Edgar Rice Burroughs was born on September 1st, 1875 in Chicago, Illinois. His father, George Tyler Burroughs, was a Major during the Civil War. George Burroughs and his wife Mary Evaline (Zieger) Burroughs had a total of six sons (two of which died in infancy), and Edgar was the youngest of the family. In honor of his proud family heritage, Edgar was given the middle name of his paternal
grandmother, Mary Rice Burroughs. After the Civil War, his father became a successful businessman—a fact that would hound young Edgar’s steps for the first three decades of his life.
Growing up in Chicago during the last half of the 19 century, Edgar and his family battled most of the diseases of the day. In particular, an influenza epidemic of 1891 was so severe that young Edgar was moved to his two older brothers’ ranch on the Raft River in Idaho. Having lost two sons already, George and Mary took every precaution to ensure Edgar’s health and safety.
Although he only spent a half a year there, fifteen-year-old Edgar immediately enjoyed life on the frontier. He learned to ride the range, herd cattle, and break wild horses. Many of the adventures he would write about later in life were planted in his creative mind during those months on the ranch. Story-telling around the camp fire at night under the starry Idaho sky was a regular experience that would also serve him in years to come as a writer of adventure fiction.
The unsettled west was also an attraction for outlaws and trouble maker. Bank robbers and fugitives would migrate to these sparsely populated areas hoping to avoid the “long arm of the law.” Young Edgar had many opportunities to befriend some of these individuals (many of which eventually became fictional characters in his novel). Edgar was having the time of his life, but when his father and mother discovered these events, they sent him to the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.
Fresh from the frontier, Edgar proved to be a challenge for the faculty members at Andover. He was too rough around the edges and found it difficult to adjust to the refined lifestyle at Phillips Academy. Daydreaming and fanciful stories were a common fare for Edgar Rice Burroughs. Being a Civil War veteran, Edgar’s father believed military disciple would improve his son’s future and so Major George T. Burroughs moved him to the Michigan Military Academy at Orchard Lake.
was perfect for Edgar. Here he was able to best utilize his frontier skills and became proficient as a trick horseback rider and an excellent marksman. The tack and the rifle would serve him well as he adjusted to the disciplines of military school. It was also at Michigan Military Academy that Edgar began to blossom academically. He had found the ideal environment that helped him develop into manhood.
Edgar Rice Burroughs graduated from the in 1895. The disciple of “military life” was good for Edgar and he wanted to attend the West Point Military Academy but failed the entrance exam. Unlike his untarnished and successful father, this would be one of many failures in Edgar’s life, but each one would shape and mold him into the successful author he would become.
Since he could not attend West Point Academy, Edgar enlisted with the U.S. Army as a private hoping to build a career and eventually become an officer, following in his father’s footsteps. Because of his strong horsemanship skills, Edgar was assigned to the Seventh United States Cavalry stationed at Territory.
In his personal journals Burroughs described this period of his life as a time where he “chased Apaches, but never caught up with them.” The life of a soldier was far from exciting. His days were spent digging ditches and repairing the aged fort. This would not last long, however. As part of a routine medical exam, the post doctor diagnosed Burroughs with a heart murmur. This rendered him ineligible for service and Edgar received a discharge from the army in early 1897. Burroughs’ military was over shortly after it began. Again, unlike his father, Edgar would not be able to earn the prestige that a military career would give him.
Edgar quickly moved back to and began working for his brothers. For the next two years, he branded cattle on the ranch and helped operate a dry goods store. The youthful excitement of the old west was wearing off and seeing no apparent future in Idaho, Edgar moved back to Chicago in 1899 and took up work at his father's American Battery Company. It was steady work but had no promise of an independent future. To help cope with his life in Chicago, Edgar courted his childhood sweetheart, Emma Centennia Hulbert. The following year Edgar married Emma and the two began a new life together.
Instead of living “happily ever after,” the next decade would prove to be a mundane transition marked by several dead ends and one failure after another for Edgar Rice Burroughs. Edgar and Emma moved back and forth between Idaho, Utah, and Illinois several times seeking steady employment. During this time he tried his luck at being a railway policeman, a door-to-door salesman, an accountant, the manager for the clerical department at Sears Roebuck & Company, a dealer for a “snake oil” alcoholism cure and, finally, a pencil sharpener wholesaler. By 1911 the Burroughs had two children: a daughter Joan and a son Hulbert. Edgar was 35 years old and a solid loser in the eyes of the world. He couldn’t hold a steady job, was financially broke, and was forced to pawn his pocket watch and wife’s jewelry for money to buy groceries for his hungry family. But his adventurous spirit could not be defeated. His life was finally going to take a turn in the right direction.
As a pencil sharpener wholesaler, Edgar Rice Burroughs had placed several advertisements in various magazines for his products. These magazines included the “pulps” which specialized in fantasy and adventure stories. To idle away the hours, he spent his time reading these pulp magazines. Edgar was a creative thinker and the idea dawned on him that if others were being paid to write fanciful stories for these magazines, he could too. Indeed, he had already written several short stories for his children, nephews, and nieces. A new chapter was about to begin for Edgar Rice Burroughs.
In 1911 Edgar Rice Burroughs began writing in earnest. His first full-length novel was set on the planet Mars and told the incredible story of John Carter and Dejah Thoris. Accustomed to failure and rejection, and because his story was so fanciful, Edgar submitted his work to All-Story magazine using the pseudonym Normal Bean (a tongue-in-cheek reference to the idea that publishers would consider the author of such tales “touched in the head”).
Thomas Newell Metcalf, editor of All-Story magazine, however, liked the manuscript and offered Burroughs $400 for it. Burroughs recalls, “The check was the first big event in my life. No amount of money today could possibly give me the thrill that this first $400 check gave me.” It was an offer he could not refuse and the story was soon serialized and given the title “Under the Moons of Mars” and Burroughs’ pseudonym was changed to Norman Bean. The story became an instant success and by the time the final installment was published, Edgar had finished writing three novels. The second story, “The Outlaw of Torn,” was rejected by the editor, but the third novel, “Tarzan of the Apes,” would make Edgar Rice Burroughs a household name and place him among the most famous authors of all-time.
Burroughs received $700 for “Tarzan of the Apes,” which first appeared in the October 1912 issue of All-Story magazine. Tarzan was a huge success and would become a cultural phenomenon. Ironically, when Burroughs submitted “Tarzan of the Apes” to book publishers it was rejected over and over until A.C. McClurg and Co. printed it in 1914. It became a best-selling book that year and established Edgar Rice Burroughs as a best-selling author.
Both the John Carter of Mars and Tarzan of the Apes stories were followed by multiple sequels and Burroughs was now recognized almost everywhere as a successful author. Finally, the word “successful” was associated with Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Other stories from the mind of Edgar Rice Burroughs would follow over the years. He created the prehistoric world of Pellucidar, and other cave man stories such as The Eternal Savage and The Land That Time Forgot. There were tales of royal courts in The Mad King, and literary pieces dealing with social realism in The Girl from Hollywood. Burroughs would later write westerns, such as The War Chief and finally created another science fiction series, set on the planet Venus— Pirates of Venus.
Personal Life and Later Years
In 1919, because of the success of Tarzan, Burroughs purchased a large ranch north of , which he named “Tarzana.” The little southern community was both excited and proud to have the Burroughs family move into their neighborhood. Edgar was finally living the American dream. His books were being published world-wide, his novels would be made into movies, and he was eagerly sought after as a marketable author.
Burroughs’ next step was to found his own company. In 1923 he registered Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. and became its first employee. This was a relatively new concept and it demonstrated the innovative thinking that drove Burroughs. Within a few years Burroughs started publishing his own books, beginning with Tarzan the Invincible. No longer at the mercy of capricious editors and publishing companies, Edgar was free to publish his writings as he deemed fit.
In the 1930s Tarzan appeared in comic strips in over 250 newspapers worldwide. A Tarzan radio serial was produced that delighted its listeners across the country. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ daughter, Joan Burroughs, starred in the role of Jane Porter and her husband, James Pierce, starred as Tarzan.
At the height of his business success, Edgar’s personal life began to unravel. The demands of writing were taking their toll on the Burroughs’ marriage. Success has its price tag and the cost would strain their relationship to the breaking point. The problems were compounded by alcohol as both Edgar and Emma began drinking to cope with the pressures of success. The Tarzan phenomenon had brought significant individuals into Edgar’s life, some who would flatter his ego. In particular was an actress who had become a friend of the Burroughs family. Florence Gilbert was young, attractive, and recently divorced. She became a source of counsel and encouragement to Edgar as he tried to cope with his failing marriage.
In July of 1933, Edgar took a vacation in the White Mountains of Arizona to sort out his thoughts and finds answers to his problems. Most of the marriage problems involved Emma's struggle with alcohol. Since this was his first vacation without Emma and the children he soon became very homesick and lonely. It was during this lonely period of Edgar’s life that he was drawn closer to Florence Gilbert. When they could no longer endure the strain, Edgar and Emma were divorced in 1934.
He married Florence Gilbert (28 years younger than him) the following year and the couple moved off the main land to in 1940. Happiness was not to be fulfilled in this relation, however. The entered World War II in 1941 (with the bombing of ) and Burroughs became a war correspondent. He served in the Pacific theater, flying from island to island reporting on troop activities. With the stress of the war, he continued drinking and treated harshly. Because of this, she divorced him in 1942.
Now in his late sixties, Edgar Rice Burroughs moved back to southern , where he would spend the remaining years of his life with his children. His health continued to decline and on March 19, 1950, while alone in his Encino home reading the newspaper in bed, he died of a heart attack at the age of 74. He was cremated and according to his instructions, his ashes were ultimately buried beneath a large walnut tree in front of his office in .
Creations of Edgar Rice Burroughs
Archimedes Q. Porter