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Volume 3035
How To Be A Great Writer
Sunday News, July 17, 1966
Tar Meets Zan,
Tar Gets Zan
"I know nothing about the technique of story writing and I still know nothing about the technique of story writing," Edgar Rice Burroughs said six months before he died. He died 16 years too soon to see his hero in a weekly television series which begins on NBC this fall, and without ever once making the mistake of going to Africa, in which his Tarzan novels were set. In this second and concluding installment, a contemporary of the author's describes his intense devotion to his creation, a key to his amazing success.
By Alva Johnston

 What makes a great writer may be open to analysis but not to judgment. Edgar Rice Burroughs, incapable and unimaginative in business for 15 years before he undertook even the preliminaries of the series that brought him fame and fortune, credits himself with only one stroke of genius -- the naming of Tarzan.

The impact of those two syllables on the eardrum is, in his opinion, largely responsible for the world success of the Tarzan books. This is one of the few literary secrets of Burroughs that is communicable. In christening his characters he works with syllables as some composers work with musical notes. He tests one sound against another until, after trying perhaps hundreds of combinations, to him a name that rings like a fire bell.

The early life of Burroughs was more interesting than his business earlier but it furnishes few hints toward becoming a great writer. His father, who had been a major in the Civil War, grew rich in t he distilling business. Later he became a manufacturer of electrical batteries.

He had a habit of reading aloud, which partly caused young Edgar's aversion to literature. When, for example, his father read Dumbey and Son, Edgar hated Dombey and had the impression that Dombey and Dickens were one and the same person. When he learned the difference, it was too late for him to overcome his grained prejudice against Dickens. He has also cherished a long life-long dislike for Shakespeare, but is big enough to state that he assumes it to be his fault rather than the bard's.

Burroughs' escape from grammar was a lucky accident. He was sent first to a private school in Chicago which held that the teaching of English grammar was nonsense and that students should absorb grammar through Latin and greek. Edgar absorbed no Latin and Greek.

He was then sent to Phillips Andover, which, assuming that all freshmen were thoroughly drilled in grammar, ignored that subject. Phillips Andover quickly waived on young Burroughs and he was sent to military academy, which paid no attention to grammar.

Edgar thus became an uninhibited writer, free from the anxieties about moods and tenses which kill spontaneity. Burroughs doesn't know whether he is grammatical or not, and cares less. He always writes or dictates at top speed in order to get his thoughts on paper while they are fresh and hot. No grammar-scared writer can do that. Burroughs never makes corrections unless he finds an inconsistency in his development of plot.

The battery business led the elder Burroughs to become interested in an electrical horseless carriage. Edgar demonstrated it at the World's Fair, in 1893. The only time he ever felt that he amounted to something was when he drove a nine-seater horseless surrey about the fairgrounds, starting runaways every hundred feet or so.

In his youth Burroughs had a craving for glory. He preferred the military variety because his father had been a soldier. After graduating from the Michigan Military Academy he joined its faculty as a cavalry instructor. After the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5, China, which had been defeated because her armament consisted largely of drums and dragon banners, started to reorganize her army. Burroughs sought a commission in the Chinese army, but failed. Later he obtained a commission in the Nicaraguan army, but his family interfered.

At the age of twenty he enlisted in the Seventh Cavalry and was sent to Arizona against Geronimo. Instead of cavalry charges, however, the campaign consisted mainly of ditch-digging. Wires were pulled, and, because Burroughs had enlisted while under age, he was discharged. In 1898 he volunteered for the Rough Riders, but received a polite letter of regret from Theodore Roosevelt.

During his brief Regular Army service, Burroughs had committed two grave infractions of  the military coed. On sentry duty, he was required to shoot to kill if anyone disregarded his warning of "Halt or I fire."

His warning was twice disregarded, but Burroughs did not shot. In each case he wrongfully saved the life of a drunken member of his own outfit. He escaped disgrace, his unorderly conduct never becoming known.

From the Army Burroughs went directly into cow herding and then into gold dredging. Years later, after establishing himself as a writer about imaginary worlds he wrote The Bandit of Hell's Bend, based on his Western experience. This was a violation of his custom of not writing things personally known to him, but Alexander Grosset of the publishing team of Grosset & Dunlap pronounced The Bandit of Hell's Bend the greatest Western ever written.

The old search for glory was raised in Burroughs only after the Spanish-American War. He happened to use the regal state in which the president of the Oregon Short Line travelled. He took the only railroad job he could get. Instead of glory Burroughs chased hobos in the Salt Lake City railroad yards for six months. When the idea of becoming a railroad president - his high ambition -- failed

See the related article from 1939 at:
How To Become A Great Writer
by Alva Johnston
The Saturday Evening Post
July 29, 1939

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