Author Edgar Rice Burroughs created one of the most enduring fictional characters in the history of 20th century literature: Tarzan, the English lord raised by apes, whose jungle exploits were chronicled in a string of best-selling fantasy novels, as well as countless feature films, television series, radio plays and other media. Burroughs also created the popular Barsoom series, which followed the adventures of the titular Earthling John Carter on the planet Mars, as well as a host of other science fiction and fantasy novels that would have a lasting impact upon the genre for decades. Though widely perceived as pulp material, Burroughs' fiction was imaginative and action-packed, and his core characters memorable enough to enjoy life spans that lasted beyond that of their creator, who died in 1950. He was also among the first writers to fully embrace the concept of licensing his creations to increase their visibility and income potential, though Burroughs was often at odds with film versions of his work. Though his work lacked the literary skill of more accomplished authors, Burroughs' best novels had a scope and pace that ignited readers' imagination and kept them coming back for more, which in turn enshrined his writing as part of the pop culture fabric for eternity.
Born Sept. 1, 1875 in Chicago, IL, Edgar Rice Burroughs was the fifth of six sons by distiller and Civil War veteran George Tyler Burroughs and his wife, Mary. Two of his brothers died shortly after childbirth, but Burroughs and his surviving three siblings were all educated at Chicago's Brown Elementary. His childhood was often a lonely one, with all three of his older brothers away at various schools, and marked by occasional bouts of illness and injury, including an unspecified malady that forced him to leave the prestigious Harvard School in 1891. An outbreak of influenza in Chicago that same year prompted Burroughs' parents to send him to a ranch in Idaho owned by two of his brothers. There, he developed his lifelong love of horseback riding as a ranch hand. Upon his return, Burroughs enrolled at Phillips Academy in Andover, MA, where he regularly contributed cartoons and poems to the school newspaper. However, poor grades forced his father to withdraw Burroughs from the academy and enroll him in the Michigan Military Academy, where he endured relentless hazing from older cadets. Burroughs briefly fled the school, only to return and become one of its best students and top athletes. Shortly before his graduation in 1894, he took the West Point admittance exam, but failed to secure a place at the military academy. He subsequently joined the 7th U.S. Cavalry, where endless ditch digging and roadwork supplanted his dreams of high adventure. After being hospitalized with dysentery, Burroughs was diagnosed with a heart murmur, which resulted in his discharge from the military.
Burroughs flitted between jobs for several years without much success, including buying a stationery store he was forced to sell back to his original owner after only a year. He finally found steady work at his father's American Battery Company, which allowed him to marry his childhood sweetheart, Emma Hulbert, in 1900. For a while, the couple operated gold dredging operations in Idaho, but these too failed, sending Burroughs to Salt Lake City, UT where he found work as a railroad policeman. They soon returned to Chicago, where Burroughs logged hours in a variety of low-earning jobs, including door-to-door sales, before finding steady employment as a manager at Sears Roebuck & Company. However, he soon left the position to go into business for himself. The decision proved disastrous, as efforts to sell a snake-oil medicine called Alcola failed, forcing Emma Burroughs to pawn her jewelry in order to buy food. He then set up an agency to direct sales of pencil sharpeners, some of which was advertised through pulp magazines. After perusing the content of these publications, Burroughs was convinced that he could write something on par with the stories printed in their pages. He had dabbled in fiction and poetry since childhood, and submitted a lengthy short story called "Deja Thoris, Martian Princess" to All-Story Magazine. The piece sold for $400 - a princely sum at the time - and ran in six installments under the title "Under the Moons of Mars" in 1912. Five years later, it would be compiled as a novel, titled A Princess of Mars (1917), which marked the debut of Burroughs' long-running Barsoom series, which chronicled the adventures of Earthman John Carter on the planet Mars.
Burroughs' third piece for All-Story would establish the character that would provide him with lasting, worldwide fame: "Tarzan of the Apes" (1912) told the story of an English child raised in Africa by apes to become a superhuman jungle lord. The story and character became extremely popular with readers, prompting the publishing company A.C. McClurg & Company to approach Burroughs with an offer to print "Tarzan" and two additional stories as novels. All three were national best sellers, spurring nine more Tarzan novels between 1914 and 1929. Burroughs also penned five additional Barsoom tales during this period, while also launching the Pellucidar series, a string of science fiction adventures set in a prehistoric world that existed below the Earth's surface. He also found time to write three novels set on the mysterious island of Caprona (or Caspak), a lost world populated by dinosaurs and primitive people. In addition to his published works, Burroughs actively sought to license his novels and characters to a variety of media, including feature films and comic strips. The first Tarzan screen adaptation, "Tarzan of the Apes" (1918), with Elmo Lincoln as the Lord of the Apes, was a colossal hit, earning over $1 million at the box office. Burroughs was paid $5,000 in advance and five percent of the gross receipts, but was reportedly dissatisfied with both the picture and the motion picture industry's inability to properly adapt his works. He would maintain a contentious relationship with Hollywood throughout the silent and sound picture years, often threatening legal action against feature adaptations that were soothed by large payments from production companies.
Burroughs actively sought to serve in the military during World War I, but his age and health prevent him from active duty. He instead enlisted in the Illinois Reserves, which promoted him to the rank of major in 1918. A series of flu outbreaks in Chicago prompted Burroughs to seek out warmer climates for himself and his family, which led to the purchase of a 540-acre ranch in southern California's San Fernando Valley. The property, which he dubbed Tarzana, was eventually subdivided into residential and farming areas that eventually blossomed into a full-fledged neighborhood that took the name of the ranch as its own in 1927. While developing the Tarzana ranch, Burroughs decided to retain greater control over his published work, as well as various media adaptations, by founding Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., which began publishing his novels in 1931. He continued to diversify his brand during this period, granting licensing to numerous products that bore the Tarzan name, as well as expanding media adaptations to include radio serials and stage productions. Four months after divorcing Emma in 1934 after years of estrangement, Burroughs married actress Florence Gilbert Dearholt, former wife of his friend, entrepreneur Ashton Dearholt. Despite earning a fortune from his initial book sales, Burroughs' lavish living expenses and reduced royalty income prompted a move to Hawaii in 1940. His reduced circumstances, combined with failing health, sent him into a depression and bouts of alcoholism that would plague him for the remainder of his life, as well as contribute greatly to the end of his marriage to Dearholt in 1942.
That same year, Burroughs witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor, which spurred him to once again sign up for military duty. He found a sense of purpose as part of the civilian Businessmen's Military Training Corps, for which he worked as a public relations officer. He eventually became one of the oldest war correspondents, penning a column for the Honolulu Advertiser while touring the Pacific theater, occasionally on bombing runs with the 7th Air Force. Illness once again forced him to abandon his goals, and he returned to California in 1945, settling in a modest two-bedroom house in Encino. The final Tarzan and Pellucidar books were published in 1947 and 1948, respectively, before Burroughs suffered a major heart attack the following year. On March 19, 1950, Burroughs died at the age of 74. His ashes were buried in front of the Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., offices next to that of his first wife, Emma. In the decades that followed, Tarzan and other works would remain a cornerstone of science fiction and fantasy media, inspiring generations of genre writers including Lin Carter, Philip Jose Farmer and Neil Gaiman, while serving as the basis for countless feature films, television series, comic books, video games and other pop culture interpretations.
By Paul Gaita