“Book News Monthly” — 1918 Profile of “The Creator of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs”

Tarzan, The Tarzan Files

Sharing a bit of the fruits of research on John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood — this is a lovely 1918 magazine piece on Edgar Rice Burroughs which contains a number of interesting tidbits I haven’t been able to find anywhere else. 

From The Book News Monthly, August 1918

EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS, the creator of Tarzan, of John Carter, of Barney Custer, and a dozen, others almost equally popular as the Ape-man, is not at all the sort of person you would take for a writer were you to judge solely by appearances. Gone, of course, are the days of long hair and slovenly clothing for the successful author. Now the best of them might pass easily as prosperous business men, and in this respect Mr. Burroughs differs not at all from his fellows—but his hands! The Lord never intended those hands to wield anything lighter than a sledge; or play upon a more delicate instrument than an anvil— that the four-pound aluminum typewriter he uses in his work can withstand them is always a source of wonder to me.

When I asked Mr. Burroughs for a suggestion as to something humorous which I might incorporate in this article he replied that “the funniest thing about me is my hands.” And then he went on to tell of a rubber in a Turkish bath who, after looking at Mr. Burroughs’ hands for a moment remarked: “We get all kinds of people in here; but this is the first time I ever massaged a blacksmith.’’

Nor are his hands the only things that would seem to belie his calling. There is nothing in his conversation that would lead one to suppose that he wrote stories for a living, or that his stories have in the course of two short years made his name familiar wherever the English language is spoken, for whatever else Edgar Rice Burroughs may be he is unquestionably the world’s poorest conver-sationalist, nor does that fact cause him the slightest concern. Unlike most people who cannot talk he is an equally poor listener. He believes that the average man or woman has little or nothing worth saying and that they spend so much of their waking lives in saying it that they have no time to think—they exercise their vocal organs while their brains atrophy.

His success as a writer is a never-ending source of wonderment to him, and he insists that it is “just luck.” That he has been marvelously successful goes without saving. It is but little more than two years ago that his first story appeared in print—“Under the Moons of Mars.” It was the first story that he had ever written and it was the encouragement of the success of it that put him permanently into the writing game.

Prior to that time Mr. Burroughs had been and done a little of everything. Educated in private schools and by tutors in Chicago, at Andover, Massachusetts, and for four years at the then famous military academy at Orchard Lake, Michigan, he had his goal placed at Yale, where two of his older brothers had graduated; but toward the close of his senior year at Orchard Lake his oldest brother obtained for him an appointment to West Point.

In a class of some hundred and seventeen candidates fourteen passed successfully. Mr. Burroughs was not one of the fourteen.
The following fall he returned to Orchard Lake as assistant commandant, tactical officer and cavalry instructor, and in the spring of 1896 enlisted in the 7th United States Cavalry to try for a commission from the ranks. After a period of chasing the elusive Apache Kid and his band of renegades about southern

??Arizona, Mr. Burroughs’ father obtained his discharge and the future author returned to Chicago—from Nogales, Arizona, to Kansas City “on top of a cattle train.” It seems that the seven cars of cattle to which he was attached were separated from the caboose by eleven other cars belonging to another outfit, and that at each stop as it was necessary to prod up the cattle that were down to prevent their being trampled to death; the train was usually under way before this work could be accomplished. This necessitated climbing to the top of the cars while the train was in motion. Then there was a long journey back to the caboose over the swaying, bumping cattle cars in the teeth of a Kansas gale—a journey that consumed so much time that the train, more often than not, was slowing down for the next stop before the caboose was reached. Then it was clamber to the ground, run forward with the prod pole, and repeat.

This was not Mr. Burroughs’ only experience with cattle. He rode for the late senator “Jim” Pierce upon that cattle king’s extensive ranges in southeast Idaho in the days of horse thieves, cattle rustlers and pitched battles between sheep and cattle men, where even among men born to the leather he won a name for his mastery of bad horses, among them the locally notorious man killer, Black Pacer.

Since those days the writer has worked in placer mines in the mountains of Idaho and the valley of the Snake in Oregon; he has been a book agent in Chicago, a storekeeper in Pocatello; managed a mail order business in the East, and been a policeman in Salt Lake City. For two years he was department manager for the largest mail order house in the world, and later a high salaried business expert on the staff of System, the magazine of business.
In fact, up to a couple of years ago Edgar Rice Burroughs had done a great variety of things which did not include story writing, nor had he ever given the slightest promise of the latent talent within him. He says that he has always known that he could write, yet so jealously did he guard this belief that not even his wife guessed it until after his first story was half completed.

The mention of Mrs. Burroughs suggests naturally the home life of the author which is always pregnant with interest for those of us who come to love the writer through our love for Tarzan of ??the Apes, and D’Arnot, and Jane Clayton, and Captain John Carter, and Tars Tarkas, and the fierce and faithful Woola.

When Ed Burroughs was fourteen—he is “Ed” to men, women and children on his “block”—he began proposing to a little girl named Emma Hulbert. She is the daughter of one of the best known and most successful old-time hotel men of Chicago and St. Louis. For ten years “Ed” Burroughs haunted her, when he wasn’t out West, or in the army, or at school, and for ten years he kept on proposing and she continued to say “no.” “She got so tired of being proposed to,” says Mr. Burroughs, “that she just had to marry me to get a little rest.”

Three beautiful children, Joan, Hulbert and Jack, the oldest six, clamber over Mr. Burroughs’ anatomy and desk and typewriter while he is turning out the tales you all clamor for. “Were I literary,” he says, “and afflicted with temperament I should have a devil of a time writing stories, for now comes Joan with Helen in one hand and Helen’s severed arm in the other, strewing a thin line of sawdust across my study floor. I may be in the midst of a thrilling passage—Tarzan may be pulling a tiger out of Africa by the tail—but when Joan comes even Tarzan pauses, and he stays paused until I have tied Helen’s arm to her torso once again for the hundredth time.

“Then may come Hulbert with an orange to be ‘turned insideout,’ or with a steam calliope announcement that he has discovered a ‘father long legs,’ and about the time he has been shunted outdoors with his velocipede Jack tumbles out of his go- cart with a vocal accompaniment that would drive the possessor of a temperament to the mad house.”
Next to Mr. Burroughs’ devotion to his family comes his love of motoring. Rain or shine, summer or winter, you may see him every afternoon with his family upon the Chicago boulevards or far out on some delightful country road beyond the city’s limits. He loves the country, too, and the great outdoors, and every sport and game that needs the open for its playing. Yet in few such sports does he excel. In football and horsemanship he climbed close to the top, and if he should confide in you I think that you would soon discover that his greatest pride lies in his ability to ride anything that wears hair.

??His tennis is about the funniest thing I ever saw, and his golf is absolutely pathetic, yet he loves them both, and baseball, too, though he couldn’t hit a flock of balloons with the side of a barn door, and if he did probably he would be as likely to run for third base as first.

All in all there is nothing very remarkable about Edgar Rice Burroughs except his imagination. He is a sane, healthy American gentleman, very much in love with his wife and children and inordinately proud of them. Of himself or his work he is never very serious. I rather think that he looks upon it all as a huge joke that he and the public are playing on the publishers, for Mr. Burroughs’ rates are going up by leaps and bounds—and why not, when every publication that prints his stories is deluged with requests for more?

I said that next to his family came motoring in the affections of the author, but that is not quite true. I think his readers hold second place there. He is very fond of them, and while he likes to tantalize them a bit with an unsatisfactory ending now and then, his one thought is to write for them what they want. Many of them write to him from all parts of the world, and no matter how busy he may be it is always his first pleasure to answer these letters before any others, and the big loose leaf file in which he keeps these letters is his most cherished possession.

If you have read several of his stories I think that doubtless yon must have been impressed with the same fact that impressed me—that his stories are written solely to entertain. To every man his calling. There are those to whom God has given the power to instruct and lead their fellow men, and there are others endowed with a no less important ability—the ability to entertain—and to give to the world clean, strong, virile stories—stories that grip the boy and the boy’s father, and his mother and his sisters and his aunts, and such is the ability that God has given so bounteously to Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Practically, the story of Tarzan is the Robinson Crusoe idea over again. The lone man or boy fighting for his existence single- handed against nature always attracts readers when it is well done. This interest comes doubtless from something within us which goes back to the time when our ancestors were doing this kind of ??thing themselves. Tarzan always represents individual freedom. which, no matter how ready we may be to subscribe to social laws and restrictions, is always present with us. There is not a man or woman who occasionally does not like to get away into a more or less primitive wilderness where he is “monarch of all he surveys.”

Incidentally, Mr. Burroughs has a marvelous novelist’s imagination, and although his stories are impossible, yet it seems, when one is reading them, that they might have happened. Needless to say the producing of this illusion marks the finished story-teller. It makes little difference whether the story could happen. The point is whether the author tells it in such a manner that it impresses the reader so much he feels that it might happen.

The Tarzan books do not seem to follow ordinary laws. For instance, sequels as a rule are rarely as successful as the original story. Every Tarzan book, however, has sold far better than its predecessor in the same length of time, and so far there has not been the slightest let-up in the demand. The latest book, “Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar,” has been on the market about six weeks, and many thousands have been sold. It is one of the best selling books today in fiction, although you will not probably find it mentioned very prominently among the list of the best sellers.
Mr. Burroughs has six Tarzan stories now to his credit. It would seem as though this should be enough. He is not forcing the market at all, but magazine fiction readers are all the time crying for more Tarzan. Every Tarzan book since the first has been written in obedience to its demand. When the public gets tired of Tarzan then there will be an end of them, so far as Mr. Burroughs is concerned.

The moving picture of “Tarzan of the Apes” has been very successful. Wherever it has been shown it has attracted big audiences, and a marked increase in the sale of the Tarzan books has always followed immediately. We believe it is the intention of the management to follow this with other Tarzan films, if circumstances seem to warrant it, but we have no assurance of this. Possibly it will depend upon the continued success of the present film.


  • Oh, and that last paragraph is all kinds of ironic, in light of where things are right now with John Carter. Things went somewhat differently for Tarzan’s and John Carter’s respective first cinematic adventures. But a lot of folks are chattering on the internet about a sense of growing momentum for Barsoom, whether it is a sequel to Stanton’s film, or another project further down the road. The thought of a Barsoom franchise running on all cylinders at full speed is a simultaneously fearsome and magnificent prospect.

  • They don’t write ’em like they used to! Just a wonderful article. Gives more of a sense of who he was in his everyday life than most everything else I’ve read about him.

    “All in all there is nothing very remarkable about Edgar Rice Burroughs except his imagination.”

    Ha! And that was all he needed to change the world.

    “If you have read several of his stories I think that doubtless yon must have been impressed with the same fact that impressed me—that his stories are written solely to entertain. To every man his calling. There are those to whom God has given the power to instruct and lead their fellow men, and there are others endowed with a no less important ability—the ability to entertain—and to give to the world clean, strong, virile stories—stories that grip the boy and the boy’s father, and his mother and his sisters and his aunts, and such is the ability that God has given so bounteously to Edgar Rice Burroughs.”

    Gonna have to keep this article and this quote in particular handy for answering the elitists and for showing people “here, this is what ERB did with excellence and what he gave us.”

  • Marvelous. I love how the article goes out of it’s way to list all the things he’s bad at – almost reads like Burroughs could have written it himself, and I wish more modern writing contained such a vocabulary.

  • This journalist certainly knew how to write, this is just a great article! Opening it with the “hand” detail is lovely. Love the candid photo, too.

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