Major George Tyler Burroughs - Civil War hero and Major, political delegate, industrialist, inventor, and owner of several lucrative businesses-never failed at anything. So he remained perplexed at his youngest son Ed, who appeared to do nothing but fail.
Ed repeatedly failed at the private schools his father sent him to, so the only choice left for his son was a military career, except he failed the entrance exam. He fared no better as an adult, being unable to keep a bizarre array of jobs, including selling magazines, driving cattle, policing the railroad, mining for gold, selling pencil sharpeners, and a whole three weeks as a city alderman.
The result of this was a life of poverty, the failure of his two marriages, and his father's disdain.
All this changed in 1911 when, during a coffee break while working at one of his "successful" brother's stationary stores, he began to handwrite a story on the back of old letterheads. He soon had a complete novel, which he mailed off to "The All-Story," a popular pulp magazine."The All-Story" sent him a cheque for $400, and the first installment of the novel - "A Princess of Mars" - appeared in their February issue. It appeared under a the pseudonym of Norman Bean, as the publisher felt the author's full name, Edgar Rice Burroughs, was too cumbersome.
"A Princess of Mars" was a huge hit, and soon appeared in a hardcover edition, this time under Burroughs' real name. The following year he submitted a second book, this one titled "Tarzan of the Apes." Based on the myth of Romulus and Remus, "Tarzan" was an unstoppable success, and would come to define the rest of Burroughs' life.
He went on to write 70 more books, including a handful of fantasies, westerns, and ten more "Mars" sequels. But it was "Tarzan" which rose above them all, and Burroughs would write all kinds of "Tarzan" novels. He also was heavily involved in the films which began to appear, beginning with silent movies and later the talking ones featuring Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller. Like every other book adaptation in history, the films were drastically different than the novels. The original novel ends in Wisconsin of all places, with Tarzan turning over his inherited estate to his cousin, as well as Jane, whom his cousin marries. Hollywood knew to ignore this complete downer of an ending, ensuring a continuing franchise. (Jane is also killed by the Germans during the First World War in "Tarzan the Untamed." This became one of Hitler's favorite books to burn).
Burroughs himself enjoyed the difference between the films and his written work, feeling the big screen gave audiences a new experience of the character. Some adaptions didn't work though; especially one's featuring scantily clad princesses from the earth's core or even other worlds. Audiences could handle a beautiful temptress, or a wise-ass chimpanzee, but not both.
The highbrow literati of Burroughs's time felt he was little more than a hack; his plots ridiculous; his prose style "absurd and repetitive." And while there is still no danger of Burroughs being taught in school, there remains one undeniable fact: he was - and remains - one heck of a good storyteller.
Burroughs' father never lived to see his son create one the biggest and most beloved characters of the 20th century. Burroughs himself died in 1950. He had retired to - of all places - Tarzana, California. He died peacefully in his sleep at age 74, after reading the current "Tarzan" strip in the day's newspaper.