Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure
By Richard A. Lupoff
One of the problems that I always encounter when I attempt one of my sporadic book clean-outs is that I will inevitably find that most of them just have to be held onto. Even though I may not have come across them in years I’ll now find that they are absolutely essential to my continued well-being. And so it came to pass that this week I found myself re-reading Richard A. Lupoff’s critical analysis on the novels of the man who created that abiding cultural icon, Tarzan of the Apes.
Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure first appeared in 1965 and was the first real study of Burroughs’s canon. Although there had been quite a number of intelligent essays done on the writer there had previously really existed only the fine bibliography by Pastor Henry Hardy Heins, who indeed does the excellent preface here.
This is the edition that appeared in 1975 to mark the centennial of the birth of ERB; and despite the fact that Burroughs studies have moved on to a once unimaginable degree since then, I find that it is still a marvellous read. Indeed for anyone wanting to wander into the marvellous worlds that sprang from that huge imagination I would urge you to get onto Amazon or haunt the second-hand bookstores because you would still be hard pressed to find a better introduction.
Born in Chicago on September 1st 1875, Burroughs had a rather chequered but—by his own admission—rather unsuccessful career in various jobs. He worked as a ranch hand cowboy; as an Assistant Commandant of Cadets at Michigan Military Academy; teaching a course in geology; and even riding for a while with the Seventh U.S. Cavalry of General Custer fame. As Burroughs himself once wrote:
“…I enlisted in the 7th U. S. Cavalry and was sent to Fort Grant, Arizona, where I chased Apaches, but never caught up with them. After that, some more cow punching; a storekeeper in Pocatello, Idaho; a policeman in Salt Lake City; gold mining in Idaho and Oregon; various clerical jobs in Chicago; department manager for Sears, Roebuck & Co…”
When he wrote those words he was a wealthy author and could afford to be vaguely flippant; but at the time of his last mentioned job he was genuinely struggling, having a wife and family to take care of with very little money. So in 1911, at the relatively late age of thirty-six, Burroughs took pen in hand and produced his first novel, A Princess of Mars. This was an extraordinary attempt at a debut and to illustrate just how influential it became it is only last year that a film—John Carter—appeared (briefly) on cinema screens. Due to the timidity of those cold-feet merchants and bean counters who marketed it, John Carter died a death. This was very unfair in my opinion as it in fact captures rather well the whole essential atmosphere of what would go on to be a total of eleven books set on the red planet. The idiots and morons who dismissed it as ‘derivative’ really need to take a lesson in science-fiction history, as well as a slap on the side of the head. Derivative? The book is over a century old. I could name off the top of my head literally dozens of films that have been influenced by that true original. Yes, up to and including Avatar. And Star Wars? Well…Jeddak and Jedi, anyone, not to mention countless other references?
The Tarzan Phenomenon
Following the enthusiastic reception of Princess Burroughs turned out a fairly standard swashbuckler, written in just two weeks, The Outlaw of Torn. But it was with his third book that the one-time prospector struck a vein of pure gold. Tarzan of the Apes, first seeing print in 1912, would change the Burroughs lifestyle forever and in the process go on to become one of the most enduring icons of popular culture of all the 20th century. Indeed, the word ‘Tarzan’ has actually entered not just the English language, but many others.
Now Tarzan really is a character who has not been served well on the screen. In fact apart from two early 1930s efforts—Tarzan the Ape Man and Tarzan and His Mate— I have pretty much hated every single one. In the books he is a hugely intelligent man, speaking some thirty languages and even sitting in the British House of Lords. In the movies he is remembered best as a sort of grunting half-wit, just about able to string the words “Me Tarzan—you Jane” together. It has led to the works of Burroughs in general and the Tarzan novels in particular being seen as only fit for children under ten and the odd adult with arrested development.* Well, I’m glad to say that I can get just as much pleasure out of reading Tarzan today as I could when I discovered him as a kid all of forty-odd years ago.
I won’t say more about Tarzan of the Apes here as I’ll be taking a closer look at the complex man created by Burroughs next week on this site whilst reviewing two of the classics from that series.
In any case, Lupoff goes on to give some pretty convincing examples of sources from which Burroughs may have gotten ideas for his Martian, Tarzan and Inner World series of novels. Curiously, this seemed to lead to resentment from the more extreme kind of Burroughs fanatic as that lot seems to want to believe that their hero created everything out of whole cloth. These are the kind of walking embarrassments that give the rest of us a bad name.
Although Edgar Rice Burroughs showed a fairly gung-ho and idealised attitude towards the manly Art of War during most of his writing career, that was to change rather drastically when he witnessed the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, which led to him becoming the oldest accredited Pacific correspondent of World War Two. Hereafter his feelings changed, as they had to.
But Lupoff’s book is not a study of the man’s life but of his books. And he makes a great case for taking seriously as more than throwaway adventure tales his two trilogies The Land That Time Forgot and The Moon Maid. As for a long-forgotten novel called The Mucker if, like me, you have never read it then his description will have your mouth watering.
And like me—and I’m writing this nearly 50 years after Lupoff—he believed that anyone who just enjoys a bloody good piece of storytelling will still be enjoying the best of the writing of Edgar Rice Burroughs in another century. In fact Lupoff asks if anyone will still be reading Theodore Dreiser or Willa Cather. Will they still be reading James Branch Cabell or Katherine Ann Porter? There are a lot of names I could add to that list, but I’m pretty sure that they won’t. In the meantime Tarzan will still be a name that is recognisable almost anywhere on the planet.
*Any parent who hands an unabridged Tarzan novel to a kid under the age of ten might be in for a bit of a shock if they have a read at it first. Heh.
Here is a beautiful scene from Tarzan and His Mate, featuring Johnny Weissmuller as the man himself and the gorgeous Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane. Prepare for your jaw to drop open; yes, it really was made in 1934.