Recently, popular culture saw Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan resurrected once again for the silver screen. But The Legend of Tarzan, a blockbuster treatment of the much-cinematized hero, was received overall to mild acclaim. The problem seemed for both critics and audiences that the story itself was old. And in this moment, it pays to remember the time, place, and person the story came from.
To readers of today, those so-called “colonial” authors do not fare so well. Rudyard Kipling, though esteemed with a Noble Prize, comes with a legacy tainted by white supremacist sympathies. And much the same goes for Joseph Conrad, whom we have written about as a complicated figure in the canon.
For Edgar Rice Burroughs, the story is similar. Here, we have a man who became famous for writing about a white hero in Africa, who had never been to Africa himself. It’s a peculiar picture, and one that can be helped by a bit of background. Below, we’ve collected some interesting facts about the author to clear the air.
He was immensely prolific.
Burroughs wrote nearly 80 books, including 26 Tarzan stories. Once he got in the groove of his profession, Burroughs shunned rough drafts and rejected any excuse to take time off from writing. As a result, he wrote around 10-12 pages per day in his prime, and even kept track of how much he wrote per year. (1913 was his most active, having penned a staggering 413,000 words.) He recycled his basic plots, and his books sold around 30 million copies in his lifetime. He described his philosophy of quantity best himself: “If you write one story, it may be bad; if you write a hundred, you have the odds in your favor.”
Still, he was a late bloomer.Burroughs only began writing in his mid-thirties, mostly out of necessity. He had a wife and two children, no consistent source of employment, and his life lacked any trajectory. So he gave writing a try. He wrote his first story, “Under the Moons of Mars,” and sold it to All-Story to be serialized. He was paid a pleasant sum of $400, or just over $9,000 today. It was all the encouragement he needed to pursue a career as a writer.
Beside money, he had a peculiar motive for writing.
Burroughs was first exposed to the stories of science and pulp fiction during his spare time as a salesman of pencil sharpeners. He realized there was no reason he couldn’t compete on the level of people who were evidently reaching some success. “I made up my mind,” Burroughs said, “that if people were paid for writing such rot as I read, I could write stories just as rotten." His readers might argue he exceeded the low bar he set for himself!
He was a shrewd marketing mind.
Among Edgar Rice Burroughs' wise ideas was his foresight to incorporate himself, making a business and brand out of his writings. And though skeptics at the time told him that such a wide-ranging, multimedia approach would dilute the success of his writings, Burroughs disagreed, and resolved to let his creative properties flourish everywhere. To this day, over 50 Tarzan films have been made. And as one of the great licensing and marketing geniuses of his time, he encouraged the Tarzan brand to grace everything from bathing suits, ice cream, puzzles, masks, gum, and more.
Even today we see his influence in the hottest licensing properties around. He was an early pioneer of the crossover (Tarzan visited his underground kingdom of Pellucidar, for instance) as well as the idea that a popular universe ought to become a franchise. As one critic wrote for The New York Times, “he was the forefather of Superman and more recent real-life marvels such as Michael Jordan. Before Tarzan, nobody understood just how big, how ubiquitous, how marketable a star could be.”
However, he was never exactly rich.Simply increasing one’s revenue does not exactly make one a rich man. While Burroughs was good at keeping his works popular and selling, his expenses grew in proportion to his literary empire. He liked horses and cars and good cocktails. He later married a wife half his age, and with her, he tried to keep up with the exorbitant Joneses of Hollywood’s elite. He kept many of his family members on the payroll of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., and bought an enormous ranch in Southern California. In fact, his estate was so large that it is now its own suburb of the Los Angeles area. It even retains the same name: Tarzana.
He was a war correspondent.
In the latter part of his life, Burroughs moved to Hawaii. One day, while playing tennis in 1941, he heard the bombing of Pearl Harbor in the distance. And while he surmised it was a bombing exercise at the time, it would launch him into a second career as a reporter during World War II. At the time—at the ripe age of 66—he was the oldest war correspondent in America. The author took the opportunity as a chance to validate himself, both as a reject of Rough Riders in 1898 and as a much-dismissed writer of pulp.
However, he would have been wrong to think that his stories weren't enough validation.