Musings on Collecting and Reading ERB

Omnibus editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs
A Princess of Mars, 1912As some readers here know, I’ve been a lifelong aficionado of Edgar Rice Burroughs (ERB, born 1875), particularly of his Barsoom (Mars) series, but also his Pellucidar and Caspak series. Well, I’ve enjoyed pretty much all of them, including, of course, the iconic Tarzan novels for which he is best known. Okay, maybe not so much his westerns (but then, I was never a fan of that genre).

Burroughs wrote about 100 titles (and more information on them is here) between 1912 and his death in 1950. And I have most of them in my collection (and continue to look for more in used-book stores). Yes, I am sometimes obsessive about books and re-read my favourites as often as possible, given my other reading. Surprisingly, many of his tales stand up well in multiple readings, although I find it better not to read too many in a series in a row because the similar plots tend to blur.

I recently spent an afternoon on the computer making a spreadsheet checklist from online bibliographies to list all of ERB’s published works (and reading many pages about those books). I took the printed form to my bookshelves and checked off all the ERB titles in my collection (and to see which I still have to collect). Did I mention that I can be obsessive? Actually, it gave me an opportunity to re-acquaint myself with many of the titles and to determine which I might like to read next (after I finish the two omnibus editions, pictured above).*

Tarzan of the Apes, 1914His scifi-fantasy series have always held a special place in my heart, because — as I’ve written before — after I first read the first Tarzan novel (of 27 or so in the canon) around age 10 or 11, I read A Princess of Mars, Burroughs’ first Barsoom novel (of 11), originally published in 1912. It was first serialized in an adventure story magazine, originally titled Under the Moons of Mars; that same year he also wrote and got published the first of his Tarzan novels, also serialized in the same magazine. That first Barsoom novel did not see publication in book form until 1917, while the first Tarzan book saw print much sooner, in 1914.

And, by the way, the term “science fiction” wasn’t around when Burroughs started writing. It first appeared in 1926 as “scientifiction” and eventually worked its way into the abbreviation scifi by 1955. But there’s little science in the Barsoom series: it’s mostly swords-and-sorcery fantasy set on an alien planet. His Amtor (Venus) and Pellucidar (hollow earth) series had similar themes. The Caspak (Caprona Island) series was a modern adventure, more along the lines of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World (I re-read Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales, too).

Tarzan… well, Tarzan is a whole other topic to post about sometime in the future; a journey from noble savage to dinosaur fighter in Pellucidar, to Roman gladiator to war hero in WWII, to …ripping stuff, though. Like Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan’s character grew larger outside the confines of his first story (or stories) in large part thanks to appearances in film and, later, TV, but also as Burroughs re-imagined and refined the ape-man in later novels to keep pace with current events.

The next two books in the Barsoom series — The Gods of Mars, and The Warlord of Mars, both published in 1913 — form a larger, coherent epic with A Princess of Mars. After them, the novels bring in new main characters, including the next generation, while John Carter, the protagonist in the first three, generally takes a back seat in the action until he returns to the forefront in the eighth book (Swords of Mars).

I was reading other adult scifi around that time, too, before my twelfth birthday. My mother was in hospital following her stroke. After school, my brother and I went to the local library branch and waited for my father to collect us when he finished work. During those hours, I explored the shelves outside the proscribed kids’ section and discovered all sorts of interesting books to read, including many scifi and fantasy novels. Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Andre Norton, Fritz Leiber… I can still remember some of their names and books. I read as many as I could, then. I am indebted to the librarians who let me borrow them at such a young age.

It was a happy coincidence for me that, from the early 1960s as I went through my teens, publishers (both Ace and Ballantine Books) started re-releasing most of Burroughs’ novels in paperback form. I spent much of my allowance and whatever I made from working at local jobs on them (at the same time, Doc Savage novels were being re-released by Bantam Books and I eagerly collected and read them, too; and I’ve re-read a few of them since, too).

I’ve continued to collect and read and re-read Burroughs’ books ever since that first contact. Often I read them to escape from the more serious material I read, especially books about history and contemporary politics. It’s also a pleasant escape from the toxic anger and angst that stains much of social media. Sometimes you just want to get away from it all, and what better place then in a book?

And, based on my own experience, I think children should be exposed to Burroughs’ writing at an early age. As I was. True, I believe children should be allowed to read as much adult material as possible as soon as they can, but Burroughs is special for me.

In part, it’s because I think children can appreciate adult literary works better than many parents think they can. And kids can dream more when they read books. I am always bemused when I read the sniffled disapprovals from the uber-protectionist Puritans about such literature. On one such site, I read this tut-tutting description of Tarzan of the Apes:

Parents need to know that Tarzan of the Apes, the 1912 book by Edgar Rice Burroughs that launched a pop-cultural empire, is a thrilling page-turner with a minefield on nearly every one of its 400 pages. Murder and mayhem abound, as humans and animals kill each other, as well as members of their own species, with gusto. And there are cannibals. Tarzan himself is fond of snaring members of a jungle tribe with a noose, strangling them, and dropping their bodies from treetops; vengeful soldiers wipe out a village; seafaring scalawags hack and bludgeon one another to death. There are also plentiful, outmoded stereotypes, especially regarding gender roles and race. There’s more innuendo about primeval behavior than actual lurid detail in the Tarzan-Jane romance, which involves numerous rescues but only one scene of intense kissing (it ends quickly and leads to much internal conflict).

Ooooh! Scary! Apparently, these guardians of public morality believe kids can’t handle innuendo, seafaring scalawags, cannibals, and “intense kissing.” Have to protect the little darlings… tsk, tsk, tsk. It’s almost as naughty as Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang. As Robert Preston sang in The Music Man:

Mothers of River City!
Heed the warning before it’s too late!
Watch for the tell-tale sign of corruption!
The moment your son leaves the house,
Does he rebuckle his knickerbockers below the knee?
Is there a nicotine stain on his index finger?
A dime novel hidden in the corn crib?
Is he starting to memorize jokes from Capt. Billy’s Whiz Bang?
Are certain words creeping into his conversation?
Words like ‘swell?”
And ‘so’s your old man?”
Well, if so my friends,
Ya got trouble,
Right here in River city!

I can’t begin to imagine how this group would review something like Game of Thrones or any of the popular young-adult novels about werewolves and vampires. Young readers of such novels are in danger of rebuckling their knickerbockers below the knee while muttering “swell” under their breath. Must send some of these censorial reviewers into fits of righteous indignation. But I digress.

In part, I think kids should read scifi (and Burroughs) because I believe most scifi is optimistic literature and can impart a positive view of the world, as well as provide a welcome vision of our potential future they may want to help bring about. Reading, of course, strengthens the brain and exercises the imagination in ways watching TV or movies cannot.**

And in part, because like many of his contemporary early scifi and fantasy authors, Burroughs’ sense of honour, his values and ethics that emerge from his books are not unworthy of emulation. In all of his books a plucky, determined individual fights and rises above adversity, sort of like Horatio Alger’s tales, usually winning the girl (and sometimes the throne) in the process. His protagonists are generally self-sufficient, confident, and not easily broken by their travails. It’s not a bad message to impart.

Many of Burroughs’ works comfortably fit the description of “swashbuckler” tales; they are the descendants of classic tales of chivalry, quests, and courtly love, but with swords and pirates, guns and apes, monsters and Tharks, and so on. They have an Arthurian ring to them.

Yes, they may seem rather patriarchal and sometimes racist tales, today (considering their age, that’s hardly surprising), but a lot of previous literature can be accused of being less than politically correct by today’s standards. Historical context has to be considered. Burroughs has an old-fashioned charm, not unlike Dumas, Orczy, or his contemporary, Rafael Sabatini. Their stories are always full of romance, excitement and adventure.***

Sure, his “science” seems at times a bit wacky and curious when measured by today’s discoveries and technologies, but keep in mind that he began writing more than a century ago when powered flight was still a new technology. It’s no more unbelievable than Harry Potter’s or Gandalf’s magic. Suspension of belief goes hand-in-hand with reading fantasy novels. I am still haunted by his descriptions of abandoned cities on the edge of former oceans on Mars.

Burroughs — born a mere decade after the US Civil War — grew up before homes had electricity; before there were cars, airplanes, buses, telephones, panini presses, ukuleles, radio, TV, CDs and DVDs, espresso machines, lasers, jazz, microwave ovens, lawn mowers, electric guitars, digital watches, space shuttles, and long, long, long before the internet. Almost everything we take for granted in our lives was developed during his lifetime. Even the now-ubiquitous public library wasn’t a common sight yet (Andrew Carnegie didn’t start building his Carnegie libraries in the United States until 1883; funding the construction of almost 1,700 until 1930; comprising half of all the public libraries in the USA).

When Edgar was a boy, most people walked everywhere; richer folk would have horses and carriages. Between cities, one could take a coal-fired train or a stagecoach. Wood or coal heated the home and your kitchen’s oven. Edison didn’t invent his first light bulb until five years after Edgar was born. Those cities with street lighting were lit by gas. It wasn’t until the dawn of the 20th century that cities began to get electricity. Burroughs actually served in the US Cavalry in his twenties, patrolling on horseback what was then “Indian territory.” Yet from these humble beginnings, he imagined civilizations on other worlds or deep within the Earth.

Burroughs began writing before WWI, and was published in the same year the Titanic sank (1912; less than a decade after the Wright brothers made their first flight). His era was a time when royalty and monarchies ruled many nations, when much of the world was still unexplored by westerners and thus considered mysterious and savage, and it was possible to believe that deep in the far reaches of the ocean one could find a “lost” island or in the jungles a forgotten city. There was still a sense of wonder about the world.

Burroughs, like my grandparents, lived through two world wars. During their lives, the world changed radically, violently, and sometimes magically (like when radio arrived). Although Burroughs knew of the first rockets used in WWII, he didn’t live long enough to see the space race or the first astronauts, but (like H.G. Wells) he imagined them long before then. Looking at the pictures beamed back from the dead planet Mars today doesn’t dim my imagined view of Barsoom and its people.

Burroughs had a big vision; each of his worlds is a deeply, richly populated place where the reader can happily get lost in. Kids, not fettered by the rigid vertebrae of adult skepticism, conservatism, or ideological concepts of political correctness, can dive into his fantastic worlds.

And, too, so can a lot of adults. Barsoom is a terrific place to lose yourself in; so are Caspak and Pellucidar, as long as you still have that capacity to suspend belief a bit. If you haven’t ever read him, I recommend you give Burroughs a try. You may be pleasantly surprised at how addictive he can be.

~~~~~

* I have in my collection 60 of his novels in print (plus a few duplicates) many dating from the mid-1960s; 16 more on Kindle (ebooks) and 22 stories and novellas that were published separately but included in single-volume print or Kindle editions. I am missing eight books and a screenplay.  See here for the full list and see here for a list by series. If you want the spreadsheet (Excel) itself, leave me a message.

** I believe scifi (not the sub-genres of dystopian or apocalyptic literature) is generally optimistic for three main reasons:

  1. It posits a future where humans have survived and prospered (compared to the dark predictions of our apocalyptic demise through war, pandemic, or climate destruction);
  2. Humans rule technology in the future; not the other way around (the latter seems far more likely, given our current addiction to mobile devices and social media);
  3. Humans treat aliens (and aliens treat humans) better than humans treat one another today.

Exposing children to scifi is thus exposing them to a belief in a better future. Science fiction matters.

*** If you liked reading The Princess Bride, then many of Burroughs’ novels should entertain you, albeit without the humour and wit Goldman gave to his characters.

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  1. Pingback: A Brief Reveiw of Two ERB Books – Scripturient

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