At 35, Edgar Rice Burroughs had a resume full of failure.
He flunked the West Point entrance exam and then was booted out of the Army for a weak heart.
He drifted from job to job, working as a railway cop and selling pencil sharpeners.
With time to spare, he began reading pulp magazines and realized he could create better stories.
In 1912, his first tales about Tarzan of the Apes and John Carter of Mars were published.
Since then, his novels have sold 100 million copies, as many as Lewis Carroll, Anne Rice, Ian Fleming and Ken Follett.
Burroughs (1875-1950) grew up in Chicago, the son of a Civil War veteran and prosperous businessman, with a mother who had a staff of three. It was a proper Victorian household, and Edgar was expected to do well at everything.
He didn’t. From an early age his mind wandered from his studies to writing poetry and drawing humorous sketches. He was often out of school because of illness.
But he did have an ability to bounce back from failure.
In 1892 he was sent to his two older brothers’ Idaho ranch in 1891 to avoid a flu epidemic. His first attempt to ride a mean bronco nearly got him killed, but he got right back on until the horse calmed down. The rough life of the ranch built up his physique and health.
After flunking out of the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and entering a military school, Burroughs joined the Army, but was out a year later.
He returned to Idaho to work at his brothers’ stationery shop, then went to Chicago to spend three years at his father’s battery store.
He was bored to death by retail and went into a gold mining venture, which failed. Then it was on to a series of sales jobs, including hawking light bulbs to janitors and peddling books door-to-door.
Rich With Ideas
Penniless, he decided to try writing, but had no grasp of storytelling construction. He wrote half a novel about John Carter’s adventures on Mars and sent it off to All-Story magazine in early 1912. The editor liked it and asked for the rest, to be run February to July. Burroughs was shocked to get a $400 check.
His next story was about an infant whose English parents, Lord and Lady Greystoke, are put ashore in West Africa by a mutinous crew. The parents are killed by apes, who adopt the boy. His name?
Tarzan, King of the Apes.
He later meets a French naval officer and learns French, then is taught English by Jane Porter and her father, who have been abandoned by their boat crew.
Reviews helped bolster sales. The New York Times declared it “a story of many marvels, told well.”
Burroughs realized that he had signed away secondary rights to his early stories and these were worth something in syndication. He insisted on retaining them in his later contracts.
“Burroughs was distinctive for his time in treating writing as a business and was one of the earliest to make a full-time living writing fantasy and science fiction,” Matt Cohen, who teaches English at the University of Texas, told IBD. “He had a chart on his wall which showed how many words he had written each month. He stuck to what he knew he was good at, popular fiction, which he regarded as primarily for entertainment, rather than serving some highbrow literary purpose. But within that genre he kept tinkering with ways to tap into a mass market, and it’s hard to think of another very successful author who continued to get so many rejection letters.”