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Edgar Rice Burroughs
    by John Cech

Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of Tarzan of the Apes, was born in Chicago this month in 1875. Burroughs was a classic late-bloomer. He didn't begin writing novels until he was approaching 40, and then only because he had a family to support and he had tried just about everything else -- ranching and gold mining in Idaho, a stint in the 7th Cavalry in Arizona, clerking in a factory, running a stationary store, working as a policeman on a railroad, selling pencil sharpeners.

By 1912, Burroughs was sharpening his own pencils to write "Under the Moons of Mars" for All Story Magazine. He told someone later, "If people were paid for writing rot such as I read [in magazines]. . .[I can] write stories just as rotten . . . . just as entertaining and probably a lot more so than any I chanced to read in those magazines."

That's just what he did. The same year his imagination took him to Mars, it also transported him to the coast of Africa, the setting for Tarzan, one of the most entertaining stories in American popular fiction. Burroughs was off and running and quickly became one of our country's most successful writers. By 1918, the first of the many Tarzan movies appeared, and Burroughs had written two sequels in the Tarzan saga. In all, he would write 25 novels about the lord of the jungle, and another seven books that took place in a land located at the center of the earth -- the Pellucidar series, plus eleven sci-fi novels set on Mars, and dozens of other works. Burrroughs even did a tour as a war correspondent during World War II, before his death from a heart attack in 1950 while he was reading the Sunday funnies, which probably contained a Tarzan comic strip.

Over the years, Tarzan has remained an active figure (and sometimes an action figure) in the popular imagination and its seemingly endless stream of entertainment products. So much so that one is forced to wonder why the Tarzan story continues to be so popular. The critics can't decide if it's a reminder of our dark, primordial roots or a victory of civilization (and Tarzan's noble genes) over brute, inferior nature. But maybe it all comes down to that call, made famous by Johnny Weismuller in 1932, and whatever universal desires it expresses. Maybe it's simply a basic declaration of what it takes to get through the jungle out there, and to do it with real style.

Remember how it goes? Just grab a vine, kick back, and...

Brief Sound Clip:

Copyright 2005 John Cech

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."