Edgar Rice Burroughs was born in Chicago, Illinois, on September 1, 1875. His father, George Tyler Burroughs, had served four years in the Union Army during the Civil War, rising to the rank of brevet major. Following the war, the elder Burroughs moved to Chicago and became a prosperous businessman. He and his wife, Mary Evaline Zeiger Burroughs, were parents to four surviving sons, of whom Edgar was the youngest. Burroughs grew up in comfortable, middle-class surroundings. His family was close-knit and loving. His parents were ambitious for their offspring, and Burroughs’s brothers all graduated from Yale or Harvard while he was a boy. He himself attended private schools until 1891, when an influenza epidemic in Chicago induced his parents to send him to Idaho, where two of his brothers had set themselves up as ranchers. Burroughs’s brief experience in Idaho fired his imagination. The sixteen-year-old boy reveled in his contacts with cowboys, miners, and other colorful characters. He grew proud of his ability to live in a rough world and of his gift for working with horses. This Western idyll came to an abrupt end when Burroughs’s father summoned him home. A new and frustrating epoch in his life would ensue.
George enrolled his son in the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, a distinguished preparatory school that readied young men for the Ivy League universities. Though he proved popular with his peers, Burroughs failed to apply himself to his studies and flunked out after one semester. His father next sent him to the Michigan Military Academy, located at Orchard Park, Michigan, where he did better, despite once running away from the school. He graduated with an ambition to attend West Point but failed the entrance examination. Still hoping to win a commission in the Army, Burroughs enlisted in the famous Seventh Cavalry. However, life in the cavalry did not live up to his expectations. By 1896, when Burroughs reported to Fort Grant in the Arizona Territory, the Indian Wars were over. Burroughs and his comrades spent much of their time digging roads. Illness released Burroughs from the Army but also quashed his hopes of a military career. He returned to Idaho and started a stationary store, which failed within one year. Burroughs soon found himself home in Chicago working for his father. A regular paycheck and the prospect of advancement in his father’s American Battery Company made possible Burroughs’s marriage to a childhood sweetheart, Emma Centennia Hulbert, the daughter of one of Chicago’s most successful hoteliers. However, whatever hopes Burroughs had for the battery business grew dim over the next three years. He felt increasingly suffocated working for his father at a small salary, and, in 1903, he quit.
Burroughs did not come easily to his vocation as a writer. He fell into a literary career only after suffering a succession of failures in business that forced him to face the prospect of slipping from the middle class into a social netherworld. Burroughs’s life was a series of false starts between 1903 and 1911. He launched a number of businesses, none of which prospered, and worked at a variety of jobs, including a stint as a railroad policeman and a period as a door-to-door salesman. At one point, his fortunes were such that he tried, fruitlessly, to secure a commission in the Chinese army. The one bright spot for Burroughs during these years was a position as manager of the stenographic department at Sears, Roebuck and Company, which he held from 1907 to 1908. Burroughs impressed his superiors, and a secure future seemed ensured. However, he was determined to be his own man and left the company.
By 1911, Burroughs was in dire straits. Now a father, he could barely support his family, and he was forced to pawn his wife’s jewels to meet household expenses. While sitting alone at a borrowed desk with a business marketing pencil sharpeners collapsing around him, Burroughs put pen to paper and, with remarkable ease, composed a wildly imaginative tale of derring-do and romance on the planet Mars. It features the first of his great heroes, John Carter, a former captain in the Confederate Army. Surrounded by Apaches in the Arizona desert, Carter is mysteriously transported to Mars, where he becomes a renowned swordsman and vies for the hand of the Martian princess Dejah Thoris. Burroughs sold the story to Argosy magazine for $400. Eventually published as A Princess of Mars (1912), this novel launched Burroughs as a professional writer.
Burroughs began writing at a furious pace. New novels appeared with dizzying rapidity. One of the earliest proved to be Burroughs’s most enduring achievement as a writer. Tarzan of the Apes debuted as the featured tale in the October, 1912, issue of All-Story...