Jonathan Salem Baskin

Writing Rot

Today, a man who wrote died.

Like most great authors of the past few hundred years, Edgar Rice Burroughs knew nothing about being an author. He was an average student through college, then failed his entrance exam to West Point and spent two years as an enlisted soldier in the 7th U.S. Cavalry. Thereafter, he drifted from job to job, including working for his father, got married in 1900, and had three children. It wasn’t until 1911, when he was working for a wholesaler of pencil sharpeners that he found himself with a lot of downtime, which he filled by reading pulp fiction magazines. It gave Burroughs his epiphany: “…if people were paid for writing rot…I could write stories just as rotten,” he’d later explain. He submitted his first story to All-Story Magazine a year later and earned a nice hunk of change for it. He immediately became a full-time writer.

Tarzan of the Apes was published a year later and was so popular that Burroughs would write two dozen sequels, as well as see his characters in at least five movie versions. He also wrote a series of books about an adventurer to Mars named John Carter, adventures to lost islands and the interior of Earth, westerns, and historical romances. Many of his stories first appeared in the fiction magazines that thrived in those days (and paid authors for their work). Burroughs set up a company to self-publish his own books in the early 1930s as well. Tarzana, California is named after the ranch he bought there, and there’s a crater on Mars named in his honor. He died on this day in 1950 after having quit fiction to serve as one of the oldest war correspondents covering WWII.

Writing is a behavior, not a title or job description.