Edgar Rice Burroughs was famously “selling pencil sharpeners” at the time he wrote his first novel. He equally famously was later quoted: “I write to escape. To escape poverty.” In a 1945 magazine article he explains: “”Until I was thirty-five, I was a failure in everything I tried,” he began. “As a kid, I was thrown out of school, flunked the examinations for West point, and was discharged from the Regular Army with a weak heart. I failed in everything. When I got married I was making fifteen dollars a week in my father’s storage-battery business. When my second child was born, I had no job and no money. I had to pawn my wife’s jewelry and my own watch to buy food.”
In truth, Burroughs led an extraordinary life that had its share of failures and frustrations even after he wrote the immensely popular A Princess of Mars, (published from Feb-June 1912) and then the even more immensely popular Tarzan of the Apes a few months later. When he wrote his editor at Frank A Munsey, Thomas Metcalfe, to describe Tarzan he did so with typical ascerbic flair:
“The story I am now on is of the scion of a noble English house — of the present time — who was born in tropical Africa where his parents died when he was about a year old. The infant was found and adopted by a huge she-ape, and was brought up among a band of fierce anthropoids. . . . I am especially adapted to the building of the “damphool” species of narrative.”
Whenever I find myself delving into Burroughs’ life — two thoughts dominate: 1) Someone (me?) should make a movie about this guy, and 2) He’s at the top of my list of “wish I had shared a beer with” at some point.
Listen to Burroughs’ own description of his travails and failures around the time of A Princess of Mars. It takes the form of an outline which he prepared :
I get a job as Time Keeper on a construction job
I sell Stoddards lectures
I am a Flop
Get job as expert accountant
Office Manager for E. S. Winslow
Go to Sears
Go into business with Dentzer
Get job with Stace
Hulbert born about this time
Head aches for years — no vacation — lunches
Sell pencil sharpeners
Am just about ready to give up
Start writing A Princess of Mars
in corset jobbers office at Market & Monroe
Champlain Yardley Co
½ story accepted
My first check
Write Outlaw of Torn rejected
Get job with System
E. W. Shaw
Give up my job & decide to depend solely on writing
Everyone thinks I am crazy including myself
The rest, as they say, is history — but not really. Burroughs travails continued on many levels and in many ways. His stories were published but not as novels — they were serialized with great success in the pulp magazines of the day, but they were not initially considered proper material for book publication. One book publisher after another turned down Tarzan of the Apes even after its success as a serial, saying book readers of the day would never warm to a story of someone raised in so uncouth a fashion as Tarzan, Lord Greystoke.
But that’s another story for another day.
If you want to explore Edgar Rice Burroughs Biography online, the best resource by far is Bill Hillman’s Erbzine: Edgar Rice Burroughs Bio Timeline.