Biography of Edgar Rice Burroughs
Bith Date: September 1, 1875
Death Date: March 19, 1950
Place of Birth: Chicago, Illinois, United States
Occupations: writer, businessman
Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) was an American adventure writer whose Tarzan stories created a folk hero known around the world. His novels sold more than 100 million copies in 56 languages, making him one of the most widely read authors of the twentieth century.
Edgar Rice Burroughs was born September 1, 1875, in Chicago, Illinois, to George Tyler and Mary Evaline (Zeiger) Burroughs. His father was successful in business, and worked as a distiller and a battery manufacturer. Burroughs was educated at private schools in Chicago and in the state of Michigan. After his graduation from the Michigan Military Academy, he joined the U.S. Cavalry for a tour of duty in Arizona in 1896. He was not suited to this life and, thanks to his father's wealth and position, he left the military the following year. He briefly owned a stationary store in Idaho before moving back to Chicago and a position with the American Battery Company. Burroughs married Emma Centennia Hulbert on January 1, 1900; the couple would have three children: Joan, Hulbert, and John Coleman. A few years after the marriage, Burroughs again tried to seek his fortune in the West, holding various jobs in Idaho and Utah. By 1906, he was back in Chicago and working for Sears, Roebuck and Company. After several attempts to start his own business, Burroughs turned to writing as a career.
Many reviewers and biographers have often described Burroughs as a failed pencil-sharpener salesman who just wanted to support his wife and children when he began writing. Others note that it was the company that had failed, not Burroughs, and that he had succeeded in numerous jobs. In any case, Burroughs began his writing career with a Martian tale, best known by its hardback title: A Princess of Mars. The story was written in 1911, and published under the pseudonym Normal Bean (to let readers know he was not crazy and had a "normal bean") in All-Story magazine in 1912. The tale was not published in hardback until 1917. Astronomer Percival Lowell's theories of the canals of Mars were at the height of their popularity in 1911, and fired Burroughs' imagination. There were eleven books in the Mars series, the last of which, John Carter of Mars, was published fourteen years after the author's death.
The main character of the Mars series is John Carter, a gentleman from Virginia. In the first story, he falls into a cave only to wake up on the planet Mars--a sort of death that brings him to a new life. An adventurous man throughout the series, he saves women from villains, rescues the planet, and shows the various colored Martians that they need each other to survive. One year after the publication of A Princess of Mars in book form, Burroughs released The Gods of Mars. Additional installments of the John Carter saga appeared on a regular basis, including The Warlords of Mars (1919), Thuvia, Maid of Mars (1920), The Chessmen of Mars (1922), The Master Mind of Mars (1928), and A Fighting Man of Mars (1931). John Hollow, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, praised the first three novels of the series as "a particularly fine instance of science fiction's attempt to cope with what Burroughs himself called 'the stern and unalterable cosmic laws,' the certainty that both individuals and whole races grow old and die."
Best Known for His Tarzan Books
The appearance of Burroughs' second published story, Tarzan of the Apes, in All-Story magazine in 1912, and the publication of the novel in hardcover form in 1914, made him a best-selling author. Thereafter, he devoted himself exclusively to writing. Although Burroughs wrote almost all types of popular fiction, he is perhaps most famous for the Tarzan series. The lead character, Tarzan, is the son of an English noble who is adopted by a female ape in the African jungle. He learns English, grows into manhood, meets and falls in love with Jane, the daughter of an American scientist, and recovers his title--all in the first two of 26 stories.
Tarzan of the Apes captured the public's imagination and the series proved to be a success. Only a few fictional heroes, such as Robin Hood and Superman, are as famous as Tarzan. People might not remember the author, but most everyone, including small children, recognize the name of the main character, often responding with a Tarzan-like yell. The Tarzan stories have been translated into more than 56 languages, and reportedly more than 25,000,000 copies of the Tarzan books have been sold worldwide. Burroughs' novels were so financially rewarding that he was able to open his own publishing house, named after himself and called Burroughs. Beginning with the 1931 release, Tarzan the Invincible, he published his own works.
The character of Tarzan has been the subject of comic strips, radio serials, three television series, and at least 40 movies, including a Disney animated film and a 1998 spoof, George of the Jungle. Tarzan of the Apes was first made into a silent film in 1918, with Elmo Lincoln as Tarzan. More than a dozen actors have since starred in the role, the most popular having been Johnny Weissmuller, a former Olympic swimming champion. Most of the actors in Tarzan films were in fine physical shape, but they still faced risks. In the 1920 serial, The Son of Tarzan, Hawaiian actor Kamuela Searle was seriously injured by an elephant and a stand-in had to be used to complete the film; Searle later died of his injuries.
Not Without Controversy
Burroughs and his Tarzan character have not been without controversy. Burroughs, who himself has been accused of racism in his portrayal of Africa, disliked how films usually made Tarzan a grunting savage. He portrayed Tarzan in his novels as an erudite and wealthy heir to the House of Greystoke, equally at home in the jungle or polite society. Novels such as The Return of Tarzan (1915), The Beasts of Tarzan (1916), Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar (1918), and Tarzan and the Golden Lion (1923) continued this tradition. The last volume in the series, Tarzan and the Castaways, was released in 1965. As George P. Elliott noted in the Hudson Review, Burroughs' "prejudices are so gross that no one bothers to analyze them out or to attack them.... They were clear-eyed, well-thewed prejudices arrayed only in a loin cloth; you can take them or leave them, unless your big prejudice happens to be anti-prejudice. What matters is the story, which tastes good."
Burroughs' Tarzan series received other criticism. Although a favorite with readers, the Tarzan books have been dismissed by literary critics as cheap pulp fiction. Brian Attebury, writing in The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: From Irving to Le Guin, commented: "Burroughs was neither more nor less than a good storyteller, with as much power--and finesse--as a bulldozer." Details of the Tarzan books have come under scrutiny, and even anthropologists have taken Burroughs to task, insisting that he was wrong in writing that great apes raised Tarzan. They insisted that the young Tarzan could not possibly have learned to swing through the trees so gracefully with a chimpanzee as his tutor. For him to have achieved such agility his instructor must have been an orangutan. Burroughs fans argue, however, that the apes in the Tarzan series were neither chimpanzees nor orangutans but a man-like invention of the author. Burroughs himself claimed that he never tried to do more than entertain his readers, and was honest about his need for money. "I had a wife and two babies," he once explained.
Burroughs envisioned his Tarzan stories as wholesome family entertainment. Not all portrayals of Tarzan have had the family in mind, however, and Burroughs' descendants, who still run the company bearing his name from Tarzana, California (an estate near Hollywood, California, Burroughs bought in 1919 and later named), have found it necessary to go to court. In 1996, for example, the family filed a law suit against the makers of "Jungle Heat," alleging that the interactive CD-ROM was "the antithesis to the good, wholesome and attractive images of Tarzan," as noted in the Los Angeles Times. There have been countless imitations of Tarzan, such as a jungle man called Tongo on the television series Gilligan's Island, and a Listerine commercial in which a Tarzan-like character swings on a vine barefoot while in a tuxedo. But many of these imitations are either protected by the legal safeguards for satire, or use material in the public domain--fair game after the expiration of copyright protection, which is limited in time. But Burroughs not only copyrighted the books, he covered the character of Tarzan with a trademark--which does not expire. In 1923, the author founded the family corporation, establishing the trademark to forever control products that used the name or likeness of Tarzan, from movies to comic books and T-shirts.
Later Career and Other Novels
Later in his career, Burroughs began corresponding with scientists to learn all that was known about the planet Venus. Provided with these ideas, he started a new series. Beginning with the publication of Pirates of Venus in 1934, Burroughs published four more volumes in this set, including Lost on Venus (1935), Carson of Venus (1939), and Escape from Venus (1946). His last book in the series, The Wizard of Venus, was released in 1970. As the first book in the Venus series was getting published, Burroughs divorced his wife of 34 years; he married his second wife, Florence Dearholt, in 1935.
Burroughs also wrote four western adventure stories, all carefully researched and based on his experience as a cowboy on his older brothers' ranch in Idaho as a young man and as a cavalry soldier in Arizona. Some critics consider these the best of his writing, particularly the sympathetic treatment of Geronimo and his renegade Apaches. Among the novels written in this genre include Apache Devil (1933) and The Deputy Sheriff of Comanche County (1940).
Burroughs continued to write novels for the rest of his life, ultimately publishing some 68 titles in all. During World War II, he served as a journalist with the United Press and, at age 66, was the oldest war correspondent covering the South Pacific theater. Burroughs died of a heart attack on March 19, 1950. A number of his novels were published posthumously. Even after his death, Burroughs remained a popular author, and he sold millions of books in paperback.
The University of Louisville Library owns the largest institutional archive of Burroughs' works. The collection contains more than 67,000 items ranging in scope from the author's earliest school books to promotional materials from the 1990s. The library's collection of Tarzan memorabilia includes film stills and posters featuring 19 Tarzan actors. It also includes the best and most celebrated book artists, including J. Allen St. John, who illustrated a total of 33 first editions of Burroughs. Other artists featured in the collection include Frank Frazetta, whose works adorned the first paperback Burroughs books of the 1960s, and John Coleman Burroughs, the author's son, who illustrated eleven first editions of his father's stories. The collection also includes items from Burroughs' personal life and affairs, samples of his books, pulp editions, letters, merchandising goods and many photographs taken over the last 100 years.
- Attebury, Brian, The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature: From Irving to Le Guin, Indiana University Press, 1980.
- Contemporary Authors, Volume 132, Gale, 1991.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 8: Twentieth Century American Science Fiction Writers, Gale, 1981.
- Twentieth-Century American Science-Fiction Writers, Part 1: A-L, Gale, 1991.
- Economist, July 22, 1995, p. 76.
- Hudson Review, autumn 1959.
- Los Angeles Times, August 9, 1996, Home Edition, p. 1; August 24, 1996, Valley Edition, p. B1; March 9, 1997, Valley Edition, Metro, p. 3.
- Time, May 26, 1997, p. 105.
- "Tarzan: The Legacy of Edgar Rice Burroughs," http://www.eb.com:180/cgi-bin/g?DocF=micro/583/20.html (March 8, 1998).
- "Tarzan films do a poor job of teaching African history," http://www.sunspot.net/colmnists/data/kane/061497kane.html (March 30, 1998).
- "Tarzan of the Comics: Usually Better Than the Movies," http://www.netuser.com/~erp/Tarzan.html (March 30, 1998).
- "Tarzan Meets the 21st Century: An exhibition from the Edgar Rice Burroughs Collection," http://www.louisville.edu/groups/library-www/ekstrom/special/tarzan/tarz_exh.html (March 30, 1998).