Today is Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ birthday (born 1875).
As Hollywood via Disney reminded us this spring, Tarzan’s creator also created a certain Martian warlord, John Carter, and reacquainted some of us with the warrior’s exploits, and maybe a new generation to Burroughs’ characters and fiction with the release of John Carter, an entertaining, action-packed and visually stimulating—especially if you saw it in 3D—movie that was, however, panned by some critics as “. . . bloated, dreary and humorless” (USA Today).
Those critics are themselves probably bloated, dreary and humorless. And likely never cared for Burroughs and his fertile imagination in the first place. Or if they did at one time care, have obviously lost that sense of wonder and adventure.
As far as the movie goes, Roger Ebert—as usual—best understands it, its genre and the expectations it should have fulfilled as a movie based on classic pulp SF, as he writes in his review of the film:
Does John Carter get the job done for the weekend action audience? Yes, I suppose it does. The massive city on legs that stomps across the landscape is well-done. The Tharks are ingenious, although I’m not sure why they need tusks. Lynn Collins makes a terrific heroine. And I enjoyed the story outside the story, about how Burroughs wrote a journal about what he saw and appears briefly as character. He may even turn up in sequels. After all, he wrote some.
And for those of you unfamiliar with the John Carter storyline, here’s Ebert again to summarize it:
Burroughs’ hero is a Civil War veteran who finds himself in the Monument Valley, where he has an encounter that transports him to the red planet Mars. This is not the Mars that NASA’s Rovers are poking into, but the Mars envisioned at the time Burroughs was writing, which the astronomer Percival Lowell claimed was criss-crossed by a system of canals. Luckily for Carter, it has an atmosphere that he can breathe and surface temperatures allowing him do without a shirt.
Maybe one day I’ll tackle the merits of John Carter (the movie), but today’s post is simply to share some tidbits about Burroughs, the writer: He and his family, for instance, in 1914 moved to Oak Park, Ill., where Ernest Hemingway, a teenager at the time the Burroughs’ family arrived, was born and raised. Hemingway may have out of curiosity, Hemingway biographer Kenneth S. Lynn writes, “familiarized himself with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels . . . .” though the Hemingway family, mother Grace in particular, were Anglophiles who packed the bookshelves with Dickens, Shakespeare and the rest of the literary crew from across the Pond.
(I like to think Hemingway read Burroughs; he was a voracious reader, and how could Tarzan or any other of Burroughs’ heroes not appeal to Hemingway’s sense of budding masculinity? Then again, Hemingway dismissed fantasy and science fiction as genres; of course he dismissed most writers as terrible at one point or another in his lifetime no matter how good or bad.)
Another aside: Frank Lloyd Wright also moved to, lived and worked in Oak Park ( a suburb of Chicago) around the time Hemingway was born (July 21, 1899). What an intellectually stimulating neighborhood that must have been!
Now back to Burroughs. Martian princess Dejah Thoris was his first successful character—he had written earlier stories—created in 1911. The princess, Burroughs’ official website says, attracted the attention of All-Story magazine editor Thomas Metcalf, who “liked the tale and offered Burroughs $400, an extravagant sum. The story, renamed ‘Under the Moons of Mars,’ was serialized from February to July of 1912.”
Burroughs’ most famous creation, Tarzan of the Apes, swung into action in 1912. According to the website:
Burroughs received $700 for the tale — and his career was off and running. Burroughs quickly discovered (probably to his secret delight, and certainly to the delight of countless readers) that he had many more tales to tell. There would be the inevitable Tarzan and Mars sequels but Burroughs’ imagination needed even more worlds in which to roam, and so in the next few years he would try his hand at almost every type of story imaginable.
Burroughs died March 19, 1950 in Encino, Calif.
*Editor’s note: If you’re out and about this weekend, and because you hopefully have a long three-day weekend (you slackers), maybe you can also celebrate the beginning of National Literacy Month by reading Burroughs.