John Carter: Why Does Edgar Rice Burroughs Still Matter?

Edgar Rice Burroughs

Jess Nevins writing for i09 has a thoughtful article entitled “Why Does Edgar Rice Burroughs Still Matter” which is worth reading in its entirety.   Nevins traces the role of the pulp magazines in American and international culture during Burroughs’ heyday, and connects this to the present day.  Very good stuff and highly recommended.  Here is an excerpt, followed by a link to the full article.  Enjoy!!

Why Does Edgar Rice Burroughs Still Matter?

by Jess Nivens

Edgar Rice Burroughs published his first story, “Under the Moons of Mars,” a hundred years ago this month. And even forty years ago, nobody would have predicted that Burroughs’ creations, like Tarzan and John Carter of Mars, would still be shaping the entertainment landscape. Why does Burroughs continue to cast such a long shadow over pop culture?

The Pulps And Their Aesthetic

The pulp era began with the appearance of the first pulp magazine, Argosy, in 1896, and ended around 1951, when mass-market paperbacks and digest-sized magazines replaced the pulps. As with most historical eras, the borders are amorphous rather than distinct. The dime novel, the dominant form of popular literature in the second half of the 19th century, began its decline in 1894, but it was not until 1919 that more pulps than dime novels were published, and not until 1935 that the last dime novel ceased publication. And the last pulp, Ranch Romances, ceased publishing in 1971, long after the digest form and the paperback had come to rule popular literature. Nonetheless, the pulp era is best marked as lasting from 1896 to 1951.

During those years a distinctive aesthetic developed within the pulps. The pulps were a medium, never a genre; every form of fiction appeared within pulp magazines, from railway fiction to sports to adventure fiction. But each of these genres displayed the same aesthetic: an emphasis on sensation, melodrama, adventure and romance and a de-emphasis on the mimetic and realistic; simple emotions strongly expressed; the regular use of the exotic — racial, sexual, socioeconomic, and geographic — and the exploitation of the same; the use of dialogue and narration as means for delivering information rather than displaying authorial style or advancing character development; a privileging of series characters, many of whose situations never changed; and happy endings and good triumphing over evil.


What Set Burroughs Apart

What set Burroughs apart from those previous authors was the scale of his success and the resulting influence he had on those genres. In the thirty years after Burroughs’ debut the great majority of the writers who wrote Planetary Romance and Lost Race-and-feral-children stories did so under the influence of Burroughs, if not in blatant imitation of him. Burroughs didn’t invent ray guns, or aliens using human feudal structures, chivalry, and martial codes, or humans being raised by impossibly intelligent and communicative animals, or any of the other tropes and motifs (now cliches) from both type of stories which are so familiar to us now.

But Burroughs so popularized the genres in which they appeared that his handling of those tropes and motifs, and those genres, became not just the standard approach but the archetypal approach to them. If the characters in Kurt Busiek’s Astro City literally live and work in the shadow of Mt. Kirby — a reference to comic book artist Jack Kirby and his enormous influence on modern superhero comics — then those writing Planetary Romances and Lost Race-and-feral-children stories, even today, figuratively do so in the shadow of Mt. Burroughs.


  • Thank you for reposting this great article. I subscribe to io9 and have seen this already, but I am sure this will give others a chance to read Mr. Nevins’ article.

  • Great article! A good look at the history, with a focus on the pop culture side of things.

    I wonder, though, if the writer of the article doesn’t sell ERB a tiny bit short. In addition to having helped craft the pulp aesthetic, there is also a timeless mythic quality to some of ERB’s work. There are moments that strikingly remind one of Homer, and Greek myth in general – with the fantastic creatures, great journeys, epic battles, “a face that launched a thousand ships”, etc. If ERB is a pulp writer, it’s more in the vein of Harryhausen than much of what else qualifies as “pulp”.

    One of the reasons Burroughs has lasted is that he leveraged his Victorian education in classic myth to take his readers back to the kinds of stories that have lasted THOUSANDS of years, not just the 100+ years of the pulp aesthetic.

    But, in pop culture terms, which is the focus of the article, the writer is right on.

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