This originally appeared in Adventure Tales #1
There have been a lot of theories advanced as to why Edgar Rice Burroughs remains a popular author a century after he first broke into print, when dozens of Pulitzer and Nobel winners (and a few Hugo winners as well) can’t be found this side of Bookfinder.com.
A lot of people credit his imagination, and yes, it certainly worked overtime, coming up with Tarzan, Barsoom, Amtor, Pellucidar, Caspak, Poloda, and the rest.
Others point to his break-neck pacing. You follow Tarzan until he’s unarmed and facing a ferocious man-eater at chapter’s end, then cut to Jane until she’s one grope away from a Fate Worse Than Death at the end of the next chapter, then back to Tarzan, and so forth. Works pretty well.
A few point to his remarkable facility at creating languages. And truly, what would you call an elephant except Tantor? What could a snake possibly be other than Hista? What better name for an ape-king that half-barks and half-growls his language than Kerchak? Yes, he was damned good at languages.
But there’s another aspect to Burroughs that lends enormous verisimilitude, especially to his younger readers, and it’s an aspect that has been addressed only once before, by the late Burroughs scholar (and Royal Canadian Mountie) John F. Roy — and that is the interesting fact that ERB wrote himself into almost all his greatest adventures.
When I first discovered A Princess of Mars at age 8, I knew the story was true. I mean, hell, Burroughs was writing about his own uncle, the man who had entrusted him with the manuscript of his adventures on that distant and wondrous planet. Wasn’t that proof enough that Barsoom existed?
Well, if you were young and impressionable, it was proof enough — but even if you weren’t, it was a very effective and informal way of getting you into the story.
And while ERB was not a trained writer, at a gut level he knew it worked. He might not have known what “distancing mechanism” or “stream of consciousness” meant, but he sure as hell knew how to lasso a reader and pull him along, and his favorite and most effective gimmick was to tell you how he himself had been thrust into the company of this book’s hero.
So here he was, the nephew of John Carter, gentleman of Virginia and Warlord of Mars, explaining how he had come upon this remarkable manuscript, how he had watched his uncle standing outside at night reaching out his arms to Mars, how he had followed instructions and buried him in a well-ventilated coffin that could only be opened from the inside, and only now understood the meaning of it all.
And it didn’t stop with the one book. He meets John Carter again and is given the manuscripts to The Gods of Mars and The Warlord of Mars. Some years later he meets Ulysses Paxton (a/k/a Vad Varo) by proxy when John Carter delivers Paxton’s long letter (i.e., The Master Mind of Mars) to him, and he is visited by John Carter at least twice more. It is made clear that ERB is now an old man (as indeed he was), while the Warlord remains the thirtyish fighting man he has always been.
But ERB’s interaction with his characters wasn’t limited to Barsoom.
For example, he knows the man who knows the man who knows Tarzan — or some permutation of that. The very first line in his most famous book, Tarzan of the Apes, is: “I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other.” A Burroughs scholar would probably conclude that the “one” was Paul d’Arnot, but it makes no difference. The point is that here is ERB, inserting himself in the beginning of the story again to lend some degree of authenticity.
Did he ever meet Tarzan? He never says so explicitly, but he did meet Barney Custer, hero of The Eternal Lover, and his sister, and based on the internal evidence of the book, the only place ERB could possibly have met them was on Lord Greystoke’s vast African estate.
It was while vacationing in Greenland that ERB came across the manuscript that became The Land That Time Forgot. (Yes, he was pretty sharp at finding saleable manuscripts.)
Burroughs gets around. At the Earth’s Core finds him in the Sahara, where he stumbles upon David Innes, who in turn had stumbled upon the hidden world of Pellucidar and felt compelled to spend the night telling ERB his story. A reader in Algiers summons him back a few years later, where he is reintroduced to David Innes, who once again pours out his story, which was published as Pellucidar.
After moving to California, who should ERB’s next-door neighbor turn out to be but the brilliant young scientist Jason Gridley, creator of the remarkable Gridley Wave, by means of which Burroughs received still more tales of that mysterious world at the center of the hollow Earth. (And Gridley himself later went to Pellucidar, which means that ERB rubbed shoulders with still another hero.)
Burroughs even wrote his company’s secretary, Ralph Rothmond (who was later fired, more than a decade after ERB’s death, for carelessly allowing a number of copyrights to lapse) into one of the books. Rothmond introduces ERB to young, handsome, blond, heroic Carson Napier, the Wrong-Way Corrigan of space, who takes off for Mars and somehow winds up on Venus. Napier remains in telepathic contact with Burroughs long enough to dictate Pirates of Venus and three-plus sequels.
There was just something about ERB that made heroes seek him out and tell him their strange stories, always on the condition that he not publish the tale until they were dead, or if he couldn’t wait that long, to at least change their names. The last to find him and unload on him was Julian V, who narrated the tale of The Moon Maid.
ERB never met the author of Beyond the Farthest Star — after all, that would have been quite a voyage — but of all the people in the universe, the author was, perhaps unsurprisingly by this time, drawn to Burroughs, and mystically compelled ERB’s typewriter to produce the story one night in Hawaii while ERB watched in awe.
The interesting thing is that though he associated with Tarzan and John Carter and David Innes and Carson Napier and many others, ERB never once performed an exciting or heroic deed in any of the books, and that lends a little verisimilitude too. These are extraordinary men, these heroes, and neither ERB nor you nor I can begin to match their skills or heroism, so it makes much more sense for him to tell us about it and for us to read and appreciate it. Fighting lions or green men or allosaurs is for heroes; reading about it is for the rest of us mortals.
And maybe that’s why we loved and identified with Edgar Rice Burroughs. He didn’t lop off heads with his longsword, or bellow the victory cry of the bull ape over the corpse of an enemy, or make his way to the center of the Earth. But he seemed to know the remarkable men who did do those things, and, by golly, he got to hold the hero’s horse.
Most of us would have traded places with him in a New York — or Barsoomian — minute.