J. Allen St. John Illustration of TarzanAs anyone reading this blog is aware, Avatar has re-energized my affection and appreciation for the great adventure novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan and John Carter of Mars and, according to James Cameron, a principal source of inspiration for Avatar. One thing that Burroughs and Cameron have in common, I think, is a unique and perhaps intuitive ability to grasp the mythic structures that cause their stories to resonate astonishingly across disparate cultures. Cameron owns the global box office championship — the top two spots, actually — and in his day Burroughs held sway as the author whose works were translated into more languages and read by more people than any other author.

Burroughs was resolutely and good-naturedly opposed to acknowledging his work was more than escapist entertainment, and would usually charmingly decline to ascribe literary merit to his efforts.  He even wrote initially under the tongue-in-cheek pseudonym of ‘Normal Bean”.  Yet clearly there was a certain genius to his creation, just as their is genius to Cameron’s work in Avatar even if its “seriousness” is questioned.

While rummaging through Bill Hillman’s extraordinary Burroughs archives at ERBzine.com, I stumbled across a piece written by Burroughs for Writer’s Digest in 1932 at the height of global ‘Tarzan mania’. I found the opening paragraphs good for a chuckle or three, but then as he eventually does get around to addressing his thoughts about Tarzan and what made him a unique worldwide phenomenon, I think he offers some thoughts that are worth pondering in the context of what Cameron and Avatar have achieved on a worldwide basis. So here it is — I commend it to you, both for the witty and self-deprecating opening, and the more thoughtful second half:

By Edgar Rice Burroughs
Writer’s Digest – June 1932

Some one is always taking the joy out of life. For twenty years I proceed blissfully writing stories to keep the wolf from my door, and to cause other people to forget for an hour or two the wolves at their doors, and then up pops the editor of Writer’s Digest and asks me for an article on the Tarzan theme.
Frankly, there ain’t no such animal; or if there is I didn’t know it.

Breathlessly, I flew to Mr. Webster, determined to create a Tarzan theme with his assistance; but I was disappointed in somehow not finding Tarzan in the dictionary. But I did find “theme”. Webster calls it: “A subject or topic on which a person writes or speaks; a proposition for discussion or argument; a text.”

That definition simplified my task, for under this definition the Tarzan theme consists of one word – Tarzan.


This is a helpful solution because it is easy, and right now I am as busy as the w.k. one-armed paper hanger with the hives. I have to write two novels a year in addition to other writing; I am publishing my own books now, two a year, which entails a tremendous amount of detail; then there are seven newspaper strips a week in addition to motion pictures and radio. Being in the real estate business as a side-line adds to my labors, thought not greatly for the past two years, as any realtor will tell you, unless paying taxes comes under the head of labor.

On top of all this, I have recently acquired by foreclosure a championship eighteen-hole golf course at Tarzana, California, which I have partially opened to the public for tournament play.

A few days ago a good-natured columnist commented on my activities in the New York Evening Telegram as follows:

“Edgar Rice Burroughs is marketing his book, Jungle Girl, from his home in Tarzana, California. Mr. Burroughs is the nation’s sixth largest industry, now that steel and railroads are slowing up.”

Had he known about the golf course I think he might have moved me up.

There is, however, one great advantage in all these activities. I have always required a great deal of exercise, but he amount that I must now take is considerably lessened by the fact that all these things, especially the real estate business, make me sweat without any other effort.


Getting back to the theme — “a proposition for discussion or argument,” says Mr. Webster. The Tarzan stories are a means for avoiding discussion or argument, so that definition is out, and there only remains the last, “a text”. As this connotes sermonizing we shall have to hit it on the head, which leaves me nothing at all to write about on the Tarzan theme.

Tarzan does not preach; he has no lesson to impart, no propaganda to disseminate. Yet, perhaps unconsciously, while seeking merely to entertain I have injected something of my own admiration for certain fine human qualities into these stories of the ape-man.

It is difficult and even impossible for me to take these Tarzan stories seriously, and I hope that no one else will ever take them seriously. If they serve any important purpose, it is to take their readers out of the realm of serious things and give them that mental relaxation which I believe to be as necessary as the physical relaxation of sleep — which makes a swell opening for some dyspeptic critic.

Read more: The Tarzan Theme at ERBzine

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