Study Guide

Edgar Rice Burroughs

Edgar Rice Burroughs Biography

Biography

Introduction

Edgar Rice Burroughs created one of pop-literature’s most enduring characters—Tarzan. Burroughs studied at several military schools as a youngster, including Philips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and the Michigan Military Academy. But after failing to gain entrance into West Point, he enlisted in the army, only to be discharged early because of a heart problem. He then had a series of odd jobs for several years before deciding to write. After reading several popular stories in pulp magazines, he was determined to create something even more entertaining. Thus was Tarzan born. Though Burroughs did write many other stories, especially science fiction such as The Land That Time Forgot, he continued to capitalize on the Tarzan franchise, eventually turning the heroic man-ape into a cultural icon.

Essential Facts

  1. Burroughs was working as a pencil-sharpener wholesaler when he first started writing his Tarzan novels.
  2. In 1923, he set up his own company—Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.—and began printing his own books. By doing so, he was able to make a good deal of money, even throughout the Great Depression.
  3. During the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Burroughs was living in Hawaii. He became the oldest war correspondent for the United States during World War II.
  4. In 1919, Burroughs bought a ranch near Los Angeles and named it Tarzana. The name was popular with local residents, who voted to rename the town Tarzana in 1928.
  5. Burroughs wrote roughly seventy novels before his death in 1950.

Edgar Rice Burroughs Biography (20th-Century Biographies)

0111206260-Burroughs_ER.jpgEdgar Rice Burroughs (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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...

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Edgar Rice Burroughs Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Though scholars have long disparaged Edgar Rice Burroughs (BUR-ohz), he remained a popular writer into the twenty-first century, suggesting that critical reappraisals are overdue. Dozens of his novels remain in print, and numerous enthusiasts keep publishing meticulously researched books and articles about his fiction. His writing is not without flaws, including an occasionally halting prose style and overreliance on clichéd plot devices. However, he displays powerful virtues as a mythmaker, capable of creating memorable heroes and persuasive imaginary worlds. While the jungle hero Tarzan is his most famous character, Burroughs also produced celebrated science-fiction novels, Westerns, historical novels, and adventures set in contemporary times.

Burroughs was born in Chicago, the youngest son of businessman George Tyler Burroughs and Mary Evaline Burroughs. After a happy childhood in Chicago and a sojourn at an Idaho ranch, he briefly attended Andover before enrolling at Michigan Military Academy, from which he graduated in 1895. For the next seventeen years, Burroughs tried his hand at a bewildering variety of careers in various locales, briefly working as a teacher, soldier, policeman, shopkeeper, salesman, bookkeeper, and office manager. From these jobs, he gained familiarity with the vanishing American frontier, which he drew upon for his Westerns and adventure stories, as well as practical business experience that helped him become a profitable writer. In 1900 he married Emma Hulbert, with whom he had three children: Joan, Hulbert, and John.

His life changed dramatically in 1911, when reading fiction magazines inspired him to write a story of his own. The resulting novel, published in book form as A Princess of Mars, was so fanciful that he submitted it to a magazine under the pseudonym Normal Bean, so people would not think its author was crazy, but the magazine misread this as “Norman Bean.” The story proved successful and eventually inspired ten sequels describing Burroughs’s technologically advanced but decadent...

(The entire section is 843 words.)

Edgar Rice Burroughs Biography (Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Edgar Rice Burroughs was born on September 1, 1875 in Chicago, Illinois. He attended the Michigan Military Academy from 1892-1895 and then...

(The entire section is 437 words.)

Edgar Rice Burroughs Bibliography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Brady, Clark A. The Burroughs Cyclopedia. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1996. Offers alphabetized entries providing detailed information about Burroughs’s fictional worlds.

Fenton, Robert W. The Big Swingers. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967. This is a breezy, informal introduction to the life and work of Burroughs with special attention paid to Tarzan. It is as much concerned with the motion pictures as the books. Includes numerous illustrations.

Holtsmark, Erling B. Edgar Rice Burroughs. Boston: Twayne, 1986. An overview of Burroughs’s fiction, with short biography and overall...

(The entire section is 199 words.)