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Volume 7094

ERB Discusses the Inspiration
for his Literary Creations
Excerpts from Porges ~ Pages 128-133


Various theories have been advanced that Ed found his inspiration both for his stories of other planets and for the Tarzan idea in fictional works by well-known authors. He often insisted that in his adult years fiction held little interest for him, but had conceded that "as a boy and as a young man I read practically nothing else."

The question of where he might have obtained his themes, especially for his earliest works, deserves examination. In referring to an author whose novel features elements common to many stories of strange civilizations, Ed again stressed his reading habits: "I did read a part of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Lost World several years ago but never finished it for as a matter of fact I read practically no fiction although I remember that I was much impressed with the possibilities suggested by the story."

Ed's "Under the Moons of Mars" (1911) predated "The Lost World" (1912) by one year; this very fact precluded any possibility of Ed's using Doyle's novel as a source. Moreover, any comparison of the two works reveals them as completely dissimilar. The first claim that one of Ed's stories resembled a work of another author did appear, however, in connection with A Princess of Mars. Ed expressed his concern in a letter to Joseph Bray, A. C. McClurg & Company editor, on May 31, 1918:

"Will you tell me, please, when H. G. Wells wrote his Martian stuff or rather when it appeared? One critic calls attention to the fact that this story of Wells' and another story which I never heard of suggested my Princess of Mars. As a matter offact, I never read Wells' story and as mine was written in 1911 , it is possible that it anticipated Wells'. Just for curiosity I should like to know."

In this case Ed's concept of the dates is inaccurate. Presumably, the reference is to Wells' main Martian novel, The War of the Worlds, published in 1898, far ahead of A Princess of Mars. Eleven of Wells' science-fiction or fantasy novels appeared before 1911, and Wells continued to produce a steady flow of similar works through 1937. But any theory that The War of the Worlds even "suggested" The Princess of Mars is without logical evidence. Wells' novel, written in his coldly precise style in an attempt to create scientific realism, bears no resemblance to Ed's freely imaginative work with its fantastic characters and setting.

In Wells' plot, centered about an invasion of our planet from Mars, the Martians become grotesque monsters; he makes no effort to develop them as individuals or to characterize them. Ed creates a bizarre civilization on Mars; in doing so, he was concerned with neither reality nor with scientific plausibility, although he did supply sufficient and ingenious details to give some semblance of reality. Students of Burroughs attribute much of his success as a storyteller to his knack of making the impossible seem as if it could really happen. His characters, surprisingly, were projected with vividness despite the fact that they were not individualized; actually, they were stereotypes. Yet, in a way not easily explained, they became unforgettable. Beyond all this, Ed's concept of a story, in contrast to Wells', was exaggeratedly romantic; he utilized all the popular ingredients a beautiful lady, a dashing hero, a warped, sadistic villain, and, of course, a love that surmounted all obstacles.

In his most spectacular work, Tarzan of the Apes, Burroughs had to face a far heavier barrage of speculations, theories, and accusations concerning the possible sources for his famous theme. Tarzan may have been written, according to one explanation, with the aid only of  "a 50c Sears dictionary and Stanley's In Darkest Africa. . .," but Ed on several occasions explained that the ancient tale of the founding of Rome had provided his first stimulus:

As a child I was always fascinated by the legend of Romulus and Remus, who were supposed to have been suckled and raised by a she-wolf. This interest, I presume, led to conjecture as to just what sort of an individual would develop if the child of a highly civilized, intelligent and cultured couple were to be raised by a wild beast without any intercourse whatsoever with members of the human race. It was because that I had played with this idea on my mind at various times, I presume, that I naturally embodied it in the story after I started writing.

I started my thoughts on the legend of Romulus and Remus who had been suckled by a wolf and founded Rome, but in the jungle I had my little Lord Greystoke suckled by an ape.

While the story of Romulus and Remus may have been an important source for the Tarzan idea, Ed was apparently drawing a more direct inspiration from a work by a master storyteller Rudyard Kipling. The link is found in the Jungle Books, fiction that Ed recalled reading in his early years:

As a boy I loved the story of Romulus and Remus, who founded Rome, and I loved too, the boy Mowgli in Kipling's "Jungle Books". I suppose Tarzan was the result of those early loves. . . . I presume that I got the idea for Tarzan from the fable of Romulus and Remus who were suckled by a she-wolf, and who later founded Rome; and also from the works of Rudyard Kipling, which I greatly enjoyed as a young man.

On February 13, 1931, in a letter to the editor of The Bristol Times, Bristol, England, Ed replied to a statement accusing him of stealing his themes from the British writers Kipling, Wells, and Haggard. Ed tempered his reaction to the accusation by adding the phrase "unintentionally perhaps." After noting that "for some reason English reviewers have always been particularly unkind to me," Ed proceeded to a frank discussion of the authors: "To Mr. Kipling as to Mr. Haggard I owe a debt of gratitude for having stimulated my youthful imagination and this I gladly acknowledge, but Mr. Wells I have never read and consequently his stories of Mars could not have influenced me in any way." In denying that he took Kipling's original idea and exploited it to his own profit, Ed wrote:

The Mowgli theme is several years older than Mr. Kipling. It is older than books. Doubtless it is older than the first attempts of man to evolve a written language. It is found in the myths and legends of many peoples, the most notable, possibly, being the legend of Romulus and Remus, which stimulated my imagination long before Mowgli's creation.

Ed again acknowledged that Kipling may have influenced him, adding, "but I am also indebted to many other masters as, doubtless, Mr. Kipling would acknowledge his debt to the vast literature that preceded him" He reiterated firmly, "... to Mr. Wells, whom I have never read, I owe nothing."

In a lengthy correspondence Ed tried to explain the origins of the Tarzan idea to Professor Rudolph Altrocchi of the University of California at Berkeley. Altrocchi, in the Department of Italian, first wrote to Ed on March 29, 1937, stressing that he was "not at all a fanwriter" but one interested in "folkloristic and narrative motifs." Curious about "the mysterious processes of literary creation," he had previously communicated with such famous authors as Mary Roberts Rinehart, George Santayana, Richard Le Gallienne, and Edgar Lee Masters.

Ed made it plain that he could only speculate, or search his memory "for some clue to the suggestions that gave me the idea," as he had often done for the numerous people who made inquiries during "the past twenty years":

. . . As close as I can come to it I believe that it may have originated in my interest in Mythology and the story of Romulus and Remus. I also recall having read many years ago the story of the sailor who was shipwrecked on the Coast of Africa and who was adopted by and consorted with great apes to such an extent that when he was rescued a she-ape followed him into the surf and threw a baby after him.

Then, of course, I read Kipling; so that it probably was a combination ofall of these that suggested the Tarzan idea to me. The fundamental idea is, ofcouse, much older than Mowgli, or even the story ofthe sailor; and probably antedates even Romulus and Remus; so that after all there is nothing either new or remarkable about it.

I am sorry that I cannot tell a more interesting story concerning the origin of Tarzan.

The story of the shipwrecked sailor, one that Altrocchi was unfamiliar with, aroused his excitement. Eager to discover where Ed had found it, he wrote again, apologetic, offering a pun that deprecated his own accomplishments,". . . the distinction should be made . . . between one who is Burroughs and one who just burrows in literary motifs."

Ed replied, "The story of the shipwrecked sailor was not the basis of any book, as I recall it, but merely an anecdote that was supposed to be authentic; but where it originated or where I saw it, I cannot now recall. Anyway, it is probably not true. . . "

The determined Altrocchi embarked upon a six months' search for the anecdote, without success, and in a further inquiry posed a series of questions in the hope that they might stimulate Ed's memory. "I shall not have peace, at least literary peace," Altrocchi wrote, "until I have located this confoundedly elusive tale."

Ed again had no recollection, but in his response he offered an amused reaction to Altrocchi's feverish search: "I may say, however, that you have me started now, and that life will seem quite worthless unless I can recall further details. Possibly I shall be able to do so, and if I am successful I shall communicate with you immediately."

Any belief Ed might have entertained that the matter was ended proved to be illusory. Two years later, on June 13, 1939, the dedicated Altrocchi revealed that his mission the hunt for the shipwrecked sailor story was continuing. The professor, assuming that Ed must have read the story in some 1912 publication, had done exhaustive research within this period but had found nothing. However, he did unearth two old sources involving relationships between humans and apes. These, he noted, "are in such inaccessible books that I do not see how they could have been read by you. In fact both were then inaccessible to anybody, or almost so." The two works he identified as Guazzo's Compendium Maleficarum, written in Latin in the seventeenth century and "only recently translated," and an unnamed adventure novel published in 1635. He summarized the themes:

In the first a woman who had committed a crime is relegated to an uninhabited island where she is seduced by an ape and has two babies from him before she is rescued; in the second, with a similar situation, the ape-husband follows her into the surf and throws the baby after her, when she is rescued.

Altrocchi hoped that these folk-tales might revive some dormant memory of the magazine where Ed supposedly had read about the sailor. "Otherwise," he announced resignedly, "I'll have to continue my search." Ed again had no recollection, but, anxious to help, he speculated, "... I may have found it in some book in the Chicago Public Library at the time I was searching for material for a Tarzan book. . . ," This brought an eager reply from Altrocchi who was suddenly struck with a new idea: could Ed have done research in other languages, and if so, what languages? Ed quickly understood that his reference to the Chicago library had created a mistaken impression: "... I am afraid that I have misled you if I have suggested that I ever made any research for a source for Tarzan. My research was for data concerning the fauna and flora of Africa and the customs of native tribes." He emphasized the important point: "I had already found Tarzan in my own imagination."

Altrocchi's literary investigations and his correspondence finally culminated with a letter to Ed, on November 13, 1939, containing an announcement of his plan to read a paper at the annual meeting of the Philological Association of the Pacific Coast, the subject being, "Ancestors of Tarzan." The paper, an abbreviated version of the original fifty-four typewritten sheets, was to be read at the University of Southern California on November 24. Ed, of course, was invited.

The invitation had to be declined. Ed wrote to explain that he was leaving for New York on the twenty-first. He hoped that if the paper were printed Altrocchi might send him a copy. The more than two years Altrocchi had spent in tracing the sources of the Tarzan theme had produced little that was directly related to the Burroughs novel. Altrocchi, however, as in the two seventeenth-century references to humans and apes, demonstrated that the theme had roots deep in the past, and in his total research assembled information of high interest to folklorists, historians, and the general reader.  Unhappily, the source that the incredibly persistent professor had hoped to discover the tale of the shipwrecked sailor was never found. His letter to Ed containing an invitation to the reading expressed the hope "to have, at last, the pleasure of meeting you personally."

During the two years of correspondence Altrocchi, the scholar, engrossed in his musty documents, displayed no interest in making the acquaintance of the living man the author whose creation, Tarzan, had driven him into an obsessive search. Altrocchi, as in his finished work, an essay titled "The Ancestors of Tarzan," remained in the remote past, never attempting to bridge his abstract paper world with the world of human reality. The two men never met.

The claim that Ed, in Tarzan of the Apes, had taken his theme from Kipling's Jungle Books, works that he freely admitted reading as a child, was one that occasionally drew Ed's ire. But while responding in annoyance to the Bristol Times writer who had hinted at plagiarism, Ed also acknowledged his indebtedness to the man, saying, "He has reawakened my interest in my set of Kipling, which I have not opened for many years, and which I may still enjoy above the works of later writers, despite the disparaging remarks that I understand Mr. Kipling has made relative to my deathless contributions to the classics."

Kipling's references to Tarzan and its author, appearing in the autobiographical Something of Myself, offers actual praise of Ed's creation; but through the use of the word "imitators," and the avoidance of mentioning the name "Burroughs," as though one could not bother to recall the writer of a work so superficial as Tarzan, Kipling achieves an air of condescension and lofty tolerance:

". . . If it be in your power, bear serenely with imitators. My Jungle Book begot Zoos of them. But the genius of all genii was the one who wrote a series called Tarzan of the Apes. I read it, but regret I never saw it on the films, where it rages most successfully. He had jazzed the motif of the Jungle Books, and, I imagine had thoroughly enjoyed himself. . . ."

Kipling made this final comment about Ed: "He was reported to have said that he wanted to find out how bad a book he could write and 'get away with,' which is a legitimate ambition." While not addressing himself directly to Kipling, Ed noted that one could offer a different interpretation of plagiarism if the ancient legend of Romulus and Remus were accepted as the first and original source for all the variations that followed:

That Mr. Kipling selected a she-wolf to mother a man-child might more reasonably subject him to charges of plagiarism than the fact that I chose a she-ape should condemn me on a similar count. It is all very silly, and perhaps noticing such charges is sillier yet, but no man enjoys being branded a thief.

Ed had shown himself quite willing to answer questions about the possible sources of Tarzan and to conjecture as to how the idea came to him. But one point should be emphasized: he was responding to those who had already formulated theories concerning Tarzan s origin. In other words, these theories were not his. Until the critics began to analyze his works, he made no attempt to search his mind or probe his memory in the hope of recalling some source from the dim past.

Once the discussions began, he agreed readily that elements of the Romulus and Remus tale and of Kipling's Jungle Books could have provided him with his original inspiration. This theory was logical and possible. However, an awareness of the various qualifying phrases Ed used in his answers "I presume," "I suppose," "as close as I can come to it," and others makes it plain he was only conjecturing. He could not identify any source with certainty.

Ed knew only that the Tarzan idea came from somewhere deep in his imagination. He was willing to concede that the imagination is stimulated by what one reads, but he understood that beyond this, the creative process worked in mysterious ways that often defied analysis. ERB's son Hulbert, in an interview at Tarzana, commented: "I am frequently amused and sometimes irritated by those who constantly seek to prove that there are no new ideas, that ERB had to have direct sources for the Tarzan and Mars themes, that he stole his ideas from other writers. I am probably biased, but it seems to me that Ed Burroughs' remarkable imagination, demonstrated in many stories over the years, was certainly capable of developing a new idea and that perhaps Tarzan and John Carter were original with him. Nobody accuses Edison of stealing a light bulb."

The answer Ed preferred to give in later years to the inevitable question, "How did you happen to write Tarzan?" exhibited his familiar uncertainty, but offered a simple, commonsense explanation:

I've been asked that hundreds of times and ought to have a good answer thought up by now, but haven't. I suppose it was just because my daily life was full of business, system, and I wanted to get as far from that as possible. My mind, in relaxation, preferred to roam in scenes and situations I'd never known. I find I can write better about places I've never seen than those I have seen.



We have featured much research on the "Ancestors of Tarzan"
and other flights of fantasy through the ages in ERBzine.
The monumental project by fellow-Canadian, Georges T. Dodds of McGill University,
is a great place to start for those interested in these themes:

The Ape-Man: his Kith and Kin
by Georges T Dodds:
Hundreds of related texts ~ Thousands of words and photos
http://www.erbzine.com/mag18/1801.html
http://www.ERBzine.com/feral


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