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 dramatically shift.
It’s like I’m reading one of his stories, and I can’t wait to see what dramatic twists and turns come next.