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Volume 6628

ERB and the Educated Man
by Alan Hanson

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ERB and the Educated Man
by Alan Hanson
“Burroughs didn’t think school learning had much value.” When I first read that statement, which appeared in Phil Burger’s fine article on The Mucker in “Burroughs Bulletin NS #10,” something about it didn’t sound quite right. We know that Burroughs’ own formal education was a series of disasters, and yet he became a very successful writer and businessman. It would seem natural, then, that ERB would have discounted the value of time spent in the classroom, and that negative attitude then would have been reflected in his writing. However, as a long time reader of Burroughs, I had the feeling that at times his stories gave a much more positive view of formal education. And, as it turns out, a close look at both the private life and the fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs reveals that he had mixed feelings about school learning.

In support of his theory, Phil gave the example of Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones, whose formal education proved completely worthless when he was cast ashore on a savage island in The Cave Girl. Actually, there are a number of other examples that quickly come to mind in support of Phil’s thesis. Tarzan, for example, apparently never spent a day in a classroom, and yet he accumulated great knowledge, sophistication, and wealth. Billy Byrne was another character who achieved great things without the advantage of formal schooling. And then there’s the case of Jimmy Torrance, whose college degree in The Efficiency Expert proved as worthless in the Chicago business world as Waldo’s did on Cave Girl Island. Burroughs was quite blunt about it. Of Jimmy, Burroughs noted, “Long since there had been driven into his mind the conviction that for any practical purpose in life a higher education was as useless as the proverbial fifth wheel to the coach.”

As mentioned, Burroughs own experiences in the classroom were enough to give anyone a cynical view on the subject. Academic failure came early and often to him, until he seemed to resign himself to it. At the age of 13, he entered the Harvard School in Chicago. “I was never a student — I just went to school there,” Ed commented on that experience. In September 1891, at the age of 16, he entered Phillips Academy, but a lack of effort and achievement led to the school requesting that he not return after only one semester. Next came Michigan Military Academy, which was more to Ed’s liking, since it stressed physical development as an important goal along with academic achievement. Still, ERB’s inability to keep his mind on his studies caused him problems there as well. He did graduate from the academy in1895, but his chief motivation for making it through was probably to wipe out the shame of a desertion during his freshman year. With failure on the West Point entrance exam, the checkered formal education of Edgar Rice Burroughs came to a merciful end in 1895. Ahead were 16 years of hard knocks before he began his writing career. 

His fiction thereafter, as noted earlier, contains many examples that could be used to support the contention that Burroughs felt the best education was to be found in life experiences, not in the classroom, and that the key to success was self-reliance, and not a college degree. However, ERB’s attitude about education could not have been that simple. If he really disdained school learning, why did he decide to make college graduates out of so many of his most well liked heroes? David Innes, Bridge, Bowen Tyler, Thomas Billings, Jason Gridley, Gordon King, and Carson Napier — all of them had college sheepskins. Of course, the degrees of all of those characters were seemingly of little consequence in getting them through their adventures, but that’s just the point. Why did Burroughs portray them as college graduates when he didn’t have to do so?  He must have attached some value to a college degree. But from where came, in a life filled with academic failure, this seeming respect for formal education?

ERB’s Brothers Set an Example
That answer may be that, despite his own personal failures, another factor in ERB’s life allowed him to appreciate the value of a college education. It was the example set by his older brothers, George and Harry. From an early age, Ed admired his brothers and wanted to be like them, and when they both graduated from Yale in 1889, the 14-year-old Ed must have been proud of their achievement. It is important, however, to see the complete picture in the example ERB’s brothers were setting for him. Both George and Harry were not inclined to devote themselves solely to their classwork. They believed in a balance of physical and mental development, and stressed as much in their letters home. In summarizing those letters, Porges wrote, “George was both firm and frank in emphasizing his objection to a program of excessive studying at the expense of physical fitness. He clearly had no patience with the student who turned himself into a grind.” That ERB adopted his brother’s attitude is revealed at times in his fiction when myopic, intellectual types, like Waldo, are made to suffer for neglecting their physical development.

It is also important to note how George and Harry Burroughs used their Yale degrees in their careers after graduation. After a brief period working for their father’s American Battery Company in Chicago, the brothers moved west to manage a ranch in southern Idaho. During his brief stay on the ranch in 1891, Ed must have been profoundly affected by the lives his brothers were leading. Although their lives were of the hard-working outdoor kind, ERB must have felt that the knowledge and discipline acquired in their college years was an important factor in their achieving success. Ed lacked their knowledge and discipline born of academic training, and his respect for it must have grown over the years as he futilely tried to find a successful niche in the world for himself.

 Ultimately, then, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ opinion about formal education was formed through a mixture of two opposing sets of experiences. Achieving eventual success as a writer, in spite of being an academic failure, taught him that life’s real teacher is experience. On the other hand, his admiration for his brothers gave him some respect for the degree each of them attained that he could not. ERB’s personal belief about education perhaps was best summarized in the following words spoken by Lady Barbara Collis in Tarzan Triumphant. “One should know something of many things to be truly educated.” Some of those things are learned in school and others are learned through life experiences. Burroughs felt that a person could still be intelligent even if he lacked formal education. Tarzan, who is an excellent example of such a person, said as much when referring to one of the American flyers in Tarzan and ‘The Foreign Legion’. “He’s not only intelligent, but he’s extremely well educated. The former is not necessarily a corollary of the latter.” However, Burroughs did admire the well-educated man, and part of what it took to earn that title in the author’s eyes was a college degree.

ERB’s Well-Educated Characters
In that sense, when Burroughs conjured up characters like Bowen Tyler, Jason Gridley, Gordon King, and Carson Napier, he was creating what he fancied to be well-educated men. In Tanar of Pellucidar, ERB described Gridley as “just a normal, sane, young American, who knows a great deal about many things in addition to radio; aeronautics, for example, and golf, and tennis and polo.” We see here the balance of mental and physical development modeled by ERB’s older brothers. In giving Gridley a degree from Stanford, ERB completed the image of a well-educated man. Bowen Tyler, also a graduate of Stanford, was another man for all seasons. “He was pretty good scholar despite his love of fun, and his particular hobby was paleontology,” Burroughs noted in The Land That Time Forgot

When Gordon King entered the jungles of Cambodia in Jungle Girl, he already had the kind of education that would allow him to face he unknown with courage and confidence. Academically, he had recently graduated in medicine from an unspecified university. In addition, according to Burroughs, “He was well prepared physically by years of athletic training, having been a field and track man at college.” Before Carson Napier decided to fly off to another planet, he had what Burroughs surely considered to be the most well rounded of educations on earth. He graduated from a college of high scholastic standing in Claremont, but learned many other things outside the university’s ivory towers. He learned telepathy from an old Hindu mystic in India. After learning to fly in California, he became a stunt man in pictures. He later flew all over the world, including to Germany, where he took an interest in rocket cars. As Burroughs understood education, each of these characters was perfectly prepared for life and any challenge thrown his way.

Let’s return now to Phil Burger’s example of ERB’s disdain for formal education. In The Cave Girl, Burroughs contempt was for the imbalance in Waldo’s overall education, and not just for the collegiate part of it. As Waldo, consumed with fright, clung to the edge of the beach on the story’s opening page, Burroughs explained clearly the deficiency in his education.

“Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones was not overly courageous. He had been reared among surroundings of culture plus and ultra-intellectuality in the exclusive Back Bay home of his ancestors. He had been taught to look with contempt upon all that savored of muscular superiority — such things were gross, brutal, and primitive. It had been a giant intellect only that he had craved — he and a fond mother — and their wishes had been fulfilled. At twenty-one Waldo was an animated encyclopedia — and almost as muscular as a real one.”

It was the neglect of physical development that Burroughs was condemning here. Waldo’s college degree did not work against him; it was a non-factor in this particular situation, as muscular strength would be in a social situation. It is interesting to note that after Burroughs completed Waldo’s physical education on Cave Girl Island, he returned him and his wife to that exclusive Back Bay home, which ERB explained in the last line of the story, is known for “the beauty of its architecture and the fame that attaches to the historic and aristocratic name of its owner.” One would think that if Burroughs really felt disdain for intellectualism and Western culture, that he would have left Waldo and his mate on Cave Girl Island.

Another character that Burroughs created to show the dangers of neglecting the practical side of one’s education was Lafayette Smith, the geology professor who went to Africa in Tarzan Triumphant. Perhaps the clearest statement Burroughs ever made about the need to balance a college education with preparation for the sterner side of life came when Lafayette Smith finally realized his own deficiency.

“I always considered myself well educated and fitted to meet the emergencies of life; and I suppose I should be, in the quiet environment of a college town; but what an awful failure I have proved to be when jolted out of my narrow little rut. I used to feel sorry for the boys who wasted their time in shooting galleries and in rabbit hunting. Men who boasted of their marksmanship merited only my contempt, yet within the last twenty-four hours I would have traded all my education along other lines for the ability to shoot straight.”

The Education of Billy Byrne
It’s clear, then, that Burroughs felt preparation for the physical challenges of life was necessary if a person were to be truly well educated. In fact, much of his fiction extols the value of physical ability and training. However, there is also evidence in his fiction that Burroughs felt formal intellectual training was important as well. A good example appears in The Mucker. Billy Byrne never spent a day in a classroom. His formal education, instead, is described metaphorically by ERB in the opening pages of The Mucker. “His kindergarten had commenced in an alley back of a feed-store.” His teachers then were pickpockets and second-story men. “The kindergarten period lasted until Billy was ten; then he commenced ‘swiping’ brass faucets from vacant buildings and selling them to a fence who ran a junk shop on Lincoln Street near Kinzie. From this man he obtained the hint that graduated him to a higher grade, so that at 12 he was robbing freight cars in the yards along Kinzie Street.”

Billy was well past traditional school age when contact with Barbra Harding finally began the realignment of his moral fiber. However, Burroughs apparently felt that to be an appealing character, Billy needed some intellectual training to compensate partially for all that he had missed by not attending school. Enter Bridge. Part of Bridge’s purpose in the story was to soften the edges on the predominantly brutal character of Billy Byrne. When Billy heard Bridge, a college graduate, recite poetry, it brought forward a long uncultivated appreciation for the power of the written word. Looking out over the countryside on a sunny Kansas morning, Bill told Bridge, “I never knew the country was like this, an’ I don’t know that I ever would have known if it hadn’t been for those poet guys you’re always spouting.”

It didn’t happen in a classroom, but the brief introduction to poetry that Bridge gave Billy Byrne indicated that ERB believed that formal education helped in gaining an appreciation for the beauty to be found in life. It also changed Billy Byrne’s opinion of intellectuals, poets in particular. “I always had the idea they was sissy fellows,” Billy admitted, “but a guy can’t be a sissy an’ think the thoughts they musta thought to write stuff that sends the blood chasin’ through a feller like he’d had a drink on an empty stomach.” Aside from the idea expressed in those words, Billy would never have been able to express himself in such figurative language before Bridge taught him the beauty of language.

The Self-Taught Ape Man
Now let’s take a quick look at the education of Tarzan, which, on the surface, seems to support the contention that Burroughs thought formal education was unnecessary to achieve success in life. Like Billy Byrne, Tarzan never spent a day in the classroom. However, he did accumulate quiet a bit of knowledge through “book learning.” Of course, Tarzan taught himself to read using the books, which his dead parents had ironically brought from England for that very purpose. As the naked ape-boy gazed down at a book while sitting on a table in his father’s cabin, Burroughs described him as, “an allegorical figure of the primordial groping through the black night of ignorance toward the light of learning.”

During his stay in Paris in The Return of Tarzan, the ape-man attempted on his own to make up for the formal education he had been denied as a youth. The following passage shows that Tarzan had an appreciation for the accumulated knowledge that is passed on through formal education.

“In the daytime he haunted the libraries and picture galleries. He had become an omnivorous reader, and the world of possibilities that were open to him in this seat of culture and learning fairly appalled him when he contemplated the very infinitesimal crumb of the total of human knowledge a single individual might hope to acquire even after a lifetime of study and research; but he learned what he could.”

In summary, the fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs did indeed reveal that the author saw some value in school learning. However, Burroughs felt this academic learning must be balanced with physical development and some practical knowledge to produce a truly “well educated” person.

As final thought on the subject, Burroughs did caution his readers against judging people based on their level of formal education. In The Mucker, Bridge explained the following to Billy Byrne:

“Because one man speaks better English than another, or has read more and remembers it, only makes him a better man in that respect. I think none the less of you because you can’t quote Browning or Shakespeare — the thing that counts is that you can appreciate, as I do, Service and Kipling and Knibbs … whatever it is it gets you and me in the same way, and so in this respect we are equals.”

*     *     *    *


Since his brothers graduated from Yale, it is not surprising that Edgar Rice Burroughs had a preference for Ivy League schools when assigning alma maters to some of his fictional characters. When he wasn’t sending his heroes to Yale or Harvard, Burroughs usually chose some other college known for scholastic excellence, such as Stanford or Oxford. Below is a list of colleges and the Burroughs characters who attended them.

Columbia — S/Sgt. Joe Bubonovitch (Tarzan and ‘The Foreign Legion’)

Harvard — Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones (The Cave Girl); Percy Thorn and Macklin Donovan (Beware!); Jefferson Wainright, Jr. and Maurice Corson (The Bandit of Hell’s Bend)

University of Oregon — Lt. Kumajiro (Tarzan and ‘The Foreign Legion’)

Oxford —Elias Henders (The Bandit of Hell’s Bend); “God” (Tarzan and the Lion Man)

Stanford — Jason Gridley (Tanar of Pellucidar); Bowen Tyler and Thomas Billings (The Land That Time Forgot)

University of Virginia — Elias Henders (The Bandit of Hell’s Bend)

Virginia Military Institute (VMI) — Custer Pennington, Sr. (The Girl From Hollywood)

West Point — Custer Pennington, Sr. (The Girl From Hollywood); Lt. Samuel King (The War Chief)

Yale — David Innes (At the Earth’s Core); Old Timer (Tarzan and the Leopard Men)

Although he stated that they attended college, ERB did not name the schools attended by each of the following characters: James Blake (Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle), Gordon King (Jungle Girl), Bridge (The Mucker), and Jimmy Torrance (The Efficiency Expert).

— The End —


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From Our ERB Online Bibliography
A Collector's Hypertexted and Annotated Storehouse of Encyclopedic Resources
The Mucker
The Cave Girl
The Efficiency Expert
Tarzan Triumphant
Tarzan and ‘The Foreign Legion’
Tanar of Pellucidar
The Land That Time Forgot
Jungle Girl
The Return of Tarzan

The Bandit of Hell’s Bend
Tarzan and the Lion Man
The Girl From Hollywood
The War Chief
At the Earth’s Core
Tarzan and the Leopard Men
Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle

Burroughs Bulletin NS #10
Michigan Military Academy _ 2 _ 3 _ 4
Burroughs Brothers at Yale U _ 2_ 3
Burroughs Brothers at Yale Ranch


Guide to the Alan Hanson Appearances in ERBzine

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