Today’s Progressive Pioneer is none other than the ultra-prolific planetary romance and adventure novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs (EBR).
Burroughs’ work—particularly on his John Carter of Barsoom (i.e. Mars) series—are the unsung inspiration for stories such as Flash Gordon, Star Wars, and even Avatar. All eleven Barsoom novels describe a world so rich in detail, culture, wildly eccentric science and technology (for his time), outlandish and terrifying creatures, and extraordinary complex characters story tellers have been tapping into for over a century.
However, Burroughs’ work goes beyond just his Barsoom/Mars books. He is even more known for his Tarzan adventure novel series of 26 books. These stories were so famous during Burroughs’ time that he immediately saw the tech trend value in exploiting them in all forms of media (against so-called experts’ advice at the time). Tarzan became an instant hit on radio, in comic books, and in film.
In fact, even Burroughs’ daughter Joan married Tarzan film actor, James Pierce, starring with her husband, as the voice of Jane, during 1932-34 for the Tarzan radio series!
However, the most interesting fact about Burroughs’ Tarzan is that not one but two towns were named after the character! Tarzana in California, which started out as EBR’s eponymous ranch in the Los Angeles area, and eventually became incorporated as the American town of Tarzana in 1927. Tarzan in Texas was also formally named in 1927.
There’s even an impact crater on Mars named after EBR!
Burroughs was born in Chicago Illinois on September 1st, 1875 and died on March 19th, 1950 at the age of 74. He was married twice, first to Emma Hulbert (1900–1934) where they had three children together (Joan, Hulbert, and John); and then to actress Florence Gilbert Dearholt (1935–1942). He passed away in Encino California but he is laid to rest in Tarzana.
Burroughs was educated at the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover Massachusetts, and later at the Michigan Military Academy. He tried to get into West Point but failed the entrance exam. He then enlisted as a soldier with the 7th U.S. Calvary in Fort Grant (in the Arizona territory before its statehood). These experiences would help to shape his iconic literary heroic character John Carter.
Burroughs drifted from job to job for a bunch of years, such as a rancher in Idaho, a dredge miner manager, and a pencil sharpener wholesaler to name a few. It was this last role rife with low wages that drove EBR to go into a different direction: pulp-fiction writing.
After becoming pre-occupied with the pulp-fiction of the day, EBR felt that he could do no worse than those hacks (at the time) making money off of churning out such chaff.
…if people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines, that I could write stories just as rotten.EBR (1929)
His first published work was a serialized story titled Under the Moons of Mars (a precursor to A Princess of Mars) under the pseudonym of Norman Bean in 1912 for The All-Story magazine—inaugurating the Barsoom series. Later, after earning Burroughs over $10K (in today’s money), he formally published A Princess of Mars in 1917 under A.C. McClurg (publisher)—dropping the pseudonym all together.
Burroughs then took up writing full-time. After the run of Under the Moons of Mars had finished, he had completed two novels, including the now famous Tarzan of the Apes, which was published from October 1912.
All-in-all, Burroughs published 80 books in a span of 38 years!
Burroughs not only wrote Mars and Tarzan stories but also stories of adventurers on other worlds, deep within a hollow Earth (on the fictional continent of Pellucidar, Westerns, and more.
His works have inspired generations of writers, filmmakers, and fans. Fans that also include cartographers who have diligently plotted out all the famed locations on Barsoom to the actual planet Mars even incorporating the observations of Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli. Just look at this rendition of Barsoom and Schiaparelli’s “canali” by Oberon Zell:
And finally, we need to talk about the Disney movie simply mistitled John Carter that was a huge disappointment at the box office, yet a critical and visual success. Now regarded as a cult classic, this movie adaptation of EBR’s imagination would have been a success if people actually realized that Star Wars and other famous sci-fi/sword & sandal epics derived from this and not the other way around. Plus, how can you fault a movie where a young EBR appears in it as a character in the film (as he does sometimes in the Barsoom books)?
However, just like Frank Herbert’s seminal science-fiction opus DUNE, I have no doubt that John Carter of Mars (which is what it should be titled) will be reimagined again—let’s just hope there’s better marketing behind it.
In all these years I have not learned one single rule for writing fiction. I still write as I did 30 years ago; stories which I feel would entertain me and give me mental relaxation, knowing that there are millions of people just like me who will like the same things I like. Anyway, I have great fun with my imaginings, and I can appreciate – in a small way – the swell time God had in creating the Universe.EBR (ca. 1940s)
Edgar Rice Burroughs is a master class in romantic genre writing with a sweeping literary voice that is like modern Shakespeare. His work has stood the test of time and continues to make a resurgence in literary communities for genre fiction, which now transcends all digital media. EBR is a timeless Progressive Pioneer on Earth, as well as Mars!
One more thing to note: Digital Batman is a huge fan of EBR’s Barsoom books. I have read them all, including the novelization of the Disney movie (though not written by EBR), and have loved the series for years. I even own a full-sized printed reproduction of the aforementioned map by Oberon Zell (whom I’m connected with on LinkedIn) and have it mounted on my office wall! I want very much to see a new Barsoom series (perhaps on Netflix) that does justice to the characters, story, and its world. Until then, I’ll just have to keep reading the books and dream of Barsoom…