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Summary Article: Burroughs, Edgar Rice (1875-1950)
from Encyclopedia of the Environment in American Literature

Edgar Rice Burroughs was a prolific writer of adventure and science fiction, but is most famous for his creation of Tarzan, the son of English aristocrats Lord and Lady Greystoke, who is stranded in a remote jungle following a mutiny aboard the ship carrying them to West Africa to settle colonial unrest. After the death of his parents Tarzan is raised by anthropoid apes and grows up completely at home in his untamed environment and among savage African animals. In the Tarzan saga Burroughs displays a fascination with untamed wilderness and expresses dissatisfaction with what he saw as the cruelty and corruption of western civilization, themes that were to occupy him throughout his writing career.

Burroughs was born in Chicago, in 1875, to Major George Tyler Burroughs, a Civil War veteran and successful businessman in Chicago's burgeoning distilling industry, and his wife Mary Evaline Burroughs. The youngest of five sons, one of whom died in infancy, Burroughs attended a number of schools before graduating from Michigan Military Academy in 1895. Until he began writing in his thirties, Burroughs life was peripatetic, beset by disappointment and often poverty. Among the careers he drifted into, and quickly out of, were instructor at the Michigan Academy, private with the Seventh United States Cavalry, railroad policeman in Salt Lake City, accountant, construction worker and door-to-door salesman. He had stints with his father's American Battery Company and on the family ranch in Idaho, and by 1911 he was married to Emma Centennia Hulbert, with two young children, working as the sales director of a failing pencil sharpener business and facing an uncertain future.

Inspired by the stories he chanced upon while monitoring the advertisements in pulp fiction magazines as part of his sales work, at the age of 35 Burroughs began work on his first novel. Dejah Thoris, Martian Princess (re-titled as Under the Moons of Mars and later A Princess on Mars) appeared in All-Story Magazine and is the first of ten novels in the Barsoom series dealing with the Martian adventures of John Carter, an American soldier and prospector. Burroughs’ interest in the fantastic and often savage fauna of this planetary outpost, and his enthusiasm for a tough, frontiersman sensibility, are developed and refined in the environmental ideology inscribed in the 24 Tarzan stories.

Introduced in Tarzan of the Apes in 1912, Burroughs’ hero vividly reflects a long tradition of British imperial writing, most notably that of Rudyard Kipling and H. Rider Haggard (in homage to whom Burroughs named a 1918 historical novel H.R.H. The Rider). The “natural man” living in harmony with exotic beasts recalls Mowgli from Kipling's 1894 Jungle Books, and illustrates the supposed value to human well-being, and specifically male well-being, of life lived in the wilds. As Burroughs wrote in a 1914 letter to the publisher M.N. Bunker, “Because Tarzan led a clean, active outdoor life he was able to accomplish … feats that are … beyond the average man” (cited in Porges, 1975, 212). Burroughs’ colonial inheritance is also reflected in disparaging and paternalistic racial attitudes, particularly towards Africans, and he has been criticised for both a lack of zoological accuracy in his depictions of animals and a frequent tendency towards the anthropomorphic.

Nonetheless, the Tarzan books went from strength to strength with the feral hero appearing in a variety of settings and a range of media, with films in particular bringing Burroughs widespread fame. Tarzan's ongoing adventures included a visit to America with his wife-to-be Jane Porter, a trip to Britain where he regains his hereditary title, various scrapes involving lost treasure and civilizations in inaccessible African jungles, a spell in the R. A. F., and numerous victorious battles with assorted villains. Although Burroughs’ work often reflected contemporary geopolitical events, with Germans and communists recurrently cast as the bad guys, an atavistic interest in an evolutionary past is the most striking feature of the series, along with violent engagements with animals that sit uncomfortably with many strands of twenty-first-century environmentalism. Bur-roughs’ interest in lost worlds was developed in his “Pellucidar” series, in which a primitive culture is discovered at the centre of the earth, and in The Land That Time Forgot trilogy, a precursor of Jurassic Park, in which dinosaurs are discovered on a distant island. Burroughs continued, meanwhile, in a succession of failed business ventures, many involving the Californian estate he named Tarzana. He worked as a war correspondent in the South Pacific during the Second World War, and died from a heart attack in 1950.

  • Holtsmark, Erling B. Edgar Rice Burroughs. Twayne Boston, 1986.
  • Porges, Irwin. Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan. Brigham Young University Press Provo UT, 1975.
  • Vernon, Alex. On Tarzan. University of Georgia Press Athens, 2008.
  • John Miller
    © 2013 Geoff Hamilton and Brian Jones

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