By Deanna Isaacs
Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan, wrote his first novel in a corset factory on Monroe Street in 1911. Burroughs, a businessman at the nadir of a decade of flamboyant failure, had rented an office in the factory as headquarters for his latest get-rich-quick scheme–door-to-door sales of pencil sharpeners. Waiting there for his fleet of salesmen to report in, he began to scribble a science fiction adventure–the story of a man who spent ten years on Mars–on whatever paper was handy. When it was half done he sent it to the editor of All-Story, a pulp-fiction magazine, who encouraged him to finish it. The pencil sharpener business, like all of Burroughs’s previous ventures, was a flop, but the first installment of the novel was published in the February 1912 issue of All-Story as Under the Moons of Mars. At 36, Burroughs had finally found his niche.
Burroughs was born and raised in Chicago in relative affluence. In 1900 he married Emma Centennia Hulbert, the childhood sweetheart he had met at a public grade school on the city’s west side. For the next three years he worked in his father’s business, the American Battery Company, then joined his brothers in an Idaho gold-dredging venture. When that business went bankrupt he embarked on a series of short-lived jobs, everything from policing railroad yards to peddling lightbulbs to janitors. He worked in the correspondence department of Sears, Roebuck & Company, where he pointed out that cutting four lines from a form letter would save $14,000 a year. This endeared him to management, but he soon left to pursue a new entrepreneurial venture. This time he was going to make a killing by selling a correspondence course on door-to-door salesmanship (written by himself), then letting the students practice by selling the company’s other products–pots and pans. When that project failed he went into another sales-training scheme with a physician looking for a new business after the government took his patent-medicine alcoholism cure off the market. After that flopped Burroughs was reduced to pawning his wife’s jewelry to buy food. When the pencil sharpener scheme also went bust he took one more job–as an advice guru for a national business magazine. Subscribers paid 50 dollars a year to write in as often as necessary for counsel on their business problems; in return, they received written responses from the eminently qualified Burroughs, complete with mysterious graphs and charts. But by that time Burroughs knew his real calling. He got $400 for Under the Moons of Mars (which he intended to publish under the pseudonym Normal Bean; an editorial error made it Norman) and immediately set to work on another novel, an Arthurian adventure suggested by his editor. Tarzan of the Apes was the third novel to flow from his pen.
During these years Burroughs and his growing family lived in one cramped Chicago flat after another, says George McWhorter, curator of the 100,000-item Edgar Rice Burroughs collection at the University of Louisville. In 1910 they rented a house at 821 S. Scoville in Oak Park and lived there for a year before moving in with Emma’s parents. Tarzan was published in 1912 and was an instant hit; by 1914, when the family included three children, Burroughs was able to purchase a five-bedroom home at 414 Augusta in Oak Park, said to have the town’s “best hot water heating plant.” The family subsequently lived in two other Oak Park houses: 700 N. Linden and 325 N. Oak Park. From 1911 on, having finally found a way to make a fortune, Burroughs wrote at a furious pace. During his years in Oak Park alone he published 14 serialized novels, including The Son of Tarzan and The Land That Time Forgot. In 1919, complaining of Chicago’s “simply abominable” weather, he moved his family to California, bought a ranch owned by the founder of the Los Angeles Times, named it Tarzana, and continued to churn out pulp adventures.
Burroughs’s stories and the movies based on them made a lasting impression on a lot of young males. One of them was McWhorter, whose mother taught him to read at age five with the Burroughs books. Another was Palos Park resident Jerry Spannraft, a student at Oak Park High School in the 1950s when he began reading the Burroughs canon. By the 60s Spannraft was combing used bookstores in the Loop, collecting any Burroughs materials he could get his hands on: books, toys, games, action figures. Now he’s on the board of directors of the Burroughs Bibliophiles, a 700-member international fan club. About a quarter of his personal collection is on permanent exhibit in “Tarzan, Mars, and the Fertile Mind of Edgar Rice Burroughs,” at the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest. He and McWhorter will both be present this Friday, the 125th anniversary of Burroughs’s birth, when a plaque will be dedicated on the house at 414 Augusta, followed by a dinner hosted by the Burroughs Bibliophiles and its Chicago chapter, the Normal Beans.
“Burroughs spent nearly ten years in Oak Park,” Spannraft says. “This is where he did some of his most creative and best writing.” Burroughs himself said, “Perhaps the fact that I lived in Chicago and yet hated cities and crowds of people made me write my first Tarzan story….Tarzan was, in a sense, my escape from unpleasant reality.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dorothy Perry.