Edgar Rice Burroughs — Origins and Influences (a deleted Chapter from John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood)

John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood

I received an interesting email today from Olav Berge Aamodt discussing the influences on Edgar Rice Burroughs, particularly Helena Blavatsky, which I was familiar with, and Camille Flammarian, about which I was aware but  not in any great detail.  As usual, Erbzine is the go-to-place to get up to speed, and I recommend this article by R. E. Prindle and this Erbzine page.  Or read on here for my thoughts .

Olav’s email reminded me that my first draft  John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood (which is still, amazingly,  #2 in Amazon Kindle/Movies/History and Criticismd) contained a lot of “early ERB” material that eventually got cut, and which I had meant to share here since we are “nerd enough” around these parts to perhaps have interest in the more detailed material that got lost.  Movies have “deleted scenes” — I guess books can have “deleted chapters”.

So here is a “Deleted Chapter” which talks a bit about ERB’s origins and influences.

Edgar Rice Burroughs


We win, when we are defeated.  EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS

At 35,  Edgar Rice Burroughs cut an impressive figure. Six feet tall in an era when that was a good five inches above the norm, he had blacksmith forearms, massive hands, and an erect, athletic posture. An accomplished horseman, in his youth he had been capable of trick-riding that would make a Cossack stand up and take notice. He had mined gold in Idaho and Oregon, and chased Apaches in Arizona.  His only sign of aging was that his  hair was beginning to thin, but there was no slouch in him; no hint that life had beaten him as close to defeat as he would later reveal it had.

Yet he was a desperate man, and defeat was at his doorstep.   He would later calculate that before his circumstances changed for the better, he would slog through 18 jobs and business schemes without success.  In the summer of 1911, he was only able to keep his family of four fed and clothed through regular visits to a nearby pawnshop and  the occasional largesse of his wife’s  wealthy and generous family.  Those wells were drying up, and Burroughs needed a solution.

There can be no doubt that Burroughs detested poverty even as he lived it — so much so that once, in 1908,  he railed against bitterly against it in a poem:



Accursed and cursing

Thou Drab of Sin and Vice and Misery;

Thou spur to Fortune;

From they shrunk womb a Lincoln springs

Engulfest though a thousand who might have Lincolns been

Seducer, thou, of Health and Happiness and Love

Murderess of countless children, wan and pinched

Honor in thee? Forfend us God!

Who lis with the reeks of they filth

The butt of Ridicule the jest of Fate

Loathing and loathed to a dishonored grave.

More typical of Burroughs response to his financial circumstances was the kind of wry humor that would infuse all of his non-fiction writing, and much of his fiction in later years.  When Christmas of 1910 rolled around and he and Emma had no money for Christmas Cards, he set about to create his own, using original drawings and verse. One, to Frank Coleman Burroughs, read:

Please accept this little token

It would be more were I not broken

In the drawing on the card, one man is presenting the other with a document containing the words: “Lease to 25th floor of any 24 floor bldg.”

While Burroughs himself would speak of his failures, there was a dimension to his “failures” that demonstrated at least the potential for success. No one could accuse Burroughs of not dreaming big, nor could he be accused of not being willing to risk a great deal in pursuit of his dream of the moment. His frequent near insolvency was not the result of simply not being able to land a job; rather it had more to do with his inability or unwillingness to remain indefinitely in a stable, yet unchallenging and ultimately boring job.  Why stick it out with a stable position at, say, the burgeoning mail-order giant Sears and Roebuck when the prospect of launching your own mail-order venture beckoned?    It was a pattern that repeated itself again and again; stable job with limited prospects dumped for a grand entrepreneurial adventure that failed to pan out, followed by a retrenchment at yet another stable but uninspiring job.  Burroughs was never destined to be one of those whose life is spent wondering what might have been.

By 1911 Burroughs had once again quit a stable job to rush headlong into an entrepreneurial “opportunity” — this one, pencil sharpeners.  He had acquired an agency and, using borrowed office space, had recruited sales agents who daily went out with the contraptions and endeavored to sell them.  had read Theodore Roosevelt’s words given at the Sorbonne in April, 1910, and he was determined to live them:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Such was the moment that Edgar Rice Burroughs had arrived at when, in July of 1911, while his pencil sharpener sub-agents were out pounding the pavements with their products and Burroughs was alone in the borrowed office, he began to surreptitiously pen the outrageously imaginative story that he tentatively entitled: “Dejah Thoris, Princess of Mars”.

The ubiquitous pulps were Burroughs target — the 10 cent all-fiction publications frequently featured new or unknown writers, and their stories followed patterns that Burroughs found easy to discern and, he theorized, would be easy enough to match or even out-do.   The plethora of magazines, and the stories they contained, provided ample fodder for Burroughs as he imagined a story he might create that would meet the editorial guidelines of the target publications.  Popular stories that appeared in the year prior to the time Burroughs started writing his unique story included The Cave of the Glittering Lamps, which ran from October 1910 through January 1911 in All Story Magazine, a five part novel written by a twenty seven year old, Ludwid Lewisohn, a story that postulated a subterranean city carved out of a Persian mountain.  From September 1910 through January 1911, All Story ran a serialized novel entitled The Monkey Man by William Tillinghast Eldridge–a crudely fashioned story of a powerful apelike man who swung through trees and terrorized a couple who had been cast away onto a tropical island, and which may well have had more to do with Burroughs’ second published story, Tarzan of the Apes, than Kipling’s Jungle Book which has frequently been cited as likely inspiration.

But while Burroughs plotted his assault on the pulps by reading and extracting from the fiction the editorial guidelines of the publications, he also read and absorbed other influences that would come together in the story he would choose to write.

One such influence was Percival Lowell, the scientist who popularized the notion that the “canals” of mars, clearly visible through telescopes from earth, were the work of intelligent beings. Lowell wrote his book based on observations made during Mars’ close approaches to earth in 1892 and 1894, and in his conclusion sums up a description of the likely inhabitants of Mars:

“We may, perhaps, in conclusion, consider for a moment how different in its details existence on Mars must be from existence on the Earth. If we were transported to Mars, we should be pleasingly surprised to find all our manual labor suddenly lightened threefold. …. Let us see how. As we all know, a large man is more unwieldy than a small one. An elephant refuses to hop like a flea; not because he considers the act undignified, but simply because he cannot bring it about. If we could, we should all jump straight across the street, instead of painfully paddling through the mud. Our inability to do so depends upon the size of the Earth, not upon what it at first seems to depend, on the size of the street…..

Mars being thus old himself, we know that evolution on his surface must be similarly advanced. This only informs us of its condition relative to the planet’s capabilities. Of its actual state our data are not definite enough to furnish much deduction. But from the fact that our own development has been comparatively a recent thing, and that a long time would be needed to bring even Mars to his present geological condition, we may judge any life he may support to be not only relatively, but really older than our own.

Quite possibly, such Martian folk are possessed of inventions of which we have not dreamed, and with them electrophones and kinetoscopes are things of a bygone past, preserved with veneration in museums as relics of the clumsy contrivances of the simple childhood of the race. Certainly what we see hints at the existence of beings who are in advance of, not behind us, in the journey of life.

To talk of Martian beings is not to mean Martian men. Just as the probabilities point to the one, so do they point away from the other. Even on this Earth man is of the nature of an accident. He is the survival of by no means the highest physical organism. He is not even a high form of mammal. Mind has been his making. For aught we can see, some lizard or batrachian might just as well have popped into his place early in the race, and been now the dominant creature of this Earth. Under different physical conditions, he would have been certain to do so. Amid the surroundings that exist on Mars, surroundings so different from our own, we may be practically sure other organisms have been evolved of which we have no cognizance. What manner of beings they may be we lack the data even to conceive.”

There are also strong, albeit disputed, indications that Burroughs had at least been exposed to the writings of the theosophists, particular Helena Blavatsky, whose various postulations regarding lost races and cultures including Atlantis and Lemuria included a variety of features that would match a great deal of what Burroughs would offer when he conjured Barsoom.  Fritz Leiber wrote of this in his 1959 treatise “Burroughs and the Sword of Theosophy”, as did L. Sprague de Camp, who summed it up the likely influences on Burroughs thusly:

Another root of Barsoom lies in Theosophy, a religious-magical cult founded by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-91). … In 1888 Blavatsky published her magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine, wherein… we are told that man has evolved through seven Root Races… The Third Root Race were the gigantic, apelike, hermaphroditic, egg-laying Lemurians, with four arms and eyes in the backs of their heads….The Fourth Root Race was the human Atlantean; we are the Fifth, and the Sixth and Seventh are on the way.

After Blavatsky died, her successors expanded on her account of lost continents and prehistoric races…. the Toltecs, a sub-race of the Atlanteans, were red-skinned and… flew aircraft propelled by vril…. When vril came to Burroughs’ attention, he transformed it into the Eighth Barsoomian Ray. Life on Barsoom, with its four-armed giants, its red-skinned heroes and heroines, and its boatlike aircraft resembles nothing so much as life in the Theosophists’ Atlantis and Lemuria.  (http://www.erbzine.com/mag11/1107.html)

 Neither Leiber nor de Camp postulates that Burroughs actually believed what Blavatsky was peddling; only that the correlations are too great to be mere coincidence, suggesting that Burroughs found in them a certain attractive mythic force which he harnessed to his “pure entertainment” purposes.

Whatever the influences, it came to be that Edgar Rice Burroughs, age 35, having contemplated the nature of “savages” and found them to be the victims of colonization, not the beneficiaries of it; having been exposed to the imaginative works of H.R. Haggard, H.G. Wells,  Jules Verne, and Edward Lester; having read the pulps of the day; and having had some likely exposure to both the scientific writings of Percival Lowell and the theosophical theories of Helena Blavatsky–and having been an 18 time loser in business, with inadequate income to provide for his family and no more watches or jewely to pawn–took pen to paper in the late summer of 1911 and began, surreptitiously and not telling anyone of his folly, to create the world, the story, and the characters that would inspire 100 years of writers, film-makers, and scientists.


  • Very interesting. From http://www.erbzine.com/mag11/1107.html :

    “While originally egg-laying hermaphrodites, the Lemurians began to learn about sex during the period of their Fourth Sub-Race, and by their Fifth Sub-Race were reproducing their kind as we do. Being stupid things, they interbred with beasts, the products of this perverted union being the great apes. … other beings, from Venus which had already developed a high civilization,… guided faltering humankind to the point where the Lemurians became capable of individual immortality and reincarnation. The Venerians also taught the Lemurians the arts of keeping fire, metallurgy, weaving, and agriculture. By the time the Lemurians reached their Seventh Sub-Race they looked fairly human….”

    “… we are told that the history of the earth runs thus: Life evolves through seven cycles or “Rounds,” during which mankind develops through seven Root Races, each comprising seven sub-races. The First Root Race, a kind of astral jellyfish, lived on an Imperishable Sacred Land. The Second, a little more substantial, dwelt in the former arctic continent of Hyperborea. The Third were the apelike hermaphroditic egg-laying Lemurians, some with four arms and some with an eye in the back of their heads, whose downfall was caused by their discovery of sex… The Fourth Root Race were the quite human Atlanteans. We are the Fifth, and the Sixth will soon appear…. ”

    This sounds a bit like the tree of life on Barsoom:

    “”The buds from which the plant men blossomed resembled large nuts about a foot in diameter, divided in double partition walls into four sections. In one section grew the plant man, in another a sixteen-legged worm, in the third the progenitor of the white ape and in the fourth the primeval black man of Barsoom.

    “Countless billions died before the first black man broke through his prison walls into the light of day. Prompted by curiosity, he broke open other shells and the peopling of Barsoom commenced.

    “The pure strain of the blood of this first black man has remained untainted by admixture with other creatures in the race of which I am a member; but from the sixteen legged worm, the first ape and renegade black man has sprung every other form of animal life on Barsoom.

    “The therns are but the result of ages of evolution from the pure white ape of antiquity. They are a lower order still. There is but one race of true and immortal humans on Barsoom. It is the race of black men.

    “The Tree of Life is dead, but before it died, the plant men learned to detach themselves from it and roam the face of Barsoom with the other children of the First Parent.”

    Others have made comments about the theosophical thoughts:

    “A basic part of the mythology given in these books is that mankind is passing through a series of seven “root races.” These are: Astrals (pure spirits), Hyperboreans (from a now-vanished continent), Lemurians (who interbred with animals and thus went bye-bye), Atlanteans (who had psychic powers and secret energy sources, but went under during a cataclysm), and the Race of Hope, the Aryans.”

    “Mythical Pacific Continents Invented as a Reaction to Darwinism

    The ideas of Charles Darwin about human evolution shook the foundations of nineteenth- century thinking in a variety of ways. As is common when radical ideas are first proposed, this led both to established scientists reaffirming their long-held beliefs with strong statements aagainst the new thinking, and to the exposition of alternative, more palatable, explanations of comparable detail and complexity. Darwin’s ideas concerning evolution provoked strong statements defending the orthodoxy and also a number of supposed alternative models. The latter were fuelled largely by two popular (yet incorrect) interpretations of Darwin’s ideas, repugnant to most people at the time, that humans were descended from apes and that divine intervention had not been required to produce humans.

    Helena Blavatsky was fanatically anti-Darwin. And it seems likely that the complex scenario she created concerning human origins and succession on lost continents in the Pacific and elsewhere was intended primarily as a counter to what she believed were Darwin’s ideas about human evolution. Blavatsky built her ideas initially on Haeckel’s work, which concluded that a continent (named Lemuria, suggested by the French explorer Augustus Le Plongeon) had once existed in the Indian Ocean. Ironically, Haeckel was a strong supporter of Darwin’s ideas who had embraced the idea of Lemuria to attempt to overcome criticism of them, particularly that involving doubts about how particular animal species had become distributed across large areas. But Haeckel overstepped the boundaries of deduction and suggested, almost as an afterthought, that Lemuria may also have been the cradle of humanity, the place from which all races of humans had come.

    The essence of Blavatsky’s views about human development is that, contrary to evolutionary theory, humans are the blueprint for sentient life, and most other species appear to have “evolved” from the union of humans and “beasts.” For this to happen, and according to Blavatsky it happened repeatedly as one pure human “root race” eventually succumbed and mated with the part-human descendants of the earlier root race’s much-deplored unions, it was helpful to Blavatsky to have places where the supporting evidence could not be located, such as a vast broken-up and submerged continent as she supposed Lemuria and others to be.”

    These things makes me think about Barsoomina plant men, the most primitive creatures and reproduce without having sex.
    Lemurians, like some Barsoomian black men and other creatures form the pod, mixed their blood and created all the other animals and species on the planet. Some of the races are higher evolved than others and have mental powers. The extinct Orovars could be inspired by the Atlanteans. And four armed giants who lay eggs and races of all kind of colors sounds familiar too. If could just be a coincidence, but is probably not.
    And could the Eight and Ninth Rays have something to do with the seven root races and cycles, or is it to push it a little too far?
    The idea of ancient and even non human races that dominated the world before humans is also something we see in the works of the weird fiction writes.

    If Burroughs read some theosophical writings, it’s possible he did not want people to believe he was one of their followers and decided not to keep them. Just like someone who is interested in WW2 reads Mein Kampf for historical reasons, but is afraid they are gonna believe he has nazi opinions if they find Hitler’s work among his other books.

    But he did read the pulps, and through the works of others, he could have been introduced to it if there was was any mentioning of it. From the same link as mentioned above, L. Sprague de Camp writes:

    “After Blavatsky died, her successors expanded on her account of lost continents and prehistoric races…. the Toltecs, a sub-race of the Atlanteans, were red-skinned and… flew aircraft propelled by vril…. When vril came to Burroughs’ attention, he transformed it into the Eighth Barsoomian Ray. Life on Barsoom, with its four-armed giants, its red-skinned heroes and heroines, and its boatlike aircraft resembles nothing so much as life in the Theosophists’ Atlantis and Lemuria. But I don’t know how or when Burroughs came under their whimsical spell.”

    According to Wikipedia, Flammarion was a member of the Theosophical Society. Flammarion could be the link between Burroughs and theosophy.

    The images of dacying civilizations and races could also have come from “scientists” like Max Nordau and Cesare Lombroso, who published their books in the late 18th century, when many in the western world feaured social and biological degeneration, probably partly thanks to Charles Darwin and later writers like HG Wells and the already mentioned Camille Flammarion.

    It’s fascinating how he would fuse what he had read with his own imagination.

  • Dotar’s translation of Carolina’s: “all current stories are based on John Carter of Mars Edgar is a great writer, Tarzan still present like John carter great stories.”

    Thanks, Carolina! 😉

  • todas las actuales hiatorias se basan en John carter de marte Edgar es un gran escritor, tarzan sigue latente al igual que John carter grandes historias.

  • I saw that ERBzine has the whole Monkey Man story. I think I will read it as soon as I finish Tarzan the Untamed!

    Thanks for the deleted chapters. I would very much like to read your thoughts about Asylum’s Princess of Mars. I know it’s not a deleted chapter per se since you wrote it after but still!

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