorce from his first wife and a bizarre courtship; Florence, a former silent-movie actress, had been married to one of his business partners and trusted friends. When they returned in April 1940, they were accompanied by Florence's two children, Caryl Lee and Lee. Burroughs was turning sixty-five; his wife was half his age. Back in Los Angeles, they had been living far beyond his means, and he had exhausted himself trying to keep up with her. Once in Hawaii, though, his strength returned and his spirits improved. As the celebrated master of Tarzan, he was welcomed by a loose fraternity of navy and army men with an unlimited quantity of booze on their hands. "All my plans for retiring into a hole and pulling the hole in after me have been shot to hell," he joked after one particularly enthusiastic run of revelry. "You just can't say no to the people over here." Florence, too, was a welcome addition to the mostly male gatherings, though to hear her tell it, her role soon devolved into chauffeuring her tipsy, sunburned husband home from luaus and wee-hour card games. If anything, she was having trouble keeping up with him.
But while Hawaii provided a welcome change of scenery, it offered no escape. Between bridge, cocktails, and sunbathing, Burroughs still had to keep the pages coming. By the end of 1940, he had finished Mars, Inner World, and Tarzan manuscripts and was commencing a new Venus story. Over a period of ten days before Christmas, he wrote more than forty thousand words. That month, he, Florence, and the children had moved into the Niumalu Hotel in Honolulu, their third address since arriving in Hawaii. They had their own bungalow and most of their neighbors were long-term residents. Still, it was by no means a proper home. The rooms were cramped, buggy, and damp, and the family took their meals communally in the hotel's dining room. By mid-March, Florence had had enough. On the fourteenth, she and the children sailed for California. Four months later, she would sue for divorce, citing mental cruelty.
Her chief complaint was that Burroughs had made her feel old, or, contrarily, that because she was thirty years younger, he had made a show of acting more youthful, but had succeeded only in behaving childishly. She, however, was not entirely exempt from blame herself. Money was always an issue with her: the Ed Burroughs she had first been attracted to was a natty, venerable, and, she assumed, prosperous gentleman. According to Burroughs's allies, she was crestfallen when he informed her that they had to hold their expenses, including rent, to two hundred and fifty dollars a month, which was all the salary he was drawing from ERB, Inc., in 1941. With money, he was doubtless a father figure, potent and protective. On a budget, he was just another bald, slightly overweight old man.
Alone for the first time in forty years, Burroughs became a virtual shut-in, hiding behind the drawn blackout curtains of his Niumalu bungalow and talking to no one for days. An old bladder problem flared up, and he was hospitalized. He suspected he was dying.
Somehow he managed to keep plugging away at The Wizard of Venus, though his introductory paragraph reads like a note in a bottle. "I believe it was [explorer and natural historian] Roy Chapman Andrews who said that adventures were the result of incompetence and inefficiency," the story's hero, Carson Napier, declaims. "If that be so, I must be the prize incompetent of two worlds; for I am always encountering the most amazing adventures. It seems to me that I always plan intelligently, sometimes over meticulously; and then up jumps the Devil and everything goes haywire. However, in all fairness, I must admit that it is usually my fault.... I am rash. I take chances. I know that that is stupid. The thing that reflects most discredit upon my intelligence is the fact that oftentimes I know the thing I am about to do is stupid, and yet I go ahead and do it. I gamble with Death; my life is the stake." Burroughs was writing about the blunder that had first steered Carson Napier's spaceship in the direction of Venus, but he was also reflecting on his own decision to move to Hawaii, where his life was now very much in jeopardy.
He might easily have perished in Honolulu if two events had not intervened. One was the arrival of his son Hully on an undisguised mission of mercy. The second was an event that changed millions of lives besides his own, though he was among the few who witnessed it firsthand.
Unlike his fictional alter-egos, Burroughs had never been to war. He had been a cowboy and gold miner in Idaho and served in the United States Cavalry in Arizona. He had sailed through the Panama Canal, but never set foot in Africa, a continent he virtually owned in the popular imagination. He wrote about action, but his published words spoke louder than his own experience. "All the interesting things in my life never happened," he once confessed to an editor. "I am always late for the thrill. I always get to the fire after it is out."
Until Sunday, December 7, 1941. That morning, Burroughs and Hully woke early to play tennis but were distracted by the sound of what they believed to be antiaircraft practice. They soon learned the truth: the Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor.
That night, Burroughs and Hully patrolled the waterfront as volunteers in a civilian guard, and over the next four years, Burroughs made three trips to Pacific war zones and enjoyed the distinction of being the oldest American correspondent to cover World War II. His dispatches were not widely read, and he was far from a hero. Still, the tours of duty made up for a lot: his disillusionment as a cavalryman, his rejection by the Rough Riders in 1898, his relegation to the reserves during World War I, and the general sense of qualified achievement that had nagged him for most of his career.
He had never explicitly yearned for his life to imitate his art; just the same, it finally did. If writing Tarzan of the Apes had been the first big turning point in his life, World War II was the second and, in a way, it was the climax, as well. After the war, Burroughs returned to California, where he was at long last reunited with his children and grandchildren. He died not far from Tarzana in 1950, a relatively contented man.
Fifty years later, the time has come to reappreciate this imaginative, vigorous figure who played such a crucial role in shaping the century now so near its close. The life of Edgar Rice Burroughs is a chronicle of personal highs and lows, successes and insecurities that faithfully mirror the aspirations and tensions of the society around him. To be sure, pop culture--books, magazines, movies, radio, comics--would have burgeoned without Burroughs; but as one of its most innovative and prolific contributors, he truly had a Tarzan-size impact.(C) 1999 John Taliaferro All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-684-83359-X
Hollywood and Vine
A biography of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who gave the world Tarzan
A New York Times Review by David Traxel
The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan.
By John Taliaferro ~ Illustrated. 400 pp. ~ New York: Scribner. $30.
On May 1939, The Saturday Evening Post assigned the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alva Johnston to determine who was America's greatest living writer. The decision was to be based on: ''(1) The size of the writer's public. (2) His success in establishing a character in the consciousness of the world. (3) The possibility of being read by posterity.'' Johnston's judgment, evidently made with little or no ironic intent, was that only Edgar Rice Burroughs could lay claim to the crown. ''No other literary creation of this century,'' he argued, ''has a following like Tarzan.''
Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, made his first appearance in the October 1912 issue of All-Story magazine in a tale that took up almost the whole issue. Only the third piece that the 37-year-old Burroughs had ever submitted for publication, it proved sensationally popular, beginning a career that almost overnight rescued him and his family from near poverty. ''If I had striven for long years of privation and effort to fit myself to become a writer,'' he later admitted to one of his brothers, ''I might be warranted in patting myself on the back, but God knows I did not work and still do not understand how I happened to succeed.''
Burroughs (1875-1950) had grown up restless and mildly antiauthoritarian as the youngest in a family of four brothers in Chicago. The Major, as his father, George Tyler Burroughs, was called, was a Civil War veteran who had become a successful entrepreneur. Edgar had no interest in academic affairs, and though the Major sent him to Phillips Andover his stay at the exclusive prep school was brief because of poor grades. Instead, like many youths of his generation, he was driven by a desire for excitement and an active outdoor life. He spent his early manhood working as a cowboy, a gold miner, a railroad policeman and a trooper in the Seventh Cavalry in the Arizona Territory. Marriage, children and the realities of modern industrial America put an end to such adventures, so he then tried his hand at more conventional occupations, becoming a salesman (of pencil sharpeners, among other items), a bookkeeper and an office manager -- all the while pursuing various get-rich-quick schemes. Nothing worked out until he happened to pick up some pulp fiction magazines. ''I remember thinking,'' he wrote, ''that if other people got money for writing such stuff I might, too, for I was sure I could write stories just as rotten as theirs.''
Since Burroughs was capable of writing hundreds of thousands of words a year and shunned second drafts, he would eventually publish close to 100 books depicting warrior heroes who had been strangely transported to exotic worlds: Capt. John Carter is a Civil War veteran who ends up fighting evil forces on Mars, David Innes does the same in the center of the earth, Carson Napier battles on Venus and, of course, Tarzan is the unconquerable king of the jungle. These superheroes all possess impeccable lineage (Tarzan, after all, is really the English aristocrat Lord Greystoke, who is raised by an ape when his parents die on a trip to Africa), but they are willing to fight as savagely and joyously as any barbarian.
Burroughs proved as adept an entrepreneur as his father and was one of the first writers to incorporate himself, which both lowered his income tax and provided a strong framework for all his varied moneymaking efforts. Moving to Los Angeles in 1919, he purchased a large ranch in the San Fernando Valley, which he later developed into the suburb of Tarzana. His books' total sales were in the tens of millions, and they were translated into more than 30 languages. He also started a Tarzan radio show and a Sunday comic strip, and he licensed a range of products from Tarzan statuettes to bathing suits and bubble gum. The first Tarzan film was produced in 1918, but real success came with the series starring the Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller in the 1930's. Weissmuller's bare torso and virile victory cry thrilled audiences from Milan to Manila.
In ''Tarzan Forever,'' John Taliaferro, the author of ''Charles M. Russell: The Life and Legend of America's Cowboy Artist,'' skillfully recounts the story of Burroughs and his creations and is particularly good at showing how Burroughs fits into the growing importance of popular culture in the 20th century. However, the book would have benefited from deeper thinking about the contradictions of the man himself. Why was Burroughs so driven to see actual combat that he unsuccessfully tried to join Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War, then the Army during World War I, before happily gaining credentials as a front-line correspondent in World War II? How could a writer whose early success came from the barely literate readers of pulp magazines have been such a fervent believer in eugenics? (In a screed from the 1930's he argued that because the unintelligent were allowed to breed without restriction, ''the whole world was constantly growing stupider.'') And what lay behind the inconsistencies of his racism, where most often in his work he would portray blacks (or Arabs or Asians) as evil or comic fools yet occasionally show them as admirable and attractive? Burroughs wrote about his own days in the frontier cavalry, ''I worked under colored sergeants, and without exception they were better to work under than our white sergeants.'' Immediately following Pearl Harbor, he rabidly argued for isolating Japanese-Americans in camps, but after he came to know some during the war he was able to recognize them as patriotic Americans. Still, he thought, it would be better if they had never immigrated to this country. Trying to account for these complexities would have made for a richer study of both the man and his times.
By The Saturday Evening Post's criteria, a claim could still be made for Edgar Rice Burroughs's importance as a writer: most of his books remain in print, providing a solid income for his descendants, and Tarzan continues to swing through the imagination around the world. Taliaferro makes a few halfhearted attempts to claim a more elevated literary reputation for Burroughs than that of a mere pulp writer, as if he possessed talents for language and characterization that have been unfairly ignored by elitist critics. Burroughs himself suffered no such illusions. ''I don't think my work is 'literature,' '' he admitted to an interviewer, ''I'm not fooling myself about that.'' Writers of popular entertainment (he included himself) belonged ''in the same class with the aerial artist, the tap dancer and the clown.'' That is certainly an honorable enough place.David Traxel's most recent book is ''1898: The Birth of the American Century.''
Copyright New York Times 1999
King of the Jungle
Reason.com ~ John J. Miller from the August/September 1999 issue
Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan, by John Taliaferro, New York: Scribner, 400 pages, $30.00
Edgar Rice Burroughs was in bed reading the Sunday funnies on the morning of March 19, 1950, when he quietly slumped over, leveled by a heart attack at the age of 74. Death apparently came as he was reading a Tarzan comic strip. "At least," writes biographer John Taliaferro, "it is pleasant to think so."
Burroughs had been a failure at many things. He had not been a particularly good student growing up, his two marriages had fallen apart, and he couldn't hold a steady job. His careers included a stint in the Seventh Cavalry and work as a cowpuncher, newsstand clerk, pencil-sharpener salesman, and alderman (he skipped town three weeks after the election). Sometime in 1911 he started to write in his spare time, using the backs of old letterheads from a stationery firm his brother owned in Chicago. He sent his first story, A Princess of Mars, to the pulps, where an editor snatched it up, after a few revisions, for $400. This wasn't enough for Burroughs to quit his day job, but it inspired him to keep going. Within a year he had completed another tale, Tarzan of the Apes.
Its runaway success would define his life -- and unlock an entrepreneurial spirit rarely found in the literary set. "There can be little question that [Burroughs] was the most widely read American author of the first half of the twentieth century," writes Taliaferro in his engaging biography of Burroughs, Tarzan Forever. Taliaferro estimates that Burroughs sold somewhere between 30 million and 60 million books during his life -- an astonishing figure, especially for the time. By combining a critical enthusiasm for Burroughs, with an appreciation for his subject's business dealings, Taliaferro shines klieg lights on a man either derided or ignored by the English departments.
Unlike many of his competitors then and imitators now, Burroughs did more than scribble words. He built the proto-type of a multimedia empire, entering the emerging worlds of radio and movies the way today's conglomerates grasp at cable and the Internet. "As he saw it, there was no such thing as overkill, and well before Walt Disney ever hawked his first mouse ears or Ninja Turtle 'action figures' became film stars, Burroughs was already the grand master of a concept" immediately familiar to people today, reports Taliaferro.
Thanks to Burroughs' efforts, Tarzan is a ubiquitous icon of pop culture, an instantly recognizable character in the American imagination. Every boy, by instinct or design, will at some point reenact the scene Burroughs created so vividly in his first Tarzan story. After slaying a tiger (changed to a lion in later editions, after Burroughs learned that tigers don't live in Africa), Tarzan performed his most famous feat: "With swelling breast, he placed a foot upon the body of his powerful enemy, and throwing back his fine young head, roared out the awful challenge of the victorious bull ape." The famous Tarzan yell. When actor Johnny Weissmuller hollered it in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), it was, as Taliaferro describes, "a thing of primal virtuosity."
Much of Burroughs' oeuvre is sheer hackwork, and the author knew it. A productive year meant writing something like 400,000 words. Considering that a standard novel today contains perhaps half that many, if that much, this is an extraordinary output. There's an old crack that if you put a monkey in front of a typewriter and give him an endless amount of time, he'll eventually punch out Hamlet. Burroughs' reputation rests on a similar principle. As he once noted, "If you write one story, it may be bad; if you write a hundred, you have the odds in your favor."
Burroughs was simply one of the best adventure writers in the English language. Although he lacked the highbrow aims of H.G. Wells or the narrative skills of Jack London, he could relate an action sequence like few others. His best stories are the early ones -- later in life, he felt suffocated by the need to produce an unending train of sequels to his first few yarns, and grew frustrated that he would never top his first Tarzan tale. His heroes were all of a type, men of good breeding who found themselves adapting to an unfamiliar environment -- Tarzan raised by apes in the jungle, John Carter transported to Mars, David Innes exploring the hollow earth, Carson Napier roaming Venus, Bowen Tyler tramping around The Land That Time Forgot. His most successful stories always had a love interest, too. No Tarzan is complete without a Jane.
Many of his plots had ridiculous elements, as if they were pulled from bad Star Trek episodes (or perhaps inspired a few?). In one story, for instance, a mad scientist genetically engineers a group of gorillas to replicate the court of Henry VIII. In another, Tarzan stumbles on a lost tribe of cannibals. With tails. Burroughs sometimes tried, clumsily, to inject social commentary into his work, including undisguised attacks on Bolsheviks and Nazis. (In one Venus novella, the heroes battle an evil cult of anagrammatized "Zanis.") Yet he was also an armchair devotee of eugenics and early-20th-century race theory, and reading his depictions of non-whites, especially tribal Africans, can be a bristling experience.
Despite these unfortunate tendencies, Burroughs knew how to craft a potboiler. Tarzan of the Apes is still a good read, and is even available as an inexpensive Signet classic, with an introduction by Gore Vidal. Many of his other works remain in print as well.
The life of a freelance writer demands strong business skills, and Burroughs found himself in a cutthroat world negotiating pay rates and author rights with stingy editors. When Burroughs finished a story, he would mail it to one of the pulp magazines, which offered a popular form of entertainment back in the days when ordinary folk would fill their leisure time with reading instead of television. Pulps paid by the word, so authors tended to overwrite. Burroughs was no exception. In fact, when editors asked him to revise a manuscript, he usually lengthened his work -- and therefore his fee. This habit discouraged editors from meddling too closely with the text, and provided an incentive for immediate acceptance (or, in some cases, refusal).
Burroughs would also sell the same story many times over. After the pulps, he would look to books and newspaper serialization. No single sale was especially large, but small checks from scores of sources poured into his office. And it all added up.
He worked hard to squeeze every last money-making opportunity out of his work. "As he saw it, the act of writing was only part of his job description; marketing, he grasped, could and should be its own fine art," says Taliaferro. Burroughs became an expert at syndication and subsidiary rights, the sort of nitty-gritty detail-work that most successful writers today find so distracting that they hire agents. Although Burroughs eventually used a syndication agency and personal assistants, he routinely handled financial matters himself. In fact, Burroughs was a pioneer in establishing authors' rights to their own work, insisting, as is standard today, that writers retain secondary rights to their manuscripts.
Burroughs incorporated himself in 1923, issuing stock to himself, his wife, and his kids. In effect, he became an employee of his own company. He was not the first author to do this -- lower taxes made it an easy choice -- but he was certainly one of the practice's early advocates. The switch helped him stay in charge of his burgeoning business. (Tarzan was a big hit overseas and was being read in 17 languages, including Arabic and Icelandic.) It also aided his forays into ranching, investing, and real estate (he was the first developer of the Los Angeles suburb Tarzana). Despite these gains, the move increasingly made Burroughs treat his stories like products. "It must be wonderful to be able to devote one's life to art for art's sake, a luxury which I have never been able to afford," he once complained.
Burroughs' heirs will always appreciate his decision to incorporate. This summer, ERB, Inc., which still holds the copyright to the Tarzan name, can expect a new windfall when Disney packs movie theaters with a new animated version of Tarzan. Back in 1918, Tarzan of the Apes became one of the first movies to gross $1 million. The franchise's profitability only grew, especially when Weissmuller, a gold-medal-winning swimmer at the Olympics, assumed the title role in the early '30s. He was, in fact, the sixth actor to play Tarzan, and by far the most successful one. For a generation of boys growing up during the Depression, he was Luke Skywalker. (He also never uttered the legendary line, "Me Tarzan, you Jane." As Taliaferro explains, the famous scene has Weissmuller gesturing back and forth between Maureen O'Sullivan and himself, saying, "Jane... Tarzan...Jane...Tarzan.")
Following smash success on the silver screen, Tarzan spin-off products became a lucrative side industry for Burroughs and his business partners. There were Tarzan bows, arrows, spears, rubber knives, bathing suits, masks, costumes, pith helmets, games, and jungle maps. "Eventually there would be Tarzan bread, Tarzan ice cream, and Tarzan chewing gum," relates Taliaferro. There were even Tarzan boys clubs (called "clans"), complete with secret initiation rituals, instructions to make Tarzan weapons, and information on how to speak the language of apes.
Burroughs lived comfortably but never attained fabulous wealth; he was much better at earning money than spending it. Yet he left behind the kind of lasting legacy every aspiring author dreams about. In that sense, the title of Taliaferro's biography is perfect. Tarzan Forever.
Tarzan's creator shackled by his creation
Sam Hieb ~ Richmond.com ~ Published: July 13, 1999
Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan
By John Taliaferro
Scribner: 384 pages. $30.
"Tarzan Forever" tells the story of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the clever and complex creator of Tarzan, the most enduring and legendary action hero in the history of American popular culture, who is now in his latest manifestation in the new Walt Disney film.
John Taliaferro's biography shows that Burroughs was a real "man's" man. He was in the cavalry during the Indian wars (though he saw no action) and worked as a cowboy in Idaho. But he had trouble settling into a career until age 37, when, while working full-time in Chicago as a catalog editor, he penned his first Tarzan story at nights and on weekends. It was accepted by All-Story Magazine on its first submission and took up its entire October 1912 issue.
The Tarzan story begins with the shipwreck of Lord and Lady Greystoke and their infant son on the coast of East Africa. After his parents are killed, the baby is raised by gorillas. The story stemmed from Burroughs' profound interest in evolution -- a hot topic in the first two decades of the 20th century. Indeed, Taliaferro writes that Tarzan actually sprung from Burroughs' belief in eugenics -- a discredited view of Darwinism as "biological determinism."
Whatever Tarzan's origins, readers could not get enough of the literary Tarzan, whose creator sent him not only all over the world but even into the earth's core and into space to battle evil and injustice. He wrote 24 Tarzan books in all.
Right from the start, says Taliaferro, Burroughs regarded writing as a business; even as an unknown pulp writer, he negotiated pay rates with editors (at the time often a penny a word) and threatened to submit to other magazines if the rate was not to his liking.
This business acumen served him well. Burroughs discovered he could make money off Tarzan even after he tired of creating new adventures for his hero. The original master of multimedia, Burroughs struck deals to turn Tarzan into a radio show, a daily newspaper strip, a Sunday comic page, miniature statues and, most lucrative of all, motion pictures.
As his hero became the first identifiable movie hero, Burroughs made attempts to become a player on the fledgling Hollywood scene, reveling in the modest wealth and leisurely lifestyle his pulp fiction character afforded him.
But his attempts at screenwriting failed, and he sold the land surrounding his estate, intended for an exclusive community, to developers to support his increasingly extravagant lifestyle. (It is now the community of Tarzana in suburban Los Angeles.)
As time passed, Burroughs longed more than anything to break away from Tarzan creatively. Though he was able to turn his fascination with space travel and possible life on Mars into many profitable stories, he was, with few exceptions, unable to break away from the pulps.
His novel The Girl from Hollywood, while a fascinating cultural document of an early Hollywood riddled with booze, dope and sex, was greeted with lukewarm reviews, thus denying the most popular author of the early part of the 20th century the critical success he felt he deserved.
His marriage disintegrated as his wife slipped deeper into alcoholism, and his second marriage to an actress half his age crumbled under the pressure of mounting financial troubles.
Yet through all his complicated business dealings and celebrity-style partying, he remained a tireless writer, often producing 300,000-400,000 words a year, not to mention what he wrote in letters, journals and scrapbooks. He died in 1950.
The title of Taliaferro's book takes on more than a note of irony once the reader finishes it. Edgar Rice Burroughs will always be associated with Tarzan, even though he tried to escape from him.
But Taliaferro shows the reader that Burroughs' life encompassed much more than the hero he created and that he himself was an interesting mirror of American popular culture in the first half of the century.
EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS
[This biographical profile is based largely on the book Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan by John Taliaferro, 1999, Scribners.]
Ref: Historical Society of Southern California
With his fondness for fantasy, his high regard for real estate, and his confidence that the movies would make him wealthy, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875–1950) was the perfect immigrant to early 20th century Los Angeles.
"Pine no more my lassie
My little lad be gay!
For we’re going back
To our own Tarzana Ranch
To our own Tarzana Ranch far away"– from a tune written by Edgar Rice Burroughs about his ranch home
First and foremost, Edgar Rice Burroughs was the creator of Tarzan. He also created other pulp fiction heroes, but none with the staying power of his jungle superman. In his time, which covered the second, third and fourth decades of the last century, only Western writer Zane Grey came close to equaling Burroughs in popularity. Millions read his stories in magazines. Additional millions bought his books, 74 in all. Tarzan’s adventures could be tracked in Sunday comic strips, radio serials, and, of course, the movies.
And then there was Edgar Rice Burroughs the real estate developer – most notably, the founder of Tarzana, the San Fernando Valley community created when Burroughs sub-divided part of his 550-acre ranch bearing the same name.
This unusual combination of popular writer and property developer makes Burroughs a unique figure in Southern California history.
Born in Chicago, the son of Civil War veteran Maj. George T. Burroughs, the future writer was an undistinguished student and failed the entrance exam to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point . Footloose as a young man, he held a dizzying array of jobs before backing into a career as a writer. At various times, he was a member of the Army’s 7th Cavalry, a cowboy, a gold miner, a railroad policeman, an alderman, a salesman, an advertising contractor, and head of Sears Roebuck’s stenographic department in Chicago.
As a young man, he liked drawing caricatures and writing verse, but never imagined himself a writer. His perspective changed in 1911 at the age of 36. After reading a number of all-fiction magazines, he thought: “If other people got money for writing such stuff, I might too, for I was sure I could write stories just as rotten as theirs.” With nothing to lose, he began writing a romantic fantasy called “A Princess of Mars,” in which a soldier falls into a trance in Arizona and wakes up on Mars where he rescues the beautiful princess Dejah Thoris and defeats evil Martians with names like Tal Hajus, jeddak of Thark.
Much to his amazement, he sold the story for $400 under the unlikely pseudonym of Normal Bean. A second story was rejected, and then came “Tarzan of the Apes” for which Burroughs received $700 (less than a penny a word) and a letter from his editor praising it as “the most exciting story we have seen in a blue moon, and about as original as they make ‘em.” “Tarzan” ran in full in the October 1912 issue of The All-Story magazine (this time under the Burroughs name) and was an immediate success.
In his biography of Burroughs, Tarzan Forever, John Taliaferro writes: “Where had the idea for Tarzan come from? Burroughs never did come up with a pat explanation, perhaps because there was none. ‘I’ve been asked that hundreds of times and ought to have a good answer thought up by now, but haven’t,’ he told the Los Angeles Times in 1929.” (Burroughs, incidentally, never visited Africa .)
More Tarzan stories followed, as did stories with other heroes fighting the good fight in settings ranging from Mars and Venus to the Earth’s inner crust . In time, the stories became books which generated royalties and a new life for Burroughs.
“In a typical Burroughs tale, the hero is a stranger in a strange land – Tarzan in the jungle, John Carter on Mars, David Innes in the Inner World, Carson Napier on Venus,” writes Taliaferro. “He is a warrior by both breeding and training. Repeatedly he is chased, outnumbered by savage hordes, and thrown into a ‘Stygian’ cell of ‘Cimmerian’ darkness. ‘Where there is life there is hope,’ exclaims John Carter when the going gets roughest, an optimism shared by all Burroughs protagonists. By application of brawn, brains, and valor, he eventually prevails over his adversaries and either makes his way home or else finds a new and better home.” Taliaferro credits Burroughs with introducing boy-meets-girl romance into science fiction.
Throughout his life, Burroughs considered himself more of a businessman than an artist. “Once a story was on paper,” writes Taliaferro, “his fundamental strategy was always to get the highest possible fee from the best possible magazine, and then recycle – resell – the plots and characters in every possible way, like a tailor using every scrap from a bolt of cloth.” Burroughs eventually formed a company, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., to publish his books and manage his business interests.
The first Tarzan movie, starring Elmo Lincoln, appeared in 1918 and was a huge success. (Many of the scenes were shot in Griffith Park .) The movie’s popularity enhanced the sale of Burroughs’s books, and with royalties mounting, he moved himself and his family to Los Angeles from Oak Park , Illinois . Within weeks of their arrival in February 1919, Burroughs had bought the 550-acre San Fernando Valley ranch that had been the home of Los Angeles Times publisher Gen. Harrison Gray Otis prior to his death in 1917. The cost was $125,000. The ranch which Otis called Mil Flores (Thousand Flowers) included a 4,500 sq. ft., 20-room hacienda, gardens, orchards, fields and 500 Angora goats. Burroughs described it as “one of the loveliest spots in the world” and re-named it Tarzana.
Burroughs hoped that the ranch would become self-sufficient, but his expensive tastes, combined with a large mortgage and upkeep costs, took their toll. In 1922, one hundred acres closest to Ventura Boulevard were set aside to form a new community bearing the ranch’s name. “The city is rapidly going out Ventura way,” Burroughs wrote. When the sale of residential lots proved disappointing (an acre went for $3,000), he hired a broker who staged a “jungle barbecue,” gave away a car, and distributed autographed photos of the writer.
More changes were in the offing. In 1924, Burroughs and a group of investors formalized an agreement to develop 120 acres of Tarzana ranch land into the El Caballero Country Club. The 20-room hacienda where Burroughs and his family lived became the clubhouse. A few months later, Burroughs moved his family into a rented home in downtown Los Angeles . The following year, he built a modest home in the Tarzana subdivision less than a quarter of a mile from the clubhouse.
In 1928, writes Taliaferro, “the 400 residents of the Tarzana subdivision and the adjacent subdivision of Runnymede had gathered in the Reseda Masonic Hall and voted to unify under the name of ‘Tarzana.’ Where a decade earlier there had been open fields and a handful of modest homes, now there was a proper American suburb.” In 1930 the U.S. Postal Service gave Tarzana its own postmark and post office.
Burroughs characters had universal appeal, and his books were printed in 30 languages. During the ‘20s, he was the most widely read English-language writer in Russia , bettering O. Henry, H.G. Wells, Jack London, and Arthur Conan Doyle. A 1940 article in The Saturday Evening Post described Burroughs as America ’s greatest living writer based on three criteria: the number of readers, the creation of a memorable character, and “the possibility of being read by posterity.” The Post writer also observed: “He has enough fame for a thousand ordinary lions of the literary teas, but it has never meant anything to him except as it has boosted royalties.” At times, Burroughs bristled over his treatment by the literary community, which dismissed him as a “pulp fiction writer,” but he had few illusions about his work. He regarded himself primarily as a storyteller.
Even when he tired of mining the same old material, Burroughs went on writing Tarzan stories. “I think plots are like eggs,” he once wrote. “A hen is born with potentialities of just so many eggs, and after she has layed [sic] the last one she can sit on her nest and strain and grunt and never squeeze out another. Perhaps a writer is born with just so many plots. I have been straining and grunting and rearranging my feathers for a long time, but I can’t squeeze out a single new plot, and the old ones have commenced to smell.”
In the end, however, it was Hollywood that guaranteed Tarzan a long life. In 1932, MGM produced the first Tarzan sound movie with Olympic gold medal swimmer Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan and Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane. The movie was an enormous success and spawned more Tarzan films, with and without Weissmuller, who is generally regarded the best of the movie Tarzans. During the ‘30s, Tarzan also became a radio serial featuring Burroughs’s son-in-law and daughter, and a Sunday comic strip, drawn first by Hal Foster and then Rex Maxon. There was an even a nationwide fan club called Tarzan Clans of America. (In the late ‘60s, Tarzan became a TV series.)
Burroughs was twice married and divorced. For a time he lived in a rented quarters in Beverly Hills , in Palm Springs , and above the Sunset Strip. To reduce expenses he moved to Hawaii in 1940. On Dec. 7, 1941, en route to a tennis game with his son, he witnessed the bombing of Pearl Harbor . At the age of 66, Burroughs signed on as a war correspondent, but saw little frontline action. After the war, he returned to Los Angeles , crippled by a failing heart.
His last residence was a small bungalow on a half-acre lot north of Ventura Boulevard — in Encino, a few blocks from the Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., office on Ventura Boulevard in Tarzana. A severe heart attack further weakened him in December 1949, and he died on Sunday, March 19, 1950. His housekeeper found him slumped over the morning newspaper, writes Taliaferro. “Apparently he had been reading Tarzan in the funny papers when his heart stopped beating. At least it is pleasant to think so.” His ashes are buried under a tree in front of the Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. office which, 50 years after his death, remains the hub of a thriving enterprise, thanks to a jungle hero who may never die.
Read Michael Orth's review of Tarzan Forever in ERBzine 0443
REVIEW 6: A review by a renowned ERB fan and scholar on an off-site, external Web page.
Tarzan Forever: A Study in Moral Imbecility
Review by Patrick H. Adkins