rain drops pattered unceasingly on the shingle roof of a country cottage.
A small boy, finished the last page of a book, which contained a weird
tale of a colony of ape-men in the heart of a little province of China.
The ape-men raided villages and carried away women, according to the tale,
and kept them in captivity, repulsing the men who came to rescue them .
The boy folded the book and let his imagination wander. He was always
imagining things, and where was there a better place to imagine things
than in the retreat in the attic, under the rain drops. The rain drops
helped him to wander through strange lands and to mingle with strange people.
He had often made imaginary trips to Mars where he had met people unlike
any he had ever encountered in real life.
Some twenty years later, Edgar Rice Burroughs, who had cultivated his
imagination while the rain drops pattered on the roof, wrote "Tarzan of
the Apes" and "A Princess of Mars," known to every reader of the popular
The little boy of the attic, who later made good use of his imagination,
never took himself seriously. He doesn't take himself seriously yet. Unlike
most other writers, he doesn't try to be serious, and therein, perhaps,
lies the secret of his great success. Too many writers of today attach
importance to their make-up. Edgar Rice Burroughs is not important
not to his way of thinking.
Were he to cease writing tomorrow, many a magazine editor would at once
begin to search for another writer who could fill the bill. The demand
for the kind of tales that Edgar Rice Burroughs turns out has been created,
without a doubt, because he never took himself seriously.
Today you will find Burroughs at the Tarzana Ranch, Reseda, California,
taking himself no more seriously than he did when he let his boyish mind
wander away from the attic retreat to Mars. From those wanderings he accumulated
material from which he produced the Tarzan series, nine in all, commencing
with "Tarzan of the Apes." Then came the Martian series in five volumes,
beginning with "A Princess of Mars." Some of his other very popular stories
included "The Mucker," and "At the Earth's Core." "The Girl From Hollywood"
is just off the press, and will be at the book stores in a short time.
The story is about motion picture people, bootleggers, narcotic addicts
and gentlemen farmers of California quite a mixture, but just
the kind of a combination to receive the full benefit of Burroughs' great
storehouse of imagination, combined with facts. He has written it with
that unimportant style that has made his works famous.
He is at present working on a wild and wooly western story at the request
of Sir Algernon Metheun, his London publisher. He has usually written about
Mars and Africa, and this new tale of the west will be something a little
different from anything he has ever done. But he is writing about something
of which he should know a great deal, since he was a cow-puncher in his
youth, and hunted the festive renegade through Arizona while serving with
Seventh United States Cavalry.
"Tarzan of the Apes" was Burroughs' most interesting character creation.
Tarzan won his way into the heart of every reader of the series because
of the way he was created and, we might say, brought up. Part of him came
from the fabulous history of Remulus and Remus [sic.], and the rest from
man tale of the China province.
There are no new plots, according to Burroughs' idea. Plots are plots,
used over and over again, only in a different way. The same story is told
over and over again, but always in a different way. If the new way is unique
as well as new, the plot often goes over big.
There are three children in the Burroughs' family. Jean, 15 [sic.],
Hulbert, 14, and Jack, 10 years old, all of whom, along with Mrs. Burroughs,
add to the environment and home life from which Burroughs gets his inspirations.
He does most of his work just after breakfast and averages about four hours
a day. He believes that the best an author can give can be accomplished
in a short day. The writer who spends his entire day over the typewriter,
he says, is selling words and not the story. Burroughs gets five cents
a word where others get two and three. Outside of the four hours he averages
at work on his stories, he spends about all of his time with his family.
Burroughs is not a sportsman in one sense of the word. He does not like
to kill wild animals, except the predatory species. He will hunt all day
for a hawk or a rattlesnake, and pass up chances to shoot tree squirrels,
grouse or quail. He has never hunted big game, except the cougar or coyote.
He drives an automobile, and much of his time with his family is spent
rolling over long stretches of country road. He plays tennis and golf,
and wouldn't win any medals at either.
"I am interested in nearly everything," he told me, "and excel
in nothing," which is further evidence that he does not take himself too
There isn't anything he dislikes more than hobbies. He has none. His
nearest approach to one is horses, and they're not hobby horses either.
He rides a great deal along the country lanes and over mountain trails
when the opportunity offers. He is a good swimmer, and so are all of the
other members of the Burroughs family.
It never fell to Burroughs' lot to engage in newspaper work, although
he wrote special articles long before he began to sell. "A Princess of
Mars" was his first story. He wrote half of it and sent it to The All-Story
Weekly. Tom Metcalf was then editor of All-Story. Metcalf read it and wrote
the following note to Burroughs:
"If the last half of 'A Princess of Mars' is no rottener than this first
half I may buy it. Let's see the other half."
Burroughs was not over-impressed with the note. He waited some time
before he wrote the other half, then he waited a while longer before he
sent it to Metcalf. Metcalf wrote back an acceptance which was followed
by a check from All-Story.
There are no rejection slips pasted on Burroughs' work-room wall. In
this respect he was very fortunate. He has written over forty novels and
novelettes, and he has only two on hand, all the others having been printed.
One of the two on hand is practically sold. The other has no sale
because it is anti-Bolshevik propaganda. Every magazine editor has
shied at it like a horse at a moving shadow.
"I have had plenty of rejection slips," Burroughs said, "but if I couldn't
fool one editor I could another."
The interesting feature of Burroughs' success as a writer is that he
had no training whatever, to speak of. In fact he never had any training
of any nature until he started to write and trained himself.
"My parents thought some of making a doctor out of me," he said, "and
then again they considered a law career. It seems to me that there were
two or three other things they thought of, just as all parents do, with
the pleasing result that I became nothing, much to my liking."
"How many books by other authors do you read a month?" I asked him,
led to the question by the many books he had stacked away in his library.
"I doubt if I average two books a month," he replied. "Over ninety per
cent of what I read is non-fiction. I get my fictional recreation in writing
it. I like to read the kind of stuff that I don't write, mainly technical
This practice in reading applies to many writers. Other than scanning
through the magazines, nothing changes in policies, kind of style and the
construction of a story, they spend but very little time in pursuing the
story itself, as the chronic reader does. As recreation they prefer to
entirely different from what they write. The comic section of a daily
newspaper, or a column of jokes, along with the news itself is subject
matter for recreation.
"Do not take your work seriously if you are writing fiction," is Burroughs'
advice to aspiring young authors. "If you do it cramps your style and gives
everybody a pain."
Burroughs' personality is difficult to understand, unless you happen
to know him well. A quick acquaintance with him is not possible. You must
feel him out, and at the same time you will also realize that he in turn
is feeling you out. But once the acquaintanceship starts to form, friendship
begins to ferment, like bubbles on home-made beer. It gets better and better
every day, and the longer it stands the more lasting it becomes. There
are some men who bubble over with friendliness the minute you meet them,
and the longer you know them the less they bubble. It's the breed more
than anything else. A mongrel dog will three times out of four make friends
with you in five minutes, but a thoroughbred Airdale pays no attention
to your snapping fingers and kind words. Days go by before he even notices
you. At last he accepts your attention. And when he does he's your friend
for life; he'll fight for you, while the mongrel will tuck his tail between
his legs and slink away.
That, perhaps, is rather a rude way of putting it. But compare Edgar
Rice Burroughs with the Airdale pup and you have him in a nutshell. He's
hard to get acquainted with and difficult at first to understand. But once
you've made the grade you'll say he's a thoroughbred.
Every writer has his own favorite authors. Of those who are living,
Burroughs' favorites are Mary Roberts Rhinehart, Booth Tarkington and Owen
Wister. I asked him who the three leading writers of America were, and
"It will be a hundred years, perhaps, before that question can be answered
with any degree of accuracy, and then you and I won't give a whoop what
the answer is." He then named those mentioned above as his living favorites.
I asked him to tell me something interesting about himself. This after
he had told me all he seemed to care to tell me about himself.
'Well, I must admit," he said, "there is nothing interesting in what
I have told you," and laughed at what he thought was a good joke.
"No, it is not very interesting," he went on; "but if we tell the truth
about ourselves it is not likely to be interesting. All the interesting
things in my life never happened. I am always late for the thrill; I always
get to a fire after it is out. I have been shot at a couple of times, but
the other fellow missed. I have almost shot a couple of men, but didn't.
I have always survived, so I don't know what it's like to be killed, and
thus it goes. I simply never can connect with adventure and I can
not afford a press agent."
Burroughs may not have connected with the real adventure, but he certainly
misses nothing insofar as his imagination is concerned. If every writer
got as much of a thrill out of his work as Edgar Rice Burroughs, we would
enjoy more thrills ourselves when pursing the contents that are to be found
in the pages of a magazine between where the advertising quits in the front
and starts again in the back.
By Seth T. Bailey
Oakland Tribune Magazine, June 3, 1923