By John Taliaferro
If there was one guy who could claim to have single-handedly invented pulp fiction it is Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose fictional creations have dominated the daydreams of generations of boys since 1913. John Taliaferro sets out to tell the story of the man behind Tarzan, John Carter, Carson Napier, Davis Innes, and a host of daring heroes in all the remotest places of the Earth and beyond.
Taliaferro balances his view of ERB the man with ERB the writer. But both are weighed against ERB the businessman. Talliaferro notes that ERB’s first book, A Princess of Mars, was written mostly as a release from the boredom of life as an unsuccessful businessman. But ERB was always cognizant that writing was a paying proposition. While ERB was a pretty good businessman for a writer, he was perhaps not a very good businessman overall.
Taliaferro depicts a man that is something of a prisoner of his own success. Having adopted a lifestyle that required a high cash flow ERB was forced to write quickly and stick to characters that would sell. ERB had little time to spend on polishing his work and developing new skills as a writer. When new characters and attempts at new genres didn’t pan out, ERB returned to writing Tarzan to make sales. The result was a body of work that started out as ground-breaking, but ended up by becoming repetitious.
ERB pioneered marketing a character with promotional tie-ins. In way that has become the norm now, the name of Tarzan appeared on toys, clothing, ice-cream, and even gasoline.
Some may find Taliaferro’s literary criticism heavy-handed. If ERB’s series tended to become repetitious, he worked earnestly to create new characters and to broaden his fictional horizons. ERB even dabbled in metafictional conceits such as having Tarzan confront his own movie popularity. Admittedly, Taliaferro chalks this up to an urge to get even with movie-makers that ERB felt hadn’t done justice to his creation. Still, the very notion of a fictional character observing himself translated into film is practically a post-modern novelist’s dream (are your listening Umberto Eco?).
Even more controversial will be Taliaferro on the racist themes and pro-eugenics propaganda that he finds in ERB’s work. While it would be foolish to deny that ERB would have benefited from a more relaxed perspective, readers may wish to make up their own minds on the subject.
Tarzan Forever is probably not the definitive biography of ERB, but its good enough to make its subject come alive and get the pulse pounding at the thought of reading some of those grand old adventure yarns that have held the imagination for decades.