The Edgar Rice Burroughs Magic — What was it about his writing that was so special?

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan, The Tarzan Files

There have been recent comments here on JCF about how the adaptation of John Carter was handled by Andrew Stanton, Michael Chabon, and Mark Andrews and as I was writing some responses I realized that there is a good chapter in John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood about this topic, so I’ll drop it in here and share it.  For those interested in such things, in the book itself all the quotes and so forth are thoroughly footnoted.  When I copy/paste it in here, the footnotes get lost and I don’t have time this morning to go through and re-do them all, but be assured, in the book, everything is cited.

The ERB Appeal

Burroughs made his first submission at a point at which he was half-finished with the story, sending it to All-Story Magazine which was the outlet he had in mind as he wrote it.  It was August 14, 1911, when he mailed the partially finished 43,000 word manuscript to THE ALL STORY MAGAZINE, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York City.  It was only 10 days later when Thomas Newell Metcalf, the managing editor of All-Story, replied with a provisional approval and notes requesting that Burroughs speed up the beginning so as to get John Carter to Mars without delay. Burroughs responded immediately, completing the story and mailing in a 63,000 word manuscript on September 28, 1911.  There followed a period of impatient waiting for Burroughs, until on November 4 Metcalf made an offer of four hundred dollars for first serial rights only–Burroughs would retain all other rights.   Burroughs accepted, with the caveat the he hoped to earn better rates for future stories, and on November 17  Burroughs received a check in the amount of $400, representing the equivalent of six months worth of salary at the rate Burroughs was earning it.  While falling short of full salvation, Burroughs fortunes, it seemed, had finally taken a turn for the better.

In closing the acceptance letter, Metcalfe wrote:

 I was thinking last night, considering with how much vividness you described the various fights, whether you might not be able to do a serial of the regular romantic type, something like, say “Ivanhoe”, or at least of the period when everybody wore armor and dashed about rescuing fair ladies. If you have in mind any serials, or anything of that sort, and if you think it worth your while, I should be very glad indeed to hear from you in regard to them.

To Burroughs, it all seemed very easy.  He made the decision to make writing his career, but was, as he put it, “canny enough not to give up my job”.

Meanwhile his story, published by All-Story in a series beginning in February 1912, came out under the title Under the Moons of Mars, which the editor promoted to readers as   “a surprisingly vivid interplanetary romance”.  The theme of “romance” would again be emphasized as part 1 of the series was entitled: “UNDER THE MOONS OF MARS: Part I, the romance of a soul astray”.  The story thrilled the readers of All-Story, hundreds of whom wrote in to praise it, and its serial run, which began in February 1912 and ran for six months, including the month of April, when America was convulsed over the story of the sinking of the Titanic, concluded in July with the story ending  on a cliffhanger note, with Carter marooned on Earth and Dejah Thoris left behind on Mars:

I can see her shining in the sky through the little window by my desk, and tonight she seems calling to me again as she had not called before since that long dead night.

I think I can see, across that awful abyss, a beautiful black-haired woman standing in the garden of a palace, and at her side is a little boy who puts his arm around her as she points to the sky toward the planet earth.

I think I see them, and something tells me that I shall soon know.

That Burroughs ended on a cliffhanger may be construed as a ploy to ensure more stories would be published by All-Story; that he ended his “interplanetary romance” on such a wistful and heartfelt romantic note is significant as it speaks to the emotional appeal that Burroughs built into this, and all the best of his stories.   It also illustrates a key differentiation between the writing of Burroughs and two contemporaries whom he eclipsed very quickly in terms of sales and impact, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

As Sam Moskowitz writes in his history of the pulps that takes as its title “Under the Moons of Mars”–a choice of title which emphasizes the significance of Burroughs contribution:

The term “scientific romance” when applied to novels like Under the Moons of Mars …. meant science-fiction love stories. The love or romantic element is an integral part of the story, but the boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl formula is forwarded on a Jetstream of adventure and action, against immensely colorful back-grounds like the dry ocean beds of Mars or the unknown world of the future.

The novels of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells in the scientific vein have always had a preponderantly male audience. Since most science fiction is in the tradition of those two great writers, this fact is generally true for the entire literary history of science fiction. One great exception was Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose novels always enjoyed a substantial female following.

The role of romance in the Under the Moons of Mars, and in virtually all of Burroughs stories, cannot be underestimated and is an essential component to the appeal.  Years later, in a 1938 interview for Writer’s Market and Methods, Burroughs would respond to a question in which the interviewer asked “Is romance dead?” with utter unadorned conviction: “Don’t you ever believe it!  Romance isn’t dead…never was dead…and never will be dead as long as man exists. We need it, so we always demand it. What kind of fiction sells year after year, steadily and with no lessening of the public’s interest? romantic fiction….that’s why people continue to buy the Tarzan stories, why Tarzan’s adventures continue to be popular as picture serials and the daily paper and as screen attractions.”

Regardless of what the precise appeal was, undeniable was the fact that Burroughs’ “Under the Moons of Mars,” published from February through June 1912 in All-Story, was a phenomenal success.  All-Story circulation jumped, and the magazine was flooded with letters of approbation.  These came at a time when the entire pulp industry was under pressure to evolve, as rising costs were threatening the viability of the 10 cent, 192 page formula.   So strong was the response to Burroughs story, that Munsey decided to use it as the launch pad for a long-contemplated experiment that was necessary to the magazine’s survival — a price increase from 10 to 15 cents per issue.  Such an increase needed the strongest possible launch position, and the readership increase experience by All-Story during the five month run of Under the Moons of Mars was just that boost, and thus is was in July of 1912 that the increase in price from 10 to 15 cents, and an increase in pages from 192 to 240, was implemented.

What was the Burroughs appeal?

What differentiated it from the other stories of the day?

Moscowitz writes:

Those who have gained a stereotyped concept of Burroughs as a writer who conveys his plot line on a nonstop Jetstream of action, moving his characters along so swiftly that readers cannot react to his laws, are in great error. The fascination of Burroughs rests in the careful delineation of the setting in which he has placed his characters and the sharpness with which he etches them, presenting their weaknesses as well as strengths, their eccentricities, philosophies, and environmental shapings. A character may be villainous in motivation, but nevertheless strikingly courageous. A hero may do a foolish or unbecoming deed through pride or vanity. Political expediency may turn enemies into allies and then into firm friends.

The “careful delineation” that Moskowitz refers to is indeed one of the particular aspects of genius that Burroughs displays. for it includes two competing components–completeness on the one hand, and brevity on the other.  Burroughs was writing for the pulps, whose primary canon was to “keep the story moving”, and so lengthy discourses describing the setting were not possible, nor is there any inclination that Burroughs would have gone this route even if it had been available to him.  Instead, he carefully seeded his stories with exposition of the world encountered by parsing the details in manageable doses, always doing so without de-railing the forward momentum of the story, and never in such large doses as to overwhelm the audience.

The result of Burroughs artful expertise in this area is that his world of Barsoom ultimately contains more detail in terms of flora and fauna, natural history, cultural and political history, and geography than virtually any imaginary world, and yet all of this is created within the spare confines of novels that ran from 60,000 to 90,000 words.  (For reference — Lord of the Rings novels average more than 200,000 words each.)

But vivid settings aside, Burroughs also found a way to speak to the heart of his readers in a way that some have described as “wish-fulfillment” fantasy, wherein the protagonist becomes the avatar of the reader in exploring and experiencing worlds, relationships, and adventures that feed a deeply felt and undernourished need.

And then there was the “code” embodied in the John Carter stories.

Many years later, Art Mayo would speak of Carter as embodying a kind of “cosmic knight errantry”, and in this he was onto something.  Indeed, after accepting Princess of Mars, Metcalf solicited from Burroughs a “serial of the regular romantic type, something like, say, Ivanhoe, or at least of the period when everybody wore armor and dashed about rescuing fair ladies.”  Metcalf too had discerned that beneath the interplanetary surface of Burroughs story beat the heart of a tale of chivalry and honor, or love and sacrifice.

Mayo writes

With its beautiful maiden, its swordplay, and its faithful hound; its horsemanship (albeit upon ‘thoats’), its seamanship (albeit upon the air), its clashing of rival kingdoms – it makes romance a thing alive once more. Six hundred years after the close of the age of knights, it furnishes the possibility of new vistas for chivalrous deeds – and in the modern age. John Carter is, in the words of Princess Dejah Thoris, “a queer mixture of child and man, of brute and noble”. And in this he is little different to the ideal knight described by C. S. Lewis: “a man of blood and iron, a man familiar with the sight of smashed faces and the ragged stumps of lopped-off limbs; [as well as] a demure, almost a maidenlike, guest in hall, a gentle, modest, unobtrusive man.”

If the “knightliness” of John Carter resonated with readers of the day as something familiar and appealing, there was an aspect to Burroughs characterizaion that was unique — and that was the “superpowers” that Carter possessed once being transported to Mars, where the lesser gravity rendered him stronger, and faster, and able to leave thirtyfive feet into the air and 100 feet distant.   An ordinary mortal on Earth, Carter was the prototypical Superhero on Mars, and his added strength and agility, coupled with his honor and loyalty, made him into a character who provided wish fulfillment gratification to readers who sought escape from drab lives, and ordinary circumstances.

Many years after Burroughs first wrote, the concept of “escape fiction” would be advanced — literature which allowed the audience to escape its workaday world and enter a realm of adventure, excitement, and romance — and Burroughs clearly was a leader of the emerging tradition, fed by the pulps, of this type of world.

But Burroughs writing, beginning with A Princess of Mars, proved capable of striking a response more deeply felt than simple escape. Burroughs seemed to inherently grasp the diminishment of the grandness of America that came with the closing of the frontier a mere decade earlier.  He had participated in the final death throes of the Indian Wars, chasing Geronimo and the last Apache stragglers through an Arizona that matches that which John Carter found himself in, and implicit in his prose was not just the escape from ordinariness – but also what Thomast Bertonneau terms a “conservationist” streak: “The Burroughsian landscapes are less “escapist” than “conservationsist”, preserving in memory the primitive live of everyone’s ancestors.”

Regardless of the exact nature of the appeal, the undeniable fact was that with the publication of Under the Moons of Mars, a new star of the pulps was born, and Burroughs would soon tower as the strongest force in the pulps and the evolution of the “scientific romance” into science fiction as it would come to be known later in the century — a century whose first half would be dominated by Burroughs.

End of excerpt.

Comment:  This is not a complete discussion by any means — what the book contains to supplement this is a detailed annotation and 8,000 words condensed version of the first half of A Princess of Mars, which explicates elements of Burroughs’ unique appeal using the text as a basis for it.  But the foregoing is intended to get the ball rolling in trying to establish that Burroughs was indeed unique.


  • Abraham — right on. I also think that in the Barsoom series, there are surprising things he does with, for example, the character of the Tharks (never lie, etc) that makes even a strange, harsh race seem compelling and intriguing in ways that no other writers I can think of can manage. It’s as if he had a special inner “recipe” of ingredients to take anything and make it more interesting than someone else would with the same general setup.

  • The elements of (1) romance, (2) vivid world-creation combined with unrelenting narrative pace, and (3) chivalrous codes of honor are the EXACT qualities that people fall in love with in ERB’s best works. He put them together better than ANYONE.

  • The desire to live a fuller life and become a more fully realized human being is at the heart of ERB’s stories. Transformation is a characteristic theme and the catalyst is almost invariably romantic love. John Carter adapts to Barsoom and ultimately masters his new environment for the love of Dejah Thoris. Tarzan of the Apes emerges from the jungle to his take place in the modern world for the love of Jane Porter. In THE MUCKER, Billy Byrne transforms himself into a man of character and nobility for the love of a woman. These characters learn how to survive in hostile worlds and that gives them a heroic dimension. However, it is love that awakens their humanity and deepens their character. The journey that ERB’s characters take challenge us and at the same time give us hope.

  • MCR wrote:

    It’s also interesting that John Carter of Mars and ERB’s work appealed to women yet the tracking numbers for the movie indicated Disney failed to get them interested in seeing it. I guess the problem of sidelining the romance for a generic “hero has to save the planet” story wasn’t the best way to go.

    It’s so baffling to me that they would so “effeminate” (is that a word — opposite of “emasculate”) the story in the promotion to the point that there was ABSOLUTELY NOTHING THERE for women other than Taylor Kitsch without a shirt on. The romance was downplayed to the point that it hardly seemed there, and Dejah Thoris never appeared on a single poster and other than “You….are….John Carter of EArth?” she had very little to say (oh, and the canned line, not in the movie, “A new power threatens to destroy our city”)…..

    The weirdest part is that we now know that JC actually scores higher with women than men — this according to the IMDB rankings where you can get a readout of the demographics and how the demographics voted. Overall rating b y women — 7.1…by men 6.8 Same holds true when you drill down into age groups. This was the same info that Disney was getting from the test screenings. So they KNEW that the film played well for women, but they just ignored this with the promotion. How can you do that when its a tentpole that has be a four quadrant film (males, females, under 25, over 25) to succeed?

    This is one of the central aspects of the debacle — how Disney completely failed to bring in a female demographic that was available for the taking, given the fact that it was clearly established that women LIKED THE DAMN MOVIE when they saw it.

  • ———But Burroughs writing, beginning with A Princess of Mars, proved capable of striking a response more deeply felt than simple escape. Burroughs seemed to inherently grasp the diminishment of the grandness of America that came with the closing of the frontier a mere decade earlier.———–

    This is where the fantasy of Burroughs’ Mars connects most directly with the implications of opening the real Martian frontier to settlement and expansion.
    Overall, Wow. Keep up the good work.

    “It would be very interesting to speculate on what the human imagination is going to do with a frontierless world where it must seek its inspiration in uniformity rather than variety, in sameness rather than contrast, in safety rather than peril, in probing the harmless nuances of the known rather than the thundering uncertainties of unknown seas or continents. The dreamers, the poets, and the philosophers are after all but instruments which make vocal and articulate the hopes and aspirations and the fears of a people.

    The people are going to miss the frontier more than words can express. For four centuries they heard its call, listened to its promises, and bet their lives and fortunes on its outcome.

    It calls no more…”

    — Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Frontier, 1951

  • I’m fairly old, but not a hundred years old. I came to ERB’s writing in the very early 60’s. God bless ’em, the Ace edition paperbacks, with the sexy fantastic covers were the siren’s call to this young 11 year old boy, and my voracious need to read these stories out stripped my allowance, so I actually resorted to shoplifting them on my way home from school at a Mays department store. Due to circumstances, death of a parent at an early age, I needed some escape and a hero role model.

    The Frazetta and Whelan covers set the hook and then ERB’s words took over. So discriptive and, yes, vivid with this fantastic imagination creating, six legged horses, banths with three rows of choppers waiting to tear you apart, giant green men with 4 arms, ferocious white apes, anti gravity flying ships that sailed through the night. The man painted a picture that was just what this boy needed to escape from sad suburban reality at the time.

    This guy hit on the head when he used the word chivalrous. He was some what naive in the ways of women, as are most young men, but a brave man who lived by a code of honor that protected those that needed protecting and would fight unflinchingly, almost to his own demise, to see it to the end. I used the euphenism that ERB used when trying to descibe him to friends, that he was a “southern gentleman of Virginia”, but yes, it is almost Knights of the Round Table chivalrous. The adventures were fun, Dejah was beautiful, but that characterization of John Carter probably shaped my growth as a man more than anything else in my life. And that is why I will always love these stories.

  • Dotar wrote:

    “Re -Romance …. I was just trying to do some additional reading on that, trying to pin down what “romance” as used in 1912 exactly meant. ”

    I can only answer that anecdotally (for now, anyway). Back in grade 5 or 6 (that would be 1971 or 1972) we had to read Saki’s story “The Open Window.” (Don’t know the year of publication, but roughly contemporary with ERB.) The story involves a girl who spins tall tales, the closing line being “Romance at short notice was her specialty.” (Thanks to the Internet, I could look up that line, which had stuck with me for 40 years!) Anyway, everyone in class was thrown for a loop by that line. There was no romance in the story! Thus an early lesson in how language changes over time.

  • HRH
    You’re right — he mailed it on August 14, 1911 to Argosy and it got passed to All-Story. Thanks.

    Re -Romance …. I was just trying to do some additional reading on that, trying to pin down what “romance” as used in 1912 exactly meant. My sense of it is that it still had much of the “old” meaning associated with it — adventure and so on. But how much? And how much had the new meaning crept in? Are there examples of other stories printed by All-Story and the rest that they called “romance” and what did they entail? Let me know if you have any sources on this, or can point me to anything.

    Re the popularity, according to Moscowitz it was indeed quite popular and that popularity became part of All-Story’s strategy for raising the price per copy of the magazine at a time when they really needed to raise it, but were concerned what this would do to their circulation. I’ll have to go back and review it some more … – not as wildly popular as Tarzan, but according to Moskowitz at least, popular enough to embolden All Story to do the price increase on, I believe, the month of the final installment. (I may not have that exactly right….need to go back to the source material.)

  • A great piece and it explains Burroughs’ appeal-the sense of chivalry, the adventure and the romance that permeated his works. So I’ll just make one brief comment:

    “The novels of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells in the scientific vein have always had a preponderantly male audience. Since most science fiction is in the tradition of those two great writers, this fact is generally true for the entire literary history of science fiction. One great exception was Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose novels always enjoyed a substantial female following.”

    That’s interesting that ERB’s stories always had that appeal but I can see why-the women are stronger than most critics-and some filmmakers-seem to think they are but also the hero is devoted to them. It’s also interesting that John Carter of Mars and ERB’s work appealed to women yet the tracking numbers for the movie indicated Disney failed to get them interested in seeing it. I guess the problem of sidelining the romance for a generic “hero has to save the planet” story wasn’t the best way to go.

  • Nice write-up. I’d pick a few nits, but since I’m not anywhere near research materials I hesitate to say anything. However …

    I believe (see caveat above) ERB submitted his story to The Argosy, the sister publication of The All-Story; the editor of that magazine (whoever he may have been) passed it along to All-Story as it was more appropriate for that readership.

    I don’t agree with Moskowitz’s definition of “Romance” as a love story — that’s a modern interpretation of the word. Back in Ye Olde Days, fiction was divided up into Literature and Romance, the former dealing with everyday life, while the latter didn’t. Romance = Haggard, Literature = Dickens. Obviously both could involve love stories. (I’ve got an edition of Wilkie Collins’ “Woman in White” with an intro by the author detailing the difference between the two; quite helpful in this regard.)

    And was “Under the Moons of Mars” all that popular (in a “Tarzan of the Apes” bombshell kind of way)? Can’t remember if Porges (or anyone else) published much in the way of reader responses. Would like to know more.

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