Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan, by John Taliaferro, New York: Scribner, 400 pages, $30.00
Edgar Rice Burroughs was in bed reading the Sunday funnies on the morning of March 19, 1950, when he quietly slumped over, leveled by a heart attack at the age of 74. Death apparently came as he was reading a Tarzan comic strip. "At least," writes biographer John Taliaferro, "it is pleasant to think so."
Burroughs had been a failure at many things. He had not been a particularly good student growing up, his two marriages had fallen apart, and he couldn't hold a steady job. His careers included a stint in the Seventh Cavalry and work as a cowpuncher, newsstand clerk, pencil-sharpener salesman, and alderman (he skipped town three weeks after the election). Sometime in 1911 he started to write in his spare time, using the backs of old letterheads from a stationery firm his brother owned in Chicago. He sent his first story, A Princess of Mars, to the pulps, where an editor snatched it up, after a few revisions, for $400. This wasn't enough for Burroughs to quit his day job, but it inspired him to keep going. Within a year he had completed another tale, Tarzan of the Apes.
Its runaway success would define his life–and unlock an entrepreneurial spirit rarely found in the literary set. "There can be little question that [Burroughs] was the most widely read American author of the first half of the twentieth century," writes Taliaferro in his engaging biography of Burroughs, Tarzan Forever. Taliaferro estimates that Burroughs sold somewhere between 30 million and 60 million books during his life–an astonishing figure, especially for the time. By combining a critical enthusiasm for Burroughs, with an appreciation for his subject's business dealings, Taliaferro shines klieg lights on a man either derided or ignored by the English departments.
Unlike many of his competitors then and imitators now, Burroughs did more than scribble words. He built the proto-type of a multimedia empire, entering the emerging worlds of radio and movies the way today's conglomerates grasp at cable and the Internet. "As he saw it, there was no such thing as overkill, and well before Walt Disney ever hawked his first mouse ears or Ninja Turtle `action figures' became film stars, Burroughs was already the grand master of a concept" immediately familiar to people today, reports Taliaferro.
Thanks to Burroughs' efforts, Tarzan is a ubiquitous icon of pop culture, an instantly recognizable character in the American imagination. Every boy, by instinct or design, will at some point reenact the scene Burroughs created so vividly in his first Tarzan story. After slaying a tiger (changed to a lion in later editions, after Burroughs learned that tigers don't live in Africa), Tarzan performed his most famous feat: "With swelling breast, he placed a foot upon the body of his powerful enemy, and throwing back his fine young head, roared out the awful challenge of the victorious bull ape." The famous Tarzan yell. When actor Johnny Weissmuller hollered it in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), it was, as Taliaferro describes, "a thing of primal virtuosity."
Much of Burroughs' oeuvre is sheer hackwork, and the author knew it. A productive year meant writing something like 400,000 words. Considering that a standard novel today contains perhaps half that many, if that much, this is an extraordinary output. There's an old crack that if you put a monkey in front of a typewriter and give him an endless amount of time, he'll eventually punch out Hamlet. Burroughs' reputation rests on a similar principle. As he once noted, "If you write one story, it may be bad; if you write a hundred, you have the odds in your favor."
Burroughs was simply one of the best adventure writers in the English language. Although he lacked the highbrow aims of H.G. Wells or the narrative skills of Jack London, he could relate an action sequence like few others. His best stories are the early ones–later in life, he felt suffocated by the need to produce an unending train of sequels to his first few yarns, and grew frustrated that he would never top his first Tarzan tale. His heroes were all of a type, men of good breeding who found themselves adapting to an unfamiliar environment–Tarzan raised by apes in the jungle, John Carter transported to Mars, David Innes exploring the hollow earth, Carson Napier roaming Venus, Bowen Tyler tramping around The Land That Time Forgot. His most successful stories always had a love interest, too. No Tarzan is complete without a Jane.
Many of his plots had ridiculous elements, as if they were pulled from bad Star Trek episodes (or perhaps inspired a few?). In one story, for instance, a mad scientist genetically engineers a group of gorillas to replicate the court of Henry VIII. In another, Tarzan stumbles on a lost tribe of cannibals. With tails. Burroughs sometimes tried, clumsily, to inject social commentary into his work, including undisguised attacks on Bolsheviks and Nazis. (In one Venus novella, the heroes battle an evil cult of anagrammatized "Zanis.") Yet he was also an armchair devotee of eugenics and early-20th-century race theory, and reading his depictions of non-whites, especially tribal Africans, can be a bristling experience.
Despite these unfortunate tendencies, Burroughs knew how to craft a potboiler. Tarzan of the Apes is still a good read, and is even available as an inexpensive Signet classic, with an introduction by Gore Vidal. Many of his other works remain in print as well.
The life of a freelance writer demands strong business skills, and Burroughs found himself in a cutthroat world negotiating pay rates and author rights with stingy editors. When Burroughs finished a story, he would mail it to one of the pulp magazines, which offered a popular form of entertainment back in the days when ordinary folk would fill their leisure time with reading instead of television. Pulps paid by the word, so authors tended to overwrite. Burroughs was no exception. In fact, when editors asked him to revise a manuscript, he usually lengthened his work–and therefore his fee. This habit discouraged editors from meddling too closely with the text, and provided an incentive for immediate acceptance (or, in some cases, refusal).
Burroughs would also sell the same story many times over. After the pulps, he would look to books and newspaper serialization. No single sale was especially large, but small checks from scores of sources poured into his office. And it all added up.
He worked hard to squeeze every last money-making opportunity out of his work. "As he saw it, the act of writing was only part of his job description; marketing, he grasped, could and should be its own fine art," says Taliaferro. Burroughs became an expert at syndication and subsidiary rights, the sort of nitty-gritty detail-work that most successful writers today find so distracting that they hire agents. Although Burroughs eventually used a syndication agency and personal assistants, he routinely handled financial matters himself. In fact, Burroughs was a pioneer in establishing authors' rights to their own work, insisting, as is standard today, that writers retain secondary rights to their manuscripts.
Burroughs incorporated himself in 1923, issuing stock to himself, his wife, and his kids. In effect, he became an employee of his own company. He was not the first author to do this–lower taxes made it an easy choice–but he was certainly one of the practice's early advocates. The switch helped him stay in charge of his burgeoning business. (Tarzan was a big hit overseas and was being read in 17 languages, including Arabic and Icelandic.) It also aided his forays into ranching, investing, and real estate (he was the first developer of the Los Angeles suburb Tarzana). Despite these gains, the move increasingly made Burroughs treat his stories like products. "It must be wonderful to be able to devote one's life to art for art's sake, a luxury which I have never been able to afford," he once complained.
Burroughs' heirs will always appreciate his decision to incorporate. This summer, ERB, Inc., which still holds the copyright to the Tarzan name, can expect a new windfall when Disney packs movie theaters with a new animated version of Tarzan. Back in 1918, Tarzan of the Apes became one of the first movies to gross $1 million. The franchise's profitability only grew, especially when Weissmuller, a gold-medal-winning swimmer at the Olympics, assumed the title role in the early '30s. He was, in fact, the sixth actor to play Tarzan, and by far the most successful one. For a generation of boys growing up during the Depression, he was Luke Skywalker. (He also never uttered the legendary line, "Me Tarzan, you Jane." As Taliaferro explains, the famous scene has Weissmuller gesturing back and forth between Maureen O'Sullivan and himself, saying, "Jane… Tarzan…Jane…Tarzan.")
Following smash success on the silver screen, Tarzan spin-off products became a lucrative side industry for Burroughs and his business partners. There were Tarzan bows, arrows, spears, rubber knives, bathing suits, masks, costumes, pith helmets, games, and jungle maps. "Eventually there would be Tarzan bread, Tarzan ice cream, and Tarzan chewing gum," relates Taliaferro. There were even Tarzan boys clubs (called "clans"), complete with secret initiation rituals, instructions to make Tarzan weapons, and information on how to speak the language of apes.
Burroughs lived comfortably but never attained fabulous wealth; he was much better at earning money than spending it. Yet he left behind the kind of lasting legacy every aspiring author dreams about. In that sense, the title of Taliaferro's biography is perfect. Tarzan Forever.
Contributing Editor John J. Miller (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a political reporter for National Review.