What Creative People Can Learn from the Guy Who Invented “Tarzan”

Edgar Rice Burroughs was supposed to be a lifelong failure.

Born in 1875, he flunked out of Phillips Academy, failed examinations to get into West Point and due to a weak heart, was discharged from the army. His brother loaned him some cash to open a stationery store, but his business quickly went bust. From there, he went to work at his dad’s storage battery business, and in 1900, 25-years-old and recently married, he was pulling in a whopping $15 a week. Three years later, one of his other brothers gave him a job at his gold dredging business, but then that company fell apart. Burroughs subsequently shuffled through a series of jobs selling electric light bulbs, candy and Stoddard Lectures. Anything to keep the lights on.

None of these jobs changed his lot in life. Burroughs was, ostensibly, still a loser. “I had decided I was a total failure,” he said. And indeed, he was. That didn’t stop him from trying, though.

Burroughs soon found a company looking to hire an accountant, and not knowing anything at all about accounting, bravely applied for the job and got it. He was lucky that his employer knew even less about accounting than he did, but he didn’t last long as an accountant anyway. He then tried his hand at the mail-order business, landing a job at a company and quickly advancing to the head of his department. Then his wife gave birth to their first child.

With another mouth to feed and the entrepreneurial bug in his veins, he decided to go into business for himself. This was probably among the dumbest decisions Burroughs ever made, because he had no startup money and when it was all said and done, he shuttered the business while deep in the red. Luckily, the mail-order company he’d previously worked at offered him an opportunity to come back, and it was at this point that Edgar Rice Burroughs’ life could have gone in two very different directions.

“I would probably have been fixed for life with a good living salary,” Burroughs said. “[But] occasionally it is better to do the wrong thing than the right.”

With his business gone, and perhaps having erred in declining to return to his old employer, Burroughs now had no job, no money, and also had another mouth to feed — his wife had just given birth their second child. Needing food, he pawned his family’s belongings, applied for any jobs he could find and waited for God to send him a sign that all was not lost. And then, finally, he landed a gig as a lowly sales agent for a pencil sharpener company. It was there, as legend has it, that while other agents were out trying to sell pencil sharpeners, Burroughs finally sat down at a desk and changed his entire life.

“I knew nothing about the technique of story writing,” said Burroughs. “[But] had good reason for thinking I could sell what I wrote.”

So, in 1911, at the age of 35, with years of failure burning him up inside, Burroughs began penning the story that would eventually become A Princess of Mars. Embarrassed that his pursuits would be considered childish— because what sensible 35-year-old man with a family thinks about Mars? — he didn’t tell his wife or friends that he was doing it. He just did it. When he was done, knowing absolutely nothing about publishing, he blindly sent the first 43,000 words to a magazine called The All-Story. To his chagrin, an editor there, Thomas Newell Metcalf, took a liking to the story, and helped him shape it up. Metcalf suggested he add another 30,000 words, effectively making it into a complete novel, and after that, he’d publish it. Burroughs agreed and in February 1912, the first part of A Princess of Mars began being serialized in The All-Story.

Burroughs was paid $400 for the rights to the story. Today, that would yield him, the struggling businessman with a family to feed and nothing but failure on his resume, a grand sum of $9,664.13!

Though this was a decent amount, even back then, it wasn't enough money to drastically alter the direction of things. Burroughs was still working a job that didn’t match his expenses and it wasn’t until he landed another gig, at a business magazine, that the course he was on really started to shift. While employed at that job, which finally earned him a decent wage— certainly enough to maybe relax a bit— he spent his nights not out drinking with buddies or his holidays vacationing in the Caymans, but rather, toiling away in obscurity, shaping the sentences and paragraphs of the novel that would introduce one of the most iconic characters in the history of all popular art— Tarzan of the Apes.

“Tarzan of the Apes” was published as book in 1914.

The rights to the first Tarzan story were initially purchased for $700 and even though he’d gotten more money for it, Burroughs, like most artists, doubted that the yarn was very good at all. He was surprised that it sold. But his popularity as a writer was growing and from then, he would continue to get more and more money for his stories. Still, it wasn’t quite enough, and with no royalties earned from magazine sales, he decided that books were the next logical step.

According to Burroughs, every major book publisher in the country turned down Tarzan of the Apes. For some reason— maybe because Burroughs didn’t have enough Twitter followers or Facebook likes— they didn’t think there was a there there. But a clairvoyant editor at the newspaper The Evening World — the Buzzfeed or VOX of its day saw Burroughs vision and began serializing the story. The serialization lead to other papers doing the same— I think we call that aggregation now, except nobody gets paid for it — and with its popularity among readers at a fever pitch, the publisher A.C. McClurg & Co., which had initially told Burroughs to effectively go fuck himself, came back and asked to publish it as a book.

Tarzan’s popularity proved to be explosive, going on to sell millions of copies and being translated into more languages than human beings are even capable of speaking. Heck, even aliens know who Tarzan is. The books— overtly racist as they are; remember this was the early 1900s— were eventually turned into comics, radio shows, movies and other merchandise. Burroughs, after all his years of failing, had finally found something he was good at. And he was not a dummy in the least— he knew how to turn a nickel into a dime. It’s just that before Tarzan, he’d rarely had a nickel to start with.

A Tarzan comic strip from 1975

Throughout the rest of his life, whether he was looked down upon as a cheap, racist genre fiction writer or not, Burroughs, who was never a critical favorite like an Ernest Hemingway or even a Rudyard Kipling for that matter, would prove that for whatever he lacked in literary ambition, he made up for in being nimble and adept as an executive.

Some of his moves include becoming the first American writer to incorporate himself as a business, retaining licensing control of his characters, and flooding the market with ancillary media products and merchandise when he was explicitly told that doing so would destroy the market for them. If you look now, that is the Hollywood franchise business model at work, but back then it was considered a real risky move.

Further, he went above and beyond simple copyright protections and trademarked Tarzan and his other characters, so that when he was dead and gone and the copyrights to his stories had long-expired, Edgar Rice Boroughs, Inc. would still be raking in the cash. But wait, Edgar Rice Burroughs was also a self-publisher, too. Long before Amazon gave anyone the ability to do it at the click of a button, when frankly, it was hard as fuck to do, he cut out all the middlemen and took to publishing his work all by himself.

He was savvy at other things as well. Look closer and you’ll see that he was something of a real estate visionary. Early in his career, armed with just a little bit of cash from writing, he dropped a lot of his money on a parcel of real estate in California, snapping up 550 acres of land and a ranch that he appropriately-named Tarzana. Eventually, he began subdividing the land for residential purposes, in what was, at the time, supposed to be a planned all-white community. In retrospect, this surely sounds completely insane, but this was the early 1900s and almost all of Southern California back then was being marketed as a place for white, native-born Protestants. And now, well, Tarzana is… Tarzana. But with, thankfully way more diversity and way more celebrities, so that kinda worked out for Burroughs after all.

Why am I telling you this though?

For one, I want you to imagine that there a time in life when a publisher would place nearly $10,000 of value on a fictionalized story from a largely unknown writer. And I want you to consider that there was not just one publisher like this, but many. I know that people once rode horses to work, killed their own food, and occasionally married their cousins. But I’m just saying, wrap your head around the economics of this for a second, because it’s nuts.

I can’t think of any other industry besides writing, maybe because I am a writer, where the value placed on the work has shrunk to the point that it has. Most people who write, no matter how good they are, can’t get paid at all, let alone get paid $10,000. In fact, it’s mind-boggling how small the pool of money, even for good writing, there is these days.

A Tarzan radio serial. Originally broadcast Sept. 12, 1932.

Now, surely some people are still paid well— in fact, comparatively-speaking, I’m paid decently-well, and definitely want more — but most people, presumably, aren’t bringing in $10,000 for a story about… anything. And that was Burroughs’ first story ever! It got him out of poverty.

Not today, though. Today, A Princess of Mars would maybe net Edgar Rice Burroughs $100, if he was lucky. A publisher would probably ignore his emails for months and then after being pestered for the thousandth time, the publisher would write back and tell him, unpublished writer that he was and all, they had no budget and offer to publish it for free.

“You’ll get good exposure,” they’d say. Which is hilarious, because well, try paying your rent with exposure. Edgar Rice Burroughs would have taken on a thousand other jobs to stay afloat, and probably wouldn’t have ever written anything at all. In the process, millions of people who had the opportunity to revel in countless hours of enjoyable, life-affirming entertainment borne from one guy’s creative imagination, would never have gotten the chance to do so.

Now, let’s be clear, Burroughs is not some perfect ideal of creativity. A lot of his writing was not a creative expression but a money play, because back then, obviously, there was a lot of money to be made in writing. But few artists who create for popular audiences aren’t at least partly motivated by money, if not when they start, then at least as their careers progress.

To wit, the rapper 50 Cent’s most celebrated work, and perhaps one of the most historic album’s in the history of the entire hip-hop genre, states its intent right in the title— Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Try getting Leonardo DiCaprio in a movie without any money. Heck, try to get J.K. Rowling to write a new book without an advance! You need money to do this stuff. You just do.

A Disney film based on the character John Carter, from “A Princess of Mars,” was released in 2012. Sadly, it was not executed that well, and not very well-received either.

Another reason why I want to highlight Burroughs’ story is because it shows that you can fail at many things, but eventually, if you land on something that hits, you can use your failures to propel you forward. One could reasonably suggest that watching his brother’s businesses fail, and then his own businesses fail, gave him some sensibility about the level of control he wanted to retain over his creations, what kind of other businesses he wanted to get into, and further, how to be cagey in all of this, so that he didn’t get taken advantage of. Creative people are rarely good at business, so you almost have to fail a lot to know what to do. Burroughs, by the time he was on the precipice of success, probably benefited a lot from thirty-something years of failure.

There’s also, of course, the part about Burroughs engaging in something perceived as childish, something immature, something that all reasonable people would assume is giant waste of time. Here he was in his mid-30s, with a wife and kids, staking his and their future on ridiculous stories about Mars and a guy who was raised by an ape. Some people know what that feels like, hanging on to childish pursuits, in the hopes that they will one day pay off. In the case of Edgar Rice Burroughs, you can see that— well, times were obviously different then— but there’s something to be said for clinging to a dream.

The original “Tarzan of the Apes,” published in All-Story magazine, October 1912.

Finally, there’s one aspect of it that probably won’t get noticed, but should be. And that’s mentorship, education and guidance, which in media and many related creative industries these days, is very difficult to find. It’s practically unheard of.

The fact is, had the editor Thomas Newell Metcalf not reached back out to Burroughs with some suggestions, offering him ways to make his story better and turn it into a more complete idea— remember, he’d only submitted half of A Princess of Mars at first — the story would have never even existed at all, and neither would have Edgar Rice Burroughs.

“Had he not given me this encouragement,” he said, “I would never have finished the story, and my writing career would have been at an end.”

Burroughs was a person who, at that point, had failed at just about everything, and given his history of being a loser, was probably no more than two seconds away from chucking his unfinished manuscript, and his legendary writing career along with it, in the trash.

Luckily, someone saw something there, offered to help, then paid him to keep working at it, and I think buried deep in that very simple gesture, there’s a lot we can all learn.

Edgar Rice Burroughs

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Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.