Professor Michael P. Orth is perhaps best known to fans of ERB
for his detailed, in-depth academic study:
A HISTORY OF E.R.B.: THROUGH THE AMERICAN MIND WITH CAMERA, GUN, AND KNIFE,
first serialized in ERBdom fanzine back in 1975.
In the Foreword of that work he stated:"Most of those who have written about popular fiction from the superior view of the social or literary critic have seen it essentially as escape. Those who have written about Burroughs have seen him as a purveyor of synthetic excitement. But my study shows that Burroughs and other mass-market writers like him, express the protests and dissatisfactions felt by millions of readers who recognized the broken promises of their world at the same time that they sought to satisfy their real yearnings for dignity and freedom.
This work, then, is the story of one man, and how he created from his dreams and frustrations an imaginative fantasy suited peculiarly to his own place and time, and how that great chain of fantasy was seized upon by other men and adapted to their needs and pleasures, until, passed from hand to hand, the stories of Tarzan and Burroughs' other heroes have become part of all men -- part of history rather than biography. Therefore, after all the names and dates and events are organized, after all the statistics are collected and confirmed, this study of Edgar Rice Burroughs shows how the mass market affects the individual artist, and how that artist in turn affects the market and the audience it feeds. Burroughs received his dreams from the culture of his time and place, and embodied them in his own characters and stories and returned them again to his readers, who then used them to create their own dreams. The relation was reciprocal."
Who, then, better qualified to report on the most recent Burroughs biography, Taliaferro's mildly controversial Tarzan Forever. Our sincere hope is that, in the near future, Professor Orth's own study of the Burroughs phenomenon will receive the exposure and recognition it deserves.
by John Taliaferro
Scribner, 1999, 367 pp, cloth $30. ISBN 0--684-83359-X
A Review by Michael P. Orth
By this time most of us have seen plenty of publicity for Disney's new Tarzan movie. Coordinated with the release of the film comes a new biography of ERB, the man who created Tarzan. It is more than just studio publicity. John Taliaferro's Tarzan Forever stands on its own as the best biography so far of Burroughs.
Anyone who remembers Burroughs as only the creator of Tarzan may want to look at his first story, Princess of Mars (1912), which brought sf ideas to the American mass audience. Today The Land that Time Forgot still appears on TV screens, and other Burroughs adventures, such as Swords of Mars (1933), depend even more on sf ideas, with spaceships, computers, and biological engineering. Stories like these establish Burroughs' pioneer role in "scientification" (sf) in the early 20th century.
Taliaferro begins his story by introducing the traditional Burroughs, modest and sensible. "If you write one story, it may be bad; if you write a hundred, you have the odds in your favor," he wrote, and at least partly believed. After that, Taliaferro leads us sensibly along a chronological track, venturing few opinions and falling into few absurdities.
Burroughs would have understood thoroughly and approved of his biographer's straightforward approach. He once complained about reviewers of his own books who looked for literary qualities they did not find: ". . . the purpose of the work being reviewed should be thoroughly understood by the reviewer," and in Tarzan Forever Taliaferro offers the facts and mostly leaves the analysis for someone else. Burroughs' muddled ideas about evolution and eugenics and a few other obvious topics get appropriate attention, but Taliaferro carefully avoids deep waters.
And what of the (small) dark side of ERB? Not much. Taliaferro adds little to previous explorations of Burroughs' simple racism, though he makes it clear that Burroughs' prejudices were conventional and half-hearted. We learn about no new scandals or revelations, unless Burroughs' anti-Semitism and wartime Jap bashing surprises you. Taliaferro's Burroughs is just Normal Bean Burroughs, man of his times.
The theme of Tarzan Forever is familiar and sad. Burroughs liked being a writer but hated the sort of writer he had to be. "I could write faster if I enjoyed it more," he wrote one impatient editor. He spent most of his life trying to escape Tarzan and yet Tarzan was the only character most readers cared to read about. He could never learn how to write a different kind of story, and his failure rankled.
Like a good journalist (he worked for Newsweek), Taliaferro always identifies the who, what, when, and where in detail, though he seldom worries about the why. So if you want to know who cooked Burroughs' dinner on any date (and Burroughs seldom cooked his own), this is the place to look. If you want a brief and pithy plot summary of Llana of Gathol or any other Burroughs' story, this is the book. But if you want ideas about Tarzan as an expression and contributing cause of America's love affair with Nature (called "environment" in the language of the lesser apes), try another book.
We already have several biographies of Burroughs. Taliaferro covers the same ground as his predecessors, and does not quarrel with them, so what does he add? Clear and accurate detail. For readers who want to know everything about Burroughs' business deals, or all about every family vacation he took, here's your book. However, the price of free use of the file cabinets at ERB Inc. may have been a caution about writing anything very critical--or even anything speculative--about dear old Granddad. ERB Inc. fiercely protects its public image, and now Disney has its interest in keeping the creator of Tarzan uncontroversial too. There is another biography possible, a biography of Burroughs' imagination, but this Taliaferro chooses not to offer in Tarzan Forever.
This is not a scholarly book. It has a decent index and ends with fifteen pages of bibliography, but most of the sources offer general background rather than specific annotations. Burroughs might like that. Despite Tarzan's fame, Burroughs resisted becoming a public personality and he guarded his privacy behind a screen of modesty. Tarzan Forever is a solid biography, and though Taliaferro is suspicious of dreams its limitations of vision are Burroughs' own, and thus appropriate in a sympathetic biographer.
REFERENCES AND CREDITSWebsite for Michael Orth
Michael Orth's Website at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, California
Michael Orth: Professor. Primary Fields: American Literature. Utopian Studies.Publications include essays on American literature, utopian literature, science-fiction. Education: B.A. University of California, Santa Barbara, 1959; M.A. San Francisco State University, 1963; Ph.D. Claremont Graduate School 1974. He joined the Cal Poly faculty in 1967.
Our thanks to Frank Blisard for drawing this review to our attention and to Neil Barron for authorizing its republication in ERBzin-e:"We charge profit-making publishers, like the Gale Group (publishers of library tools like Contemporary Authors), $25 a pop, but yours is the first request from a non-profit. Reprint the review with our blessing, and as you do, shout Umgawa!"Watch for our future features by Michael Orth
Coming soon in ERBzine:
"Utopia in the Pulps: The Apocalyptic Pastoralism of Edgar Rice Burroughs."