Tarzan of the Apes | Study Guide

Edgar Rice Burroughs

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Edgar Rice Burroughs | Biography

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Early Life

Edgar Rice Burroughs was born on September 1, 1875, in Chicago, Illinois, to George and Mary Evaline (Zieger) Burroughs. George Burroughs ran a successful battery-manufacturing company, which allowed his four sons to grow up in financial comfort. Edgar, the youngest, was a "sensitive and frail child," according to biographer Irwin Porges, author of Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan (1975). However, as a teen Burroughs grew rebellious and frequently clashed with his no-nonsense, Civil War–veteran father. Burroughs was smart and popular in school, but he didn't apply himself to his studies, preferring instead to sneak cigarettes and write secretly in his notebooks. To encourage discipline, Burroughs's father sent him to the Michigan Military Academy. Burroughs initially balked at the academy's strict discipline and hazing practices. At one point he ran away, only to be forcibly returned a week later.

After his return to the academy, Burroughs began to adapt: he joined the school newspaper and began playing sports. He graduated in 1895 as a captain with an appointment to the United States Military Academy, but he failed the qualifying exam. He then spent years trying various careers, including stationery store owner, ranch hand, U.S. Army Cavalry member, railroad police officer, salesman, miner, accountant, and sales manager. None of them stuck—not even a stint in his father's battery factory. Burroughs couldn't seem to find a career that was both profitable and enjoyable.

Search for Adventure

Part of the problem was Burroughs's desire for adventure. "I am always late for the thrill. I always get to the fire after it is out," he once said. But by 1912 he had a wife and two children, and providing for his family took priority over excitement. Burroughs lived vicariously through the action-packed stories in his favorite pulp magazines (fiction publications printed on cheap paper). With no other career prospects, he penned his first story, Under the Moon of Mars, about an ex-Confederate soldier who is teleported to the Red Planet; it was accepted for publication in All-Story Magazine. He earned $400— the modern equivalent of about $10,000—for the serial story, which the magazine published in five monthly installments in 1912. His next idea, a medieval romance, was soundly rejected. Burroughs then went back to Under the Moon of Mars's super-masculine protagonist, John Carter, and recast him as an English lord raised in the jungle.

Tarzan of the Apes was published in its entirety in the October 1912 issue of All-Story Magazine. It was an immediate hit. When readers clamored for more tales of the aristocratic ape-man, Burroughs quit his day job and began writing full time. All-Story wanted the sequel, but they weren't willing to pay the fee Burroughs requested, so Burroughs jumped to a competitor's publication. From then on, his stories could be found in nearly every popular pulp magazine of the era.

Making and Maintaining a Legend

Burroughs juggled numerous story series during his career, all of which were first published in pulp magazines and then as hardcover books two years later. His other series—Barsoom/Mars (1912), Mucker (1914), Pellucidar (1915), Caspak (1918), The Moon Maid (1926), The Apache Novels (1927),and Amtor/Venus (1934)—were all popular, but none could compete with Tarzan the ape-man character. This was both a blessing and a curse. By 1919, with five Tarzan stories under his belt, Burroughs tired of writing about his forest god. Unfortunately, he tended to spend money as fast as he could make it, and he needed the constant influx of cash his most popular character brought in. So he kept on going. By 1935 Burroughs had written a total of 24 Tarzan stories. Toward the end, he was really reaching for subject matter. Later titles include Tarzan and the Ant Men (1924), Tarzan at the Earth's Core (1929), and Tarzan and the Foreign Legion (1947).

Hollywood came calling after the initial success of Tarzan of the Apes, and the movie of the same name was released in 1918. In 1919 Burroughs moved from Chicago to California to be closer to the movie studios. More than a dozen Tarzan movies have been produced since the original publication, as well as numerous television shows, comic strips, and radio series.

Critical Reception

Audiences loved Tarzan in all his guises, but critics weren't sold on the story of the orphaned English lord or Burroughs's skill as a writer. Many thought Burroughs simply rewrote English writer Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (1894) for a pulp-magazine audience, moving the setting from India to Africa. Though Kipling was a fan of Burroughs's work, even he could see the similarities. Burroughs repeatedly shot down that theory, instead insisting he was inspired by the ancient Roman myth of Romulus and Remus, brothers raised by wolves who became the founders of Rome.

Critics also noted a decline in the Tarzan stories' quality as time went on. Burroughs was closely associated with the early movie versions of his work, and many thought this had a negative effect on his writing. Somewhere along the line, the intelligent protagonist of Tarzan of the Apes began mirroring the "Me Tarzan, you Jane" attitude of his film counterpart. His books' settings were also problematic. Burroughs had never been to Africa before writing Tarzan of the Apes, and it's widely believed he never visited, even after his success. His portrayals of the African natives amount to little more than racist stereotypes. When Burroughs does provide descriptions of the natives—their trickster culture, their connection to the spirit world—it is more reminiscent of American Indian culture than indigenous African peoples' culture. He has also been rebuked for depicting Tarzan as a "white savior" to the African natives he encounters.

Some critics believe Burroughs's racism was a function of the era. Others point to his interests in social Darwinism (a now discredited theory that individuals and groups are subject to Darwin's laws of natural selection, where only the fittest survive) and eugenics (improving the human species through controlled breeding) as the foundation for his negative depiction of characters other than white males. This, along with his association with pulp fiction, helps explain why his works aren't considered literary classics. Nevertheless, he was the most widely read American author in the first half of the 20th century.

Final Years

Burroughs finally got his chance for real-life adventure in 1941. While he was living in Oahu, Hawaii, Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor. His patriotism and desire for excitement spurred him to action, and in his late 60s he became the oldest war correspondent to serve during World War II (1939–45). Burroughs loved the work, but living in a war zone took a toll on him. Following the war he retired to Encino, California, where he lived until his death on March 19, 1950. Legend has it he was holding a Tarzan comic book when he died.

Burroughs became a writer for money, not for the love of the craft—but he was proud of the stories he wrote. Though they weren't "literary" material, they provided entertainment for millions of people looking to escape their ordinary lives. Burroughs left an unparalleled legacy of action, adventure, and romance stories, and a singular ape-man character who still looms large in pop culture today.

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