Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) was born on Sept. 1, and as
this coincides with my current read: Edgar
Rice Burroughs: The Man who Created Tarzan
, a massive two-volume biography
by Irwin Porges, I thought it was time for a post in honor of ERB, albeit a
couple days late.
I now consider ERB one of the holy trinity of speculative
fiction, along with Howard and Tolkien. He’s right up there with those two in
influence and imagination. Your mileage may vary but that’s my power trio, with
H.P. Lovecraft coming up close in the rear-view mirror.
Sometimes you can find clues of what makes a great writer by
analyzing the facts of his or her life. From a young age ERB was a restless,
free spirit. He was highly imaginative, and playful, but he was also
relentless. He didn’t stay at any one job for long as he was always searching for
the next move, the next scheme, or the career that would lend his life meaning.
The string of low-paying jobs he held did not.
These traits often got him into trouble as a youth and
resulted in financial woes as a young man. He preferred the outdoors to
studying in class. In the army, his nonconformist streak caused him to get
busted down in rank and never made him a great fit for the discipline of the armed
services. Upon discharge in 1897 he had to overcome a number of struggles all
the way to early middle age. These were often of his own making. At several
junctures he could have settled for a life of normalcy, but time and again opted
out. At one point he was on his way to financial security with a great job at
Sears, and senior leadership loved him, but he quit, abruptly.
I know I could not have made the choices he did, which often
left he and his young wife penniless. But, his choices ultimately gave us
worlds beyond worlds.
ERB finally broke through as a writer in 1912 with “Under
the Moons of Mars,” and later that same year “Tarzan of the Apes,” both
published as serials in The All-Story.
That’s a hell of an opening combination right there. By then he was in his late
30s, a relatively late start for a writer, but the stage was set for a torrent
of production. He had lived a life of scarcity and brushes with poverty, and
when he finally found his calling the creativity rushed from his pen.
ERB famously wrote that “entertainment is fiction’s
purpose,” and his stories are entertainment first, of the highest order. But
they weren’t just that. He explored themes of nature vs. nurture, and the evils
and depravity of civilization vs. the (harsh) purity of nature. Destructive man
with all his vices is contrasted with the beasts of the jungle, who
kill and eat but not out of malice or wanton destruction. ERB was also a
skilled satirist, critiquing organized religion for example in “The Gods of
Mars.” His stories offer a coherent and compelling worldview and a richness
deeper than just story.
ERB was influenced by H. Rider Haggard, the grandfather of
adventure fiction. Tarzan was derived from the Romulus/Remus myth in which the
two founders of Rome were raised by wolves, and to a lesser degree Kipling. But
by his own admission ERB was not a big reader of fiction; these were childhood
reads. Perhaps as a result, stylistically he is probably the weakest of the
major fantasists mentioned above. But his stories are propulsive, and his ideas
and storytelling and creativity are on another level. He was doing things no
one else was, breaking away from the more formal Victorianism of Haggard et al
and writing stuff the people of the age could not put down.
More than 100 years later, they still can’t.
It’s a shame that ERB did not live a bit longer to see the resurgence
in interest in his works in the Burroughs Boom of the 1960s. Like REH I’m not
sure how widely read he is these days. But both men’s creations are immortal.
Just like we’ll always have Conan, John Carter and Tarzan are with us to stay.
Porges’ bio starts slow, 170-odd pages of military and
schooling detail that run a bit tedious. But once “Under the Moons of Mars” is out, it hits its
stride. In my reading it’s currently October 1912 and Burroughs is finally meeting
with success. He’s just completed “The Gods of Mars” for All-Story editor Thomas Metcalf, reader demand for more is huge,
and although he has not yet landed a book deal his fortunes are about to
It’s like I’m reading one of his stories, and I can’t wait to
see what dramatic twists and turns come next.