Edgar Rice Burroughs: From Pencil Sharpener to Media Mogul

Edgar Rice Burroughs: From Pencil Sharpener to Media Mogul

I have often been asked how I came to write. The best answer is that I needed the money. When I started I was 35 and had failed in every enterprise I had ever attempted. ~Edgar Rice Burroughs

Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) wrote some of the most-beloved stories of our time—Tarzan of the Apes, The Land That Time Forgot and, of course, A Princess of Mars, which hit the big screen as John Carter.

Yet the above quote is no exaggeration.

Until A Princess of Mars, Burroughs seldom stuck to anything more than a year and often depended on his dad for bail outs.

Major George Tyler Burroughs, Edgar’s father, made a whiskey fortune in Chicago. After the distillery burned down, he founded the American Battery Company and made second fortune. Young Edgar attended the prestigious Harvard School, where he studied Latin and Greek for three years. He must have felt extreme pressure to succeed at something.

The Teenage Cowboy

When an influenza epidemic broke out, his parents sent him to his brother’s ranch in Idaho. Edgar completely embraced the cowboy way of life. He helped with ranch chores, delivered mail and supplies, and rode a wild horse named “Killer” bareback.

When the epidemic passed, Edgar’s parents summoned him back to Chicago. He arrived wearing boots, Levis, a Stetson hat—and a .45 caliber Colt Single Action Army revolver.

He picked up an attitude, too. It didn’t take long for Major Burroughs, a Civil War veteran, to dispatch Edgar to the Michigan Military Academy.

Edgar stayed for five years. He went AWOL twice and got a reputation as a joker. He once staged a mock duel and pretended to kill another student.

Eventually he channeled his energies into football and show riding. Upon graduation, the Academy offered him a teaching position. Among his duties: cavalry and gatling gun instructor, tactical officer, football manager, and professor of geology.

A year later, Burroughs joined the army, but hated it. He said the Army discharged him due to a weak heart, but one biography maintains he begged his father to pull some strings and get him out.

Once Burroughs became a professional tale spinner, his own origin story changed regularly.

Edgar Rice Burroughs: How He Went from Sharpening Pencils to Running a Media Empire at LaterBloomer.com

The Snake Oil Salesman

Major Burroughs gave his son a job at American Battery Company. After a year, Burroughs took off to Idaho to help his brother with the roundup, bought a stationery store in a nearby town, and sold it at a loss.

He came home to his father. This time, the Major gave Burroughs even more responsibility—he appointed him treasurer of American Battery. Burroughs married Emma, his childhood sweetheart, and stayed with the company a full four years!

But settled life wasn’t enough.

He took Emma to Idaho, where he and his brother invested in a gold mine. They fell out, the mine failed, and Burroughs embarked on a string of low-paying jobs: railroad cop, construction site timekeeper, stenographer, and snake-oil salesman. Burroughs pushed a product called Alcoa, purported to cure hair loss and alcoholism. The 1906 Pure Food and Drug Law put an end to it.

At age 35, with two children and a third on the way, he finally got a job selling pencil sharpeners from a leased office. Instead of cold-calling, he read pulp fiction magazines.

I remember thinking that if other people got paid for writing such stuff I might, too, for I was sure I could write stories just as rotten as theirs.

But Burroughs also appreciated the escape pulp fiction provided. In desperation, he penned a 12-part unfinished series called “Under The Moons of Mars” and sent it to All-Story Magazine. They accepted it for serial publication and sent him a $400 check (about $8800 in 2009, according to Wikipedia).

The check was the first big event in my life. No amount of money today could possibly give me the thrill that first $400 check gave me.

By the time his “Mars” story finished its run, Burroughs had completed Tarzan of the Apes. Upon publication, Tarzan caused an immediate sensation. Both stories came out over a hundred years ago, in 1912. Burroughs never looked back.

Edgar Rice Burroughs: How He Went from Sharpening Pencils to Running a Media Empire at LaterBloomer.com
Edgar Rice Burroughs

And surprisingly (or not), he became a shrewd businessman.

The Media Mogul

Burroughs expanded Tarzan’s popularity into every media outlet of the era: books, movies, radio, merchandising, comic strips. Business experts predicted he’d fail through over-saturation.

But fans clamored for Burroughs’ stories. Tarzan became one of the most successful characters in media history.

In 1923, Burroughs took control of his books and started his own publishing company, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. In a way, Burroughs strategy presaged the current era of alternative media and self-publishing.

The Enduring Legacy

While vacationing with Emma and the kids, Burroughs visited California and fell in love with it. Around 1915, he bought a 540-acre ranch north of Los Angeles and named it “Tarzana.”

More people moved into the area, and it became the city of Tarzana, California. In 1950, Burroughs died of a heart attack in nearby Encino, having lost the ranch during the Depression.

Tarzan overflows with theatrical prose and political incorrectness. Pulp fiction, yes. But Burroughs also takes on the nature versus nurture debate and comments on the savageness of civilized life. And he knows how to tell a story.

On one level, Burroughs sounds lazy and egotistical. Yet on another, he comes across as an imaginative soul who couldn’t be fettered. Once he found his path, he became obsessed to the point of workaholism.

That I had to work is evidenced by a graph that I keep on my desk showing my word output from year to year since 1911. In 1913, it reached its peak, with 413,000 words for the year.

Edgar Rice Burroughs spent his early years rebelling against his father and much of his adulthood wandering from job to job. Yet once he gave reign to his imagination and followed his weird, he created stories that have endured for over a century, and no doubt will see many more.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Late-Blooming Wisdom

  • If you feel you’re drifting, discover what you’re avoiding and why. I think many people, especially writers, avoid their passion because they feel it’s too odd or “low-brow.” Check out R.A. Evans on The Stigma of Writing Horror.
  • You don’t have to be the best to be successful, but a little obsession goes a long way. The critics hated Burroughs’ writing, but the public still can’t get enough of it.

Further Reading

How I Wrote the Tarzan Stories” reprinted in ERBZine and Timeline from same source

 Artwork: Exotic Landscape by fellow late bloomer Henri Rousseau.

24 Responses

  1. Lindsay
    | Reply

    Thank you for this informative and entertaining post. What a story! I notice in the photo that Edgar Rice Burroughs looks like a happy man.
    His story also illustrates the importance of persistence. He failed at many professions . . . but he succeeded in the end.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thanks, Lindsay! I’ve been amazed, when researching these stories, how many people who start later have long, seemingly happy lives. I’m hoping there’s a correlation between late blooming and longevity!

  2. florence fois
    | Reply

    Love this post. It does indeed smack of so many of who walk aimlessly through life.

    What was then pulp fiction is now often genre fiction … the rag sheets of the ’50’s are also replaced by the dozens of small indie and e-pubs available. These are stories people love to read and someone will always write them and find a way to get them out there.

    Thanks 🙂

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thanks, Florence! I’ve always loved the era of pulp fiction and serialized novels. It does seem to have come full circle and I think this is just the beginning of a new era in publishing, as you’ve written about!

  3. Daniela Gitlin
    | Reply

    Fun and satisfying! Love your posts! Can’t wait for the next.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thanks, Daniela. They’re a blast to write, but I spend far too much time researching 🙂

  4. Y.I. Washington
    | Reply

    Your posts always motivate me to keep writing. Being a late bloomer myself, I can definitely relate to E.R.B. Thanks for your articles. Keep up the awesome work.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Yes! If these stories keep just one writer writing, I’ve done my job. You’ve made my day.

  5. David Stevens
    | Reply

    That’s amazing ElleB,
    I always loved the Tarzan movies. Johnny Weismuller, my favourite. Intriguing tale of the man behind Tarzan, thank you.
    be good to yourself
    David

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Going to have to rent those old Tarzan movies, haven’t seen them since I was kid. Thanks for reminding me, David, and for stopping by!

  6. Rachel Lavern
    | Reply

    Loved this article. I, too, enjoyed Tarzan with Johnny Weismuller.

    What I am avoiding you ask. I am creating less often than I would like? I am avoiding my creative work altogether? I suspect that anxiety may be the culprit.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      It’s really hard to find time to create as an adult with the attending responsibilities, Rachel. I’m finding I have to be more compassionate with myself, as David above says — “be good to yourself” — to let creativity flow. Glad you enjoyed it!

  7. florence fois
    | Reply

    As one late bloomer-boomer to another, great post 🙂 Love the historic elements of your posts and the wonderful memories you stir inside of all your readers. Thanks!

    • Debra Eve
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      Thanks, Florence! It’s so much fun revisiting these stories.

  8. Mike Schulenberg
    | Reply

    Great post 🙂 I just saw John Carter with some friends and we all liked it. Great visual style, pretty good story, and generally fun, even if a little too “Hollywood” at times. I hope they make another one.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Thanks, Mike. I think the hubby and I will see it this weekend. I read on IMDB that this might have been the longest “development hell” ever. Apparently, the first attempt to make was something like 1929 and it fell through!

  9. K.B. Owen
    | Reply

    Debra, it is so true what you say about “low-brow” – being a former academic, I go through that mental battle all the time. Thanks for a great post!

    • Debra Eve
      |

      You’re welcome, Kathy! As a former academic also, it took me years to admit I was more interested in telling stories than publishing or perishing. 🙂

  10. Fabio Bueno
    | Reply

    Wow, those late bloomers’ stories are stranger than fiction! And, of course, inspiring to many of us 🙂
    Now I need to watch (and read) “John Carter”.
    Thanks, Debra!

    • Debra Eve
      |

      You’re welcome, Fabio. It is just wacky what some people did before they became famous! Gave them more material, is what I think 😉

  11. Karen McFarland
    | Reply

    Wow Debra, Edgar Burroughs was an interesting man. Good thing he didn’t give up. One can only wonder what his father would tell him after having to bail him out so many times. And then to struggle to make ends meet with a family while reinventing the wheel. And I do know where Tarzana is. I was raised nearby. This was a cool post. There is a lot to learn from this man. Thanks Debra!

    I tried again. Now I’m going to hit the submit button and if you see this message, I made it! 🙂

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Glad you enjoyed it, Karen! He finally made it on his own in the end, which is what counts. I always wondered about the connection between Tarzan and Tarzana, and was fascinated to find out.

  12. Bob Cloud
    | Reply

    Whenever I read Edgar Burroughs the sound of the text in my head was very similar to the conversation I heard when reading John R. Tolkien. Since Burroughs was published years before Tolkien I’ve often wondered if he was a fan of Burroughs.

    • Debra Eve
      |

      Interesting, Bob. I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Something to research for the revised version of this piece!

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