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Perhaps best known as the creator of Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs did much to popularize science fiction and adventure fantasy during the first half of the twentieth century. He created several imaginary societies for his popular adventure series: one in an imaginary version of Africa, one set on Mars, one in the primitive world called Pellucidar located inside the earth, and yet another on Venus. The constant theme running through Burroughs’s many books is how alien or primitive societies inspire heroic qualities in his main characters.
Biographical and Historical Context
Predictions of Failure and Expulsion from Yale
Burroughs was born in Chicago in 1875 and was the youngest of four sons. His father, George Burroughs, had been a captain in the Union army during the Civil War, and his son remembered him as retaining a ”very stern and military” aspect. Edgar was an uncomplicated boy, fond of outdoor sports, but a poor student. He was sent to Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, to prepare for Yale University, but was expelled from the prestigious private school. His father believed his expulsion foreshadowed a life of continuous failure. indeed, Edgar’s life path for the two subsequent decades would be marked mighty effort and few accomplishments.
An Interest in Paleontology Developed in Military School
Burroughs continued his schooling at the Michigan Military Academy, where he studied paleontology, a subject that would inform his detailed descriptions of dinosaurs and the process of evolution in later novels such as The Land That Time Forgot (1924). Burroughs was certainly not alone in his interest in paleontology; in fact, the United states was seized by something of a dinosaur craze in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1858, American anatomy professor Joseph Leidy had discovered a Hadrosaurus skeleton in well-preserved condition. As the United states continued its westward expansion and railroads brought more people to the Great Plains and the western part of the continent, scientists discovered the Unites states was rich in fossils and prehistoric remains. The discovery of radioactivity in 1896 led to the development and refinement of radio-metric dating practices in the first decades of the twentieth century, which meant scientists could accurately assess the age of the dinosaur remains and other fossils they found. The general public was fascinated by these discoveries, and thus very receptive to Burroughs’s later fictional tales featuring prehistoric settings.
After completing his schooling at the Michigan Military Academy, Burroughs failed the entrance examination for the United States Military Academy at West Point. He enlisted in the United states Army cavalry, but was soon discharged for having a weak heart.
Petty Jobs and Ill-Fated Ventures
During the years from 1897 to 1911, Burroughs engaged in a long succession of mostly petty jobs and ill-fated small business ventures in Idaho and Illinois. He married the daughter of a Chicago hotel owner in 1900, and they headed west to share in the mining ventures of Burroughs’s luckless brothers. The couple soon found themselves living in poverty. in 1905 they returned to Chicago and moved back in with George Burroughs while Edgar held down a series of low-paying jobs. Burroughs’s military discharge prevented him from serving in World War i, ”The Great War,” which claimed the lives of more than twenty million people worldwide from 1914 until 1918. The war years, however, saw the blossoming of Burroughs’s career as a writer.
Writing to Cure Boredom Leads to Success
While in Chicago, one of Burroughs’s assignments was placing advertisements in pulp magazines, cheap publications featuring adventures stories that enjoyed wide popularity with the general reading public in the first half of the twentieth century. Pulp fiction magazines were an out-growth of the dime novels of the nineteenth century, which, like the pulp fiction magazines, offered simple adventures stories and stock characters. Burroughs often scoffed that a novice could write as well as any of the top pulp authors; he was soon writing fiction to relieve his boredom. In 1911 Burroughs completed his first novel and sold it to one of the leading fantasy and adventure magazines, The All-Story. By the time the novel was published in book form as A Princess of Mars (1917), he had nineteen other works in other forms of print, most of them serialized in magazines before book publication. Burroughs is best known for three long series. The Martian novels, beginning with A Princess of Mars, concern the conquest of Barsoom (Mars) by ”John Carter, gentle man,” a Civil War veteran and swordsman from Virginia. In the Pellucidar series, which began in 1922 with At the Earth’s Core, David Innes, a wealthy Yale graduate, becomes emperor of a prehistoric world deep within the globe. Burroughs’s most famous series, Tarzan of the Apes, began with the novel of that title in 1914. In that series, the heir of an aristocratic English family, whose parents were shipwrecked on the African coast, survives their death to grow up in a community of apes and become their leader.
Marred by Eugenics?
Some critics have argued that the Tarzan novels are marred by their authors’ racist interest in eugenics, the study of methods for improving the quality of the human gene pool. Eugenics, in both philosophical and practical form, attracted the interest of many prominent Americans and Europeans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, inventor Alexander Graham Bell, and health activist Margaret Sanger are just a few examples. Many well-intentioned people interested in eugenics saw it as a way to rid the world of everything from congenital defects to poverty. Edgar Rice Burroughs was also fascinated by the idea of the perfectibility of humankind through selective breeding. With Tarzan, many critics argue, Burroughs appears to be making the argument that a superior human (in this case, one of noble Western European heritage) will rise to the top no matter the circumstances. Others argue that the depiction of a ”superior” European who establishes dominion over an uncivilized African jungle is racist. Indeed, most of Burroughs’s heroes are gentlemanly whites who come to dominate those around them.
The idea of eugenics was easily molded to suit various political agendas—some purely racist, some ethically questionable. For example, in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century, tens of thousands of mentally ill citizens were forcibly sterilized to prevent them from ”passing on” their ”defects.” In the 1930s and 1940s, when the leadership of the Nazi party used arguments based on eugenics to justify their goal to ”purge” what they considered inferior social groups (Jews, homosexuals, the mentally handicapped, and others) by mass murder, the philosophy of eugenics was discredited.
Filming Tarzan in Hollywood
Burroughs’s sudden success enabled him to move to Hollywood, where he could supervise the filming of the immensely popular Tarzan movies. In 1919 he bought an estate near Holly wood, which he named Tarzana. He operated it at a heavy loss. The community that sprang up around the estate adopted the name Tarzana when their town was incorporated in 1928. Burroughs was an enthusiastic stock market gambler, and his bad investments further reduced his fortune. Always pressed for money, he kept up a harried writing pace in hopes of keeping his finances afloat. He averaged three novels a year, producing more than seventy titles in all. A Tarzan comic strip began in 1929 and continued to be published throughout Burroughs’s life. Tarzan products, ranging from a brand of gasoline to coloring books, were a part of American culture. A radio serial starring Burroughs’s daughter and son-in-law (a former movie Tarzan) enjoyed great popularity. The films were the most successful products of the Tarzan franchise, although Burroughs was pained to see the multilingual aristocrat of his novels reduced to a lumpish commoner grunting in broken English, as depicted by Johnny Weissmuller (a gold-medal-winning Olympic swimmer and actor) who starred in twelve of the films. The character of Tarzan remains a cultural icon and is still popular today.
Late Life during World War II
While Burroughs’s previous military failures prevented him from actively serving in World War II, its outbreak prompted him to become a war correspondent and write a series of morale-boosting pieces for the Advertiser of Honolulu, Hawaii, where he was then living. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Honolulu by the Japanese on December 7, 1941, had precipitated the United States’s entry into the war. Returning to California in late 1944, Burroughs developed Parkinson’s disease and died in 1950 at the age of seventy-four.
Works in Literary Context
Burroughs was one of the most successful popular novelists America has ever produced. He combined science fiction, fantasy, and romance into a single form with the potential for great flexibility and imaginative exploration. His works may not have been highly philosophical, but they were often more thoughtful and engaged with relevant social themes than they needed to be just to sell copies. Burroughs was influenced by many writers including H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Edmond Hamilton, Leigh Brackett, Ray Bradbury, Gore Vidal, and J. R. R. Tolkien.
The Melding of Pulp Genres
While best known for his Tarzan series, Burroughs was in fact a very important and popular science-fiction writer. He also wrote a smaller number of westerns, romances, historical novels, and a few unsuccessful attempts at contemporary realism. As a science-fiction writer, Burroughs may be regarded as a descendant of nineteenth-century French writer Jules Verne. Like Verne, Burroughs emphasized strange plan ets and bizarre creatures in his work. Burroughs did not invent the boy-raised-by-animals novel, the hollow-Earth novel, the interplanetary romance, or any other significant fantasy form; but he did write some of the most successful and completely developed examples of each of these types of fiction.
Burroughs’s Tarzan stories and other jungle adventures, while not essentially works of science fiction, contain many elements derived from science fiction and allied forms. After the boy-raised-in-the-wild theme (known as “feralism”), the next most common theme in the books is that of the lost race, tribe, city, or country.
For this Burroughs shows the influence of Sir Henry Rider Haggard (1856-1925), an English author who wrote exotic, mysterious novels often set in Africa. The theme of feralism is itself very old in literature and folk lore; it was best known prior to the creation of Tarzan in the character Mowgli from The Jungle Book (1894) by Rudyard Kipling.
Works in Critical Context
Burroughs’s writing is often labeled uneven and amateurish. His technique in the Tarzan tales of following parallel lines of action through the eyes of various characters has been compared to cinematic cross-cutting, and he often succeeds through a headlong descriptive power. But he often stumbles in characterization and dialogue, sometimes using the crudest stereotypes and stilted language. Critics allow that Burroughs occasionally scores when he writes satire, particularly in Tarzan and the Ant Men (1924), which Richard Lupoff, a well-known Bur roughs critic, regards as one of the best Tarzan novels. But Burroughs’s shortcomings as a writer are most apparent in Beyond Thirty (published posthumously in novel form in 1957, first published in serial form in 1915), whose theme is the reversion of England and Western Europe to wilderness (a plot subsequently used in a great many science fiction novels). Just when the story gets promising, it grinds to a halt, as though Burroughs’s invention had flagged.
The Tarzan Novels
The overwhelming commercial success of the Tarzan books was somewhat dampened by the critical hostility directed at Burroughs’s work in general. Throughout his career, critics were less than kind to Burroughs, labeling his books as little more than crudely written entertainment. Some have even found, just beneath the surface of his fiction, what they considered clear signs of fascism, racism, and anti-intellectualism. However, as author George P. Elliott noted, Burroughs’s ”prejudices are so gross that no one bothers to analyze them out or to attack them. . . . They were clear-eyed, well-thawed prejudices arrayed only in a loin cloth.” Brian Attebury agreed, writing that ”Burroughs was neither more nor less than a good storyteller, with as much power—and finesse—as a bulldozer.” Writing in Esquire, Gore Vidal claimed that, although Burroughs ”is innocent of literature,” he nonetheless ”does have a gift very few writers of any kind possess: he can describe action vividly. . . . Tarzan in action is excellent.”
- Brady, Clark A. The Burroughs Cyclopaedia: Characters, Places, Fauna, Flora, Technologies, Languages, Ideas, and Terminologies Found in the Works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1996.
- Fenton, Robert. The Big Swingers: A Biography of Edgar Rice Burroughs. New York: Prentice Hall, 1967.
- Fury, David. Kings of the Jungle: An Illustrated Reference to “Tarzan” on Screen and Television. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1994.
- Lupoff, Richard A. Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure. New York: Canaveral Press, 1965.
- Porges, Irwin. Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan. Salt Lake City: Brigham Young University Press, 1975.
- Zaidan, Samira H. A Comparative Study of Haiu Bnu Yakdhan, Mowgli, and Tarzan. London: Red Squirrel Books, 1998.
- Altrocchi, Rudolph. ”Ancestors of Tarzan.” In Sleuthing in the Stacks. Port Washington, NY: Kinnekat Press,1944.
- Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. Retrieved March 24, 2008 from http://www.tarzan.org/. Last updated on February 17, 2008.
- Retrieved March 24, 2008 from http://www. erbzine.com/
- John Carter of Mars.com. Retrieved March 24, 2008 from http://www.johncarterofmars.com/.
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