Biography of Edgar Rice Burroughs, American Writer, Creator of Tarzan

He'd never seen a jungle, yet he created Tarzan of the Apes

photo of Edgar Rice Burroughs in his study
Edgar Rice Burroughs in his study.

Bettmann / Getty Images 

Edgar Rice Burroughs was an American writer of adventure tales best known for creating one of the most popular and enduring characters in fiction, Tarzan. Burroughs, who came from a privileged background and became frustrated in his business career, took to writing science fiction stories before coming up with the idea of a man raised by apes in the African jungle.

The essential premise of the Tarzan stories didn't make a lot of sense. And Burroughs, as it happened, had never even seen a jungle. But the reading public didn't care. Tarzan became enormously popular, and Burroughs became wealthy as Tarzan's fame increased, thanks to his adventurous exploits being portrayed in silent films, talkies, radio serials, comic strips and eventually television programs.

Fast Facts: Edgar Rice Burroughs

  • Known For: Created the character of Tarzan, the protagonist in adventure novels which sold 100 million copies and spawned dozens of films.
  • Born: September 1, 1875 in Chicago, Illinois
  • Died: March 19, 1950 in Encino, California
  • Parents: Major George Tyler Burroughs and Mary Evaline (Zieger) Burroughs
  • Spouses: Emma Hulbert (m. 1900–1934) and Florence Gilbert (m. 1935–1942) 
  • Children: Joan, Hulbert, and John Coleman Burroughs
  • Famous Works: Tarzan of the Apes, followed by 23 Tarzan novels; A Prince of Mars, followed by 10 novels in the Mars series.

Early Life

Edgar Rice Burroughs was born September 1, 1875 in Chicago, Illinois. His father was a prosperous businessman and Burroughs was educated in private schools as a child. After attending the Michigan Military Academy, he joined the U.S. Cavalry and served for a year in the American West. He didn't take to life in the military and apparently used family connections to get out and return to civilian life.

Burroughs tried several businesses, and settled down to a job working for the prominent retailer Sears, Roebuck, and Company. Frustrated at starting his own business, he took up writing in hopes of leaving the business world.

Writing Career

In 1911, when the public was fascinated by theories about what appeared to be canals on the surface of Mars, Burroughs was inspired to write a story based on the red plant. The tale first appeared in a science fiction magazine, and eventually was published as a book under the title A Prince of Mars.

The story features a character, John Carter, a Virginia gentleman who wakes up on Mars. Burroughs followed up the original book with others featuring John Carter.

Edgar Rice Burroughs
Portrait of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Getty Images

While writing the books about an Earth man transplanted to Mars, Burroughs came up with another character placed in bizarre surroundings. His new creation, Tarzan, was the son of an English aristocrat whose family was marooned on the African coast. His mother died and his father was killed, and the boy, whose English name was John Clayton, was raised by a species of ape unknown to the outside world.

As written by Burroughs, Tarzan is a feral child who grows up untainted by the problems of civilization. Yet his aristocratic bearing also shines through at times and he can be comfortable in civilized society.

Another iconic character created by Burroughs was Tarzan's love interest (and eventual wife), Jane, the daughter of an American professor who becomes stranded in the jungle and crosses paths with Tarzan.

The Phenomenon of Tarzan

The first Tarzan novel, Tarzan of the Apes, was published in 1914. The book was popular enough to inspire Burroughs to write more books featuring the character. The character became so popular that silent movie versions of Tarzan stories began to appear, and Burroughs moved to California so he could supervise their production.

Some writers became wary of becoming too closely associated with a character. For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, stopped writing about the fictional detective for a time, until protests encouraged him to resume. Edgar Rice Burroughs had no such concerns about Tarzan. He kept producing more Tarzan novels, encouraged the making of movies about him, and in 1929 helped launch a Tarzan comic strip, which ran in newspapers for decades.

Johnny Weissmuller portraying Tarzan
Johnny Weissmuller played Tarzan in a series of films. Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images 

In the 1930s, former Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller began playing Tarzan in the film versions. Weissmuller perfected the "Tarzan yell," and his portrayal of the character became a sensation. The plots of the Tarzan films were geared to an audience of children, and generations of young viewers have watched them on television over the decades.

Besides film versions, in the heyday of radio dramas there was a Tarzan serial that entertained millions. And at least three television series have been produced showcasing Tarzan and his adventures.

Later Career

Edgar Rice Burroughs made a fortune from Tarzan, but some bad business decisions, including gambling on the stock market just before the Great Depression began, endangered his wealth. He bought a ranch in California he named Tarzana, which generally operated at a loss. (When the nearby community incorporated, they used Tarzana as the name of the town.)

Always feeling pressed for money, he wrote Tarzan novels at a ferocious pace. He also returned to science fiction, publishing several novels set on the planet Venus. Utilizing his experience living in the West in his youth, he wrote four western novels.

During World War II, Burroughs worked as a war correspondent in the South Pacific. Following the war he struggled with illness, and died of a heart attack on March 19, 1950.

The novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs made money, but they were never considered serious literature. Most critics dismissed them as pulp adventures. He has also been criticized in recent decades for racist themes which appear in his writings. In his stories the white characters are typically superior to the native peoples in Africa. Tarzan, a white Englishman, typically comes to dominate or easily outsmart the Africans he encounters.

Despite these faults, the characters created by Burroughs continue to entertain. Every decade seems to bring a new version of Tarzan to movie screens, and the boy raised by apes remains one of the most recognizable characters in the world.

Sources:

  • "Edgar Rice Burroughs." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 18, Gale, 2004, pp. 66-68. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Holtsmark, Erling B. "Edgar Rice Burroughs." Edgar Rice Burroughs, Twayne Publishers, 1986, pp. 1-15. Twayne's United States Authors Series 499. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • "Burroughs, Edgar Rice." Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of American Literature, vol. 1, Gale, 2009, pp. 232-235. Gale Virtual Reference Library.