rain drops pattered unceasingly on the shingle roof of a country cottage.
A small boy, finished the last page of a book, which contained a weird
tale of a colony of ape-men in the heart of a little province of China.
The ape-men raided villages and carried away women, according to the tale,
and kept them in captivity, repulsing the men who came to rescue them .
The boy folded the book and let his imagination wander.
He was always imagining things, and where was there a better place to imagine
things than in the retreat in the attic, under the rain drops. The rain
drops helped him to wander through strange lands and to mingle with strange
people. He had often made imaginary trips to Mars where he had met people
unlike any he had ever encountered in real life.
Some twenty years later, Edgar Rice Burroughs, who had
cultivated his imagination while the rain drops pattered on the roof, wrote
"Tarzan of the Apes" and "A Princess of Mars," known to every reader of
the popular magazines.
The little boy of the attic, who later made good use of
his imagination, never took himself seriously. He doesn't take himself
seriously yet. Unlike most other writers, he doesn't try to be serious,
and therein, perhaps, lies the secret of his great success. Too many writers
of today attach too much
importance to their make-up. Edgar Rice Burroughs is
not important not to his way of thinking.
Were he to cease writing tomorrow, many a magazine editor
would at once begin to search for another writer who could fill the bill.
The demand for the kind of tales that Edgar Rice Burroughs turns out has
been created, without a doubt, because he never took himself seriously.
Today you will find Burroughs at the Tarzana Ranch, Reseda,
California, taking himself no more seriously than he did when he let his
boyish mind wander away from the attic retreat to Mars. From those wanderings
he accumulated material from which he produced the Tarzan series, nine
in all, commencing with "Tarzan of the Apes." Then came the Martian series
in five volumes, beginning with "A Princess of Mars." Some of his other
very popular stories included "The Mucker," and "At the Earth's Core."
"The Girl From Hollywood" is just off the press, and will be at the book
stores in a short time. The story is about motion picture people, bootleggers,
narcotic addicts and gentlemen farmers of California quite a mixture, but
just the kind of a combination to receive the full benefit of Burroughs'
great storehouse of imagination, combined with facts. He has written it
with that unimportant style that has made his works famous.
He is at present working on a wild and woolly western
story at the request of Sir Algernon Methuen, his London publisher. He
has usually written about Mars and Africa, and this new tale of the west
will be something a little different from anything he has ever done. But
he is writing about something of which he should know a great deal, since
he was a cow-puncher in his youth, and hunted the festive renegade through
Arizona while serving with the Seventh United States Cavalry.
"Tarzan of the Apes" was Burroughs' most interesting character
creation. Tarzan won his way into the heart of every reader of the series
because of the way he was created and, we might say, brought up. Part of
him came from the fabulous history of Remulus and Remus [sic.], and the
rest from the ape-man tale of the China province.
There are no new plots, according to Burroughs' idea.
Plots are plots, used over and over again, only in a different way. The
same story is told over and over again, but always in a different way.
If the new way is unique as well as new, the plot often goes over big.
There are three children in the Burroughs' family. Jean,
15 [sic.], Hulbert, 14, and Jack, 10 years old, all of whom, along with
Mrs. Burroughs, add to the environment and home life from which Burroughs
gets his inspirations. He does most of his work just after breakfast and
averages about four hours a day. He believes that the best an author can
give can be accomplished in a short day. The writer who spends his entire
day over the typewriter, he says, is selling words and not the story. Burroughs
gets five cents a word where others get two and three. Outside of the four
hours he averages at work on his stories, he spends about all of his time
with his family.
Burroughs is not a sportsman in one sense of the word.
He does not like to kill wild animals, except the predatory species. He
will hunt all day for a hawk or a rattlesnake, and pass up chances to shoot
tree squirrels, grouse or quail. He has never hunted big game, except the
cougar or coyote.
He drives an automobile, and much of his time with his
family is spent rolling over long stretches of country road. He plays tennis
and golf, and wouldn't win any medals at either.
"I am interested in nearly everything," he told me, "and
excel in nothing," which is further evidence that he does not take
himself too seriously.
There isn't anything he dislikes more than hobbies. He
has none. His nearest approach to one is horses, and they're not hobby
horses either. He rides a great deal along the country lanes and over mountain
trails when the opportunity offers. He is a good swimmer, and so are all
of the other members of the Burroughs family.
It never fell to Burroughs' lot to engage in newspaper
work, although he wrote special articles long before he began to sell.
"A Princess of Mars" was his first story. He wrote half of it and sent
it to The All-Story Weekly. Tom Metcalf was then editor of All-Story. Metcalf
read it and wrote the following note to Burroughs:
"If the last half of 'A Princess of Mars' is no rottener
than this first
half I may buy it. Let's see the other half."
Burroughs was not over-impressed with the note. He waited
some time before he wrote the other half, then he waited a while longer
before he sent it to Metcalf. Metcalf wrote back an acceptance which was
followed by a check from All-Story.
There are no rejection slips pasted on Burroughs' work-room
wall. In this respect he was very fortunate. He has written over forty
novels and novelettes, and he has only two on hand, all the others having
been printed. One of the two on hand is practically sold. The other has
no sale because it is anti-Bolshevik propaganda. Every magazine editor
has shied at it like a horse at a moving shadow.
"I have had plenty of rejection slips," Burroughs said,
"but if I couldn't fool one editor I could another."
The interesting feature of Burroughs' success as a writer
is that he had no training whatever, to speak of. In fact he never had
any training of any nature until he started to write and trained himself.
"My parents thought some of making a doctor out of me,"
he said, "and then again they considered a law career. It seems to me that
there were two or three other things they thought of, just as all parents
do, with the pleasing result that I became nothing, much to my liking."
"How many books by other authors do you read a month?"
I asked him, led to the question by the many books he had stacked away
in his library.
"I doubt if I average two books a month," he replied.
"Over ninety per cent of what I read is non-fiction. I get my fictional
recreation in writing it. I like to read the kind of stuff that I don't
write, mainly technical subjects."
This practice in reading applies to many writers. Other
than scanning through the magazines, nothing changes in policies, kind
of style and the construction of a story, they spend but very little time
in pursuing the story itself, as the chronic reader does. As recreation
they prefer to read something
entirely different from what they write. The comic section
of a daily newspaper, or a column of jokes, along with the news itself
is subject matter for recreation.
"Do not take your work seriously if you are writing fiction,"
is Burroughs' advice to aspiring young authors. "If you do it cramps your
style and gives everybody a pain."
Burroughs' personality is difficult to understand, unless
you happen to know him well. A quick acquaintance with him is not possible.
You must feel him out, and at the same time you will also realize that
he in turn is feeling you out. But once the acquaintanceship starts to
form, friendship begins to ferment, like bubbles on home-made beer. It
gets better and better every day, and the longer it stands the more lasting
it becomes. There are some men who bubble over with friendliness the minute
you meet them, and the longer you know them the less they bubble. It's
the breed more than anything else. A mongrel dog will three times out of
four make friends with you in five minutes, but a thoroughbred Airedale
pays no attention to your snapping fingers and kind words. Days go by before
he even notices you. At last he accepts your attention. And when he does
he's your friend for life; he'll fight for you, while the mongrel will
tuck his tail between his legs and slink away.
That, perhaps, is rather a rude way of putting it. But
compare Edgar Rice Burroughs with the Airedale pup and you have him in
a nutshell. He's hard to get acquainted with and difficult at first to
understand. But once you've made the grade you'll say he's a thoroughbred.
Every writer has his own favorite authors. Of those who
are living, Burroughs' favorites are Mary Roberts Rhinehart, Booth Tarkington
and Owen Wister. I asked him who the three leading writers of America were,
and he replied:
"It will be a hundred years, perhaps, before that question
can be answered with any degree of accuracy, and then you and I won't give
a whoop what the answer is." He then named those mentioned above as his
I asked him to tell me something interesting about himself.
This after he had told me all he seemed to care to tell me about himself.
'Well, I must admit," he said, "there is nothing interesting
in what I have told you," and laughed at what he thought was a good joke.
"No, it is not very interesting," he went on; "but if
we tell the truth about ourselves it is not likely to be interesting. All
the interesting things in my life never happened. I am always late for
the thrill; I always get to a fire after it is out. I have been shot at
a couple of times, but the other fellow missed. I have almost shot a couple
of men, but didn't. I have always survived, so I don't know what it's like
to be killed, and thus it goes. I simply never can connect with adventure
and I can not afford a press agent."
Burroughs may not have connected with the real adventure,
but he certainly misses nothing insofar as his imagination is concerned.
If every writer got as much of a thrill out of his work as Edgar Rice Burroughs,
we would enjoy more thrills ourselves when pursing the contents that are
to be found in the pages of a magazine between where the advertising quits
in the front and starts again in the back.
By Seth T. Bailey
Oakland Tribune Magazine, June 3, 1923