In 1912, an outlandish story hit the magazine racks that would change the face of the science fiction genre: Under the Moons of Mars, by Norman Bean, told the fantastic stories of John Carter and his adventures on the planet Mars. It was the start to an impressive career for Edgar Rice Burroughs, one that would see him from rags to riches.
Burroughs was born on September 1st, 1875 to George and Mary Burroughs in Chicago. Early in his life, public and private schools in Chicago’s West Side exposed him to Arthurian legends and Greek myths, early foundations for the stories he would eventually write. In 1890, a flu epidemic prompted his parents to send him out of the city to Idaho, where his brother maintained a ranch. He moved shortly thereafter to Michigan to attend the Michigan Military Academy, where he graduated in 1895, remaining at the school to teach for a year.
Burroughs’ adult life was as varied as the stories that he wrote: after teaching, he enlisted in the U.S. Cavalry in Arizona, only to be discharged due to a heart murmur. Following his service, he drifted from job to job: he worked on the frontier looking for gold, as a paper salesman and railroad policeman. After getting married to Emma Hulbert in 1900 and with two children, he worked a series of uninspiring and low-paying jobs, before eventually turning his hand to writing in 1910.
Lacking work, and with a family that was in dire financial straits, he turned to writing. He would later recall: “If people were paid for writing rot such as I read I could write stories just as rotten. I knew absolutely that I could write stories just as entertaining and probably a lot more than any I chanced to read in those magazines.” He began to write a story that he called “Dejah Thoris, Princess of Mars,” completing a number of chapters before sending it to the publishers of All-Story Magazine. The magazine’s Editor Thomas Metcalf, was cautiously intrigued by the story and asked that the story be completed; with a proper ending, he would consider it. Burroughs finished the story, and found it quickly accepted for publication.
The story was serialized in February 1912, as Under the Moons of Mars, under the pseudonym Norman Bean. The story followed a Civil War veteran, John Carter, adrift after the war, caught in an amazing adventure on the planet Barsoom (Mars) after fleeing from a group of Native Americans. There, he encountered strange aliens, ancient civilizations, and a lot of action. The Princess of Mars, as the novel was later retitled, appealed to the magazine’s readers with its fast-paced, serialized pseudo-science.
Burroughs was bolstered by the success of his John Carter stories, and immediately finished another: Tarzan of the Apes. After completing the novel in May, he quickly sold it to All Story, which published it in the October 1912 issue. From there, it was almost immediately picked up by New York's Evening World newspaper, which began to serialize the story in 1913. Tarzan's popularity easily outshone John Carter's.
With the first John Carter and Tarzan stories published, Burroughs’ career as an author began with a bang: These two stories would define his career for well into the next century, and both were immediate successes for both author and publisher. He immediately began writing a new John Carter story in 1912, titled The Gods of Mars, with a plot suggestion from his editor, Metcalf, and a new Tarzan story, The Return of Tarzan, in 1913.
Burroughs’ success came down to his enterprising nature, which came out of his first introduction with writing: creating and finishing a story is what brought in a paycheck, and regardless of story quality, entertainment was the key focus. Both The Princess of Mars and Tarzan of the Apes each became franchises in and of themselves, providing their creator with a lasting paycheck. In the years following A Princess of Mars, he wrote three additional novels, The Gods of Mars, The Warlords of Mars and Thuvia: Maid of Mars, each of which saw publication between 1912 and 1916. Seven other adventures followed between 1922 and 1943.
Burroughs’ Tarzan novels were even more popular than his Barsoom series, eventually spawning 26 sequels. In 1918, a film adaptation of Tarzan opened to great success, with a sequel released later that same year. Life was on the upswing: He purchased a ranch house and a large lot in Los Angeles that he called Tarzana. He would later subdivide the property, imposing extreme conditions on the land: non-Caucasians were not permitted to purchase or lease property in Tarzana.
Burroughs didn’t end his writing with his Carter or Tarzan stories: The start of yet another series began with At the Earth’s Core, serialized in 1914 in All Story, beginning the Pellucidar series, in the Hollow Earth tradition of Jules Verne and others. Later, in 1932, the first story of his final series, The Pirates of Venus, centered on the inhabitants of the planet Venus and was serialized in Argosy Magazine. Over the years, he would also publish a number of other novels, such as The Moon Maid, and The Land That Time Forgot. During the same period, he divorced his wife, and married Florence Gilbert Dearholt, adopting her children.
The late 1930s found Burroughs living in Hawaii, where he was increasingly mistrustful of the Japanese population on the island as Second World War began. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 brought the United States into the Second World War, Burroughs became one of the oldest war correspondents. Throughout the war, he found himself between Hawaii and various postings in the South Pacific. Following the war, he returned to California, where he passed away on March 19, 1950.
Burroughs’ major works were well-known throughout the United States, and by 1939, the Saturday Evening Post claimed that Burroughs was “The Greatest Living Writer,” in no small part due to the size of his audience. His fiction was enormously influential to an entire generation of young science fiction fans, but is also an excellent example of a carefully crafted franchise product, one engineered for continued entertainment.
2012 marked a century from Burroughs’ first published works, and saw a renewed interest in his work. An original anthology of short fiction honoring his stories, Under the Moons of Mars: New Adventures on Barsoom, edited by John Joseph Adams was released, and a feature film, John Carter, directed by Andrew Stanton, brought Burroughs’ titular character to life on the silver screen.