Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Michael Dirda- Edgar Rice Burroughs

MONDAY, MAR 12, 2012 7:00 PM CDT (from Salom)
The unlikely creator of John Carter

Long before the Disney movie, a failed light bulb salesman began writing stories of Mars warriors and ape men


This article appears courtesy of The Barnes & Noble Review.

In 1911, Edgar Rice Burroughs, having failed at everything else, decided to write a novel. He was then in his mid-30s, married with two children, barely supporting his family as the agent for a pencil-sharpener business. In earlier years he’d served in the Seventh Cavalry, worked as a rancher and gold miner, started an advertising agency, sold light bulbs and candy and uplifting books door-to-door, and not really made a go of anything.

For occasional entertainment Burroughs read the early pulp magazines, especially All-Story. Named after the cheap newsprint upon which they were printed, the pulps supplied adventure and romantic fiction to the masses for half a century. By the 1920s and ’30s newsstands around the country would display the lurid and spicy covers of Weird Tales, the Shadow, Amazing Stories, True Confessions, Dime Detective, Astounding, and Black Mask. Pulp writers would include such important literary figures as H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Robert A. Heinlein and scores of others.

But in 1911 most of the writers weren’t of this caliber, and Burroughs was convinced he could write better adventure stories and maybe even make a living at it.

In fact he rather underestimated himself.

One hundred years ago, in the February 1912 issue of All-Story, there appeared the first installment of “Under the Moons of Mars” (retitled “A Princess of Mars” for its 1917 book publication). It starts, as all good adventure stories should, with a strange manuscript, this one a memoir penned by Captain John Carter and bequeathed to his nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs. The reader is hooked from the very first sentence: “I am a very old man now; how old I do not know.” Over the next several months purchasers of All-Story would learn of the fantastic adventures of this former Confederate soldier. Mysteriously transported to Mars, called Barsoom by its inhabitants, John Carter there battled monstrous beasts and warlike peoples, soon falling in love with the copper-skinned Deja Thoris, Princess of Helium.

The serial, needless to say, was a hit, though no one yet knew that ERB would soon become a phenomenon. His editor at All-Story quickly asked him to write a historical novel, which the obliging author produced in a few weeks, only to have the chivalric romance rejected. Eventually, it would be revised and rejected again. Putting “The Outlaw of Torn” aside, Burroughs took up his own new idea, its action set largely in Africa (where he had never been). Drawing on the classical legends of the heroic Romulus and Remus, who were suckled by a wolf, and adding a touch of Mowgli from Kipling’s “The Jungle Books,” Burroughs created one of the most famous fictional characters of modern times. In the November, 1912 issue of All-Story — only a few months after the conclusion of John Carter’s adventures on Mars — there appeared, published in its entirety, “Tarzan of the Apes.”

Readers went crazy.

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1 comment:

Kevin said...


This blog has been talking about Burroughs' work for the past few weeks. Some interesting stuff.