You’re working on the Great American Novel, and
following all the best advice to new writers. You read widely from the
great books. You study the rules of grammar and effective composition.
You write about what you know. You write, revise, and write more. And you’re
prepared to endure years of obscurity before your work gets popular.
Of course, you can completely ignore all these rules and
still succeed. Edgar Rice Burroughs proved it. Without trying, he broke
nearly every conventional rule for achieving literary success. He didn’t
study composition or do much practice writing. He didn’t read widely. He
didn’t even want to be an author.
Burroughs grew up with dreams of a military career, but
when he applied to West Point, he failed the entrance exam. He enlisted
in the army but was soon discharged for medical problems. For years, he
drifted between jobs, selling cattle, managing an office, running a store,
and mining for gold among other unsuccessful endeavors. He only started
writing magazine fiction because he was desperate to earn a little money.
In 1911, he submitted an adventure story about life on
Mars to All-Story, a pulp magazine. When it was accepted, he turned out
two more in the same vein. And then he wrote Tarzan of the Apes.
Rather than writing about what he knew, Burroughs set
his adventure-fantasy in Africa, a continent he only knew from a single
book he’d read. Yet his ignorance of the country didn’t reduce the story’s
appeal when it was published in 1912.
Burroughs soon followed up on his jungle hero with The
Return of Tarzan. Before his death in 1950, he published 22 more titles
in the Tarzan series. Between these books, he also wrote over 45 other
novels, most of them set in outer space or the Wild West. They helped make
Burroughs a wealthy man, but they were never as successful as the Tarzan
Burroughs began to exploit the public’s enthusiasm for
his jungle hero despite the advice of experts. They warned him that he
would over-market his character and the public would tire of Tarzan. But
Burroughs ignored them and licensed his character for simultaneous use
in comic strips, movies, and merchandise. Once again, he proved the experts
wrong. Instead of diluting the appeal, mass-marketing Tarzan only made
the character even more popular.
We’ve come a long way since Tarzan was the most popular
hero of the day. Other characters have arisen to crowd him off the center
stage of popular culture. This year, as he turns 113 years old, he probably
wouldn’t seem impressive if you stood him in a lineup with today’s superheroes.
But don’t let his lack of cape and skin-tight costume fool you. Modern
superheroes, and their creators, owe their livelihood to Tarzan. He was
a major turning point in popular fiction, and he made a new generation
of do-gooders possible.
Before his time, the heroes in adventure novels were drawn
from an established cast of chivalrous characters. They might be noble
cowboys or soldiers, but just as often they were roguish characters who
lived on the edge of society: outlaws, pirates, or detectives. But all
heroes, if they existed on planet Earth, had to fight the usual villains
with conventional weapons. Adventure stories had to stay within the fictional
boundaries that readers knew.
Tarzan changed the rules for heroes just as Burroughs
changed the rules for writing bestsellers. His jungle hero wasn’t limited
to traditional strength. Raised by apes, Tarzan had developed incredible
power. He could fight all manner of dangerous animals, including fantastic
creatures and dinosaurs.
His African locale also opened new possibilities for villains.
Tarzan fought slave traders (Tarzan Triumphant), mad scientists (Tarzan
and the Lion Man), communist plunderers (Tarzan the Invincible), homicidal
cult (Tarzan and the Leopard Men), and German soldiers in World War I (Tarzan
the Untamed). And in a creative leap that better writers might have advised
against, Burroughs dropped him into forgotten colonies of people lost in
time, so he could fight medieval knights (Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle) and
Roman gladiators (Tarzan and the Lost Empire).
As long as he was rewriting the rules, Burroughs could
expand the realm of the possible. He made Tarzan implausibly smart. For
example, Tarzan taught himself to read English from a book, even though
no one had ever explained what a book was. In fact, he hadn’t even heard
human speech when he learned to read. But then, there had never been a
hero like Tarzan. And once readers got pulled into the book, they wouldn’t
stumble over such impossibilities.
Burroughs’ great hero may have faded into the background
of popular characters, but he is never forgotten. The character has appeared
in about 100 motion pictures, not counting the several Tarzan television
programs. No doubt there’ll be another Tarzan movie in the future. Perhaps
it could be another Disney animated feature; the director of the wildly
popular Frozen recently declared that Tarzan was the brother of his movie’s
Modern readers who pick up a Tarzan book for the first
time might find Burroughs’ style a little dated. But he may also note the
similarity between Burroughs’ hero and another orphan who grew up to wage
a solitary, unbound-by-rules war on evil. The resemblance isn’t coincidence:
Without Tarzan, there could be no Batman.