Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Early Married Years

November 18, 2007

Edgar Rice Burroughs:

The Early Married Years


R.E. Prindle


First published in Burroughs Bulletin

#60 Fall 2004

Why am I stumbling down the highway

When I should be rolling ‘cross the skyway?

– Donovan

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

-Edgar Rice Burroughs



     The marriage to Emma on January 31, 1900 was the definite turning point in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ life.  He wasn’t ready for marriage and he didn’t want it.  Up to this point his life had had no direction; it was leading nowhere, the guy was just drifting.  ERB had no clear cut goals and if had had one he had no plan in place to attain it.

     Beyond a vague interest in art and literature he had no career ideas.  Judging from the evidence between his brief and unsatisfactory stint at the Chicago Art Institue at which he refused to subject himself to discipline and the commencement of his literary career, his mind was always tending or drifting to some such end.  However at the beginning of 1900, with a new wife and the attendant responsibilites he had to find some way to end his rough and rowdy ways and succeed in business, to make his pile before he was thirty.

     Striking it rich before he was thirty was important to him.  That desire may have influenced him to head West in 1903 to join his brothers in their gold dredging business.  Perhaps he thought he might get in on a major find.  Finding a pile of gold or precious stones would be a dominating theme in his Tarzan novels.  Tarzan was an extension of his primary personality facet.

     But now, as his own life entered the second phase, the country was entering the second of the three distinct phases it would embrace during Burroughs’ lifetime.  The first phase we have already covered in depicting Burroughs’ first twenty-five years.  The transition from Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone and the Wild Frontier to modern industrial America was completed in such a bewilderingly rapid manner that one wonders that anyone kept his sanity.  The world you lived in today was literally gone tomorrow.

     The life of George T. Burroughs spanned this transition from conestoga wagons to the Model T.  From the invention of the telegraph and Morse Code to the long distance  telephone lines with a phone in the living room.  From Virgin forests and unbroken sod to cutover wastelands and McCormickReapers cutting over immense fields of golden wheat.

     The world of Fennimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo in the The Prairie had disappeared almost before it was seen.  there was barely time to write about it.  Right behind Bumppo the skyscrapers of Chicago were thrust into the air while the conflict between the White City and the Black City erupted into industrial warfare.  Out of the smoke and flames of burning railway carriages the twentieth century was born.

     The streamlined Twentieth Century Limited took the place of purpose built looking locomotives.  the might ten-wheel drive ushered in the new era.  My god, it takes your breath away just to think about it!  What had happened almost wasn’t even a beginning it was just a foretaste of things to come.

     One wonders how it affected Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Perhaps it was happening too fast to register on the conscious mind.  I don’t know if anyone alive has ingested and digested the changes since the great convulsion of 1789.  God knows I have tried and failed miserably, as this pitiful effort shows, yet I do honestly believe that I have succeeded better than a very few.

     Perhaps in his way Edgar Rice Burroughs made the attempt with his Martian chronicles representing science and the future, with the Tarzan novels dealing with his contemporary life, while the Pellucidar series may possible have represented the unspoiled vistas of primordial Cooperesque America.  It’s not an unattractive notion, but I don’t know how true it might be.

     By 1900 America was ‘won’.  Won and lost.  Many plunged fearlessly into the furture while others dragged their feet trying to reclaim that which, while it could still be seen, was no longer there.  The Vanished Frontier had a profound effect on American life.  It spawned a whole new class of men or at least defined their manifestation.  They were men and a way of life which had a profound effect on the mind of Burroughs.  While he would never join them, he fantasized the life and if one looks closely wrote a great deal about them.  These men were the hoboes, tramps and bums, the inveterate roamers who made Chicago the main stem of their transient empire.

     In Chicago their main stem or gathering place was on Madison Avenue, the street on which the battery factory was located.  Young Burroughs must have marveled at the phenomenon every spring as the hoboes cleared out of Chicago to spread over the mid-west to help in the sowing and harvesting of the great crops of grain.  Every fall they poured out of the boxcars to return to winter in the Windy City.

     All they needed was a stake of thirty dollars to get them through the whole winter.  Thirty dollars for six months!  That’s all it took in those days.  When one hears ERB plead poverty when he was earning two thousand or more a year one wonders whether his claims were real or only answered a psychological need.

     Nor were these mere down-and-out men as they are pictured in the imagination.  As Robert Service was to picture them, these were ‘The Men Who Don’t Fit In’; men who made an ideology of their roaming which was given political form and organization beginning in the first decade of the twentieth century.  As Burroughs identified with hoboes as an aspect of his Animus or personality given him by his encounter with John the Bully, I would like to take some space to describe the Hobo phenomenon.

     Hoboes are perhaps the most amazing and unique of historical phenomena.  They were born of the railroad and are inseparable from it.  As we all know, the Golden Spike uniting the East and West coasts was driven on Promontory Point in Utah immediately after the end of the Civil War.  The line was audaciously laid through unconquered Indian territory and buffalo wallows.  We all remember movie scenes of Indians attacking the Iron Horse with bows and arrows and ‘hunters’ shooting buffalo from train cars dragged behind locomotives belching smoke and flames.

     Before the Civil War trains were an innovation in world history arriving in America only in the mid-1830s.  After the War Between The States, rail lines proliferated with amazing speed so that by the time of ERB and Emma’s wedding there were literally hundreds of thousands of miles of rail lines crisscrossing the country from North to South and East to West.  Passenger trains which are not particularly well suited for hoboing formed a very small percentage of trains, while freight trains formed the bulk of the cars.  Box cars were deadheaded or shuttled back and forth empty, no freight.  These were the preferred hobo mode of conveyance; they were dry, out of the weather and comparatively warm and comfortable.

     Like any other war, the Civil War produced a legion or two of men whose nerves had been so disorganized by the excitement of war that they found it difficult to reintegrate themselves into society.  Many of them took to working on the railroads, building the lines here and there.  Tansportation was provided by boxcar so, I suppose, they got used to riding in boxcars.

     As the lines spread and proliferated, it became possible to just hop a train and ride.  As the hobo songwriter Jimmie Rodgers put it:

When a woman gets the blues

She hangs her little head and cries;

When a woman gets the blues

She hangs her little head and cries;

When a man get the blues

He hops a train and rides.

Before the Civil War that wasn’t possible.

     Thus, as time passed and the first generation of hoboes left the road, anyone who was restless, adventurous, didn’t want to work or just didn’t fit in could take to a life of roaming.  The roaming life was a romantic ideal that had its charms.

     Not unsurprisingly a body of literature developed espousing the ideals that motivated hoboing.  These took the forms of songs and poems, all narratives are suspect, the Hobo mind falling to rhyme.  Large amounts of the literature are anonymous probably growing to fruition around campfires in the hobo jungles as their gathering sites were known.  Hence the line from the song ‘Wabash Cannoball’:  You’re riding through the jungles on the Wabash Cannonball.

     However there were also poets who composed for their audience.  The Wobbly Joe Hill wrote one of the most famous songs:  ‘Hallelujah, I’m A Bum.’  Perhaps the currently most famous of the Hobo poets is Woody Guthrie.  His Grand Coulee Dam and Roll On Columbia are noteworthy songs for any genre.  One of his songs which has become an anthem for the disaffected only makes real sense when it is placed in the context of hobo ideology.  That was:

This land is your land,

This land is my land,

From California,

To the New York Island.

     Guthrie means that this land is the true possession of the wandering hobo and not businessmen or straights like you and me.

      For a thumbnail sketch of the Hobo of Burroughs’ time and his ideals, let’s read a song which has retained some currency down to this day.  There are apparently innumerable verses and variations on verses that were concocted around the jungle fires but his is the recension printed in The Oxford Book of American Verse (Oxford University Press, 1927)  It’s probably cleaned up a little for academic tastes but it still has a nice breezy quality.

The Big Rock Candy Mountain


On a summer day in the month of May,

A burly little bum come a hikin’,

He was travelin’ down that lonesome road.

A lookin’ for his likin’.

He was headed for a land that’s far away,

Beside those crystal fountains,

I’ll see you all, this comin’ fall

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.


In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

You never change your socks,

And the little streams of alkyhol

Come a tricklin’ down the rocks.

Where the shacks all have to tip their hats,

And the railroad bulls are blind.

There’s a lake of stew, and whiskey too,

And you can paddle all around ’em

In your big canoe,

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

Chorus:  O…the buzzin’ of the bees

In the cigarette trees,

Round the soda water fountains,

Next to the lemonade springs,

Where the wangdoodle sings

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.


In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,

There’s a land that fair and bright

Where the handouts grow on bushes,

And you sleep out every night,

Where the boxcars all are empty

And the sun shines every day,

O I’m bound to go where there ain’t no snow,

Where the rain don’t fall and the wind don’t blow,

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.



In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,

The jails are made of tin,

And you can bust right out again

As soon as you get in.

The farmers trees are full of fruit,

The barns are full of hay,

I’m going to stay where you sleep all day,

Where they boiled in oil the inventory of toil,

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains. (Chorus)

     Now there’s a utopia in a parallel universe worthy of the pen of H.G. Wells.

     The poem does not refer to the dreams of a defeated man but rather a defiant one, one who has rejected the motivations of the ordinary man who does work for a living.  This man is going to pluck the labor of other men for his own benefit- the farmers trees are full of fruit- while using another’s toil for his own benefit- the barns are full of hay.  the Hobo is going to a place where they ‘boiled in oil the man who invented toil.’  The Hobo won’t work.

      In another poem he says:  ‘I could be a banker if I wanted to be.  But the thought of an iron cage is too suggestive to me.  Now, I could be a broker without the slightest excuse.  But look at 1929 and tell me what’s the use.’

     As can be seen, the Hobo equates himself with the executive class but to reach his true position in society he would have to apply himself or ‘toil’ against which alternative he adamantly sets his face.

     He would rather lament a fate that has inexplicably denied him his birthright, his true place in society.

     As another of the great hobo songwriters, Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933) put it in his ‘Hobo’s Meditation’.

Tonight as I lay on the boxcar

Just waiting for a train to pass by,

What will become of the hobo

When their time comes to die.

Has the Master up there in heaven

Got a place we might call a home

Will we have to work for a living

Or can we continue to roam?

Will there be any freight trains in heaven

Any boxcars in which we might hide

Will there be any tough cops or brakemen

Will they tell us that we cannot ride?

Will the hobo chum with the rich man

Will he always have money to spare

Will they have respect for a hobo

In the land that is hidden up there?


     The ‘land that is hidden up there’ is the same as the Big Rock Candy Mountain where the rich man will admit the hobo to equality and respect, by which the hobo means supremacy.  For make no mistake, the hobo as H.H. Knibbs indicates has the true vision of life:

We are the true nobility!

Sons of rest and the outdoor air!

Knights of the tie and rail are we,

Lightly wandering everywhere.

Having no gold we have no care,

As over the crust of world we go,

Stepping in time to this ditty rare:

Take up your bundle and beat it, ‘Bo.

     That’s almost a political agenda to match the ideology.  Knibbs say in his ‘The Grand Old Privilege.:

Folks say we got no morals- that they all fell in the soup,

And no conscience- so the would-be goodies say.

And perhaps our good intentions did just up and flew the coop,

While we stood around and watched them fade away.

But there’s one thing that we’re loving more than money, grub or booze,

Or even the decent folks that speaks us fair,

And that’s the grand old privilege and chuck our luck and choose

Any road at any time anywhere.

Well, that’s a fine impatience with any state of affairs.

So it’s best ‘Bo, while your feet are mates;

Take a look at the whole United States.

Oh the fire and a pal and a smoke at night,

And up again in the morning bright,

With nothing but road and sky in sight!

And nothing to do but go.

     I love the sound of it myself, but if you look behind the glitter of Knibbs you’ll see a man with alternatives talking.  Knibbs is kind of your Fifth Avenue penthouse hobo talking.  Henry Herbert Knibbs (1874-1945), who had such a profound effect on Edgar Rice Burroughs, was a year older while dying a few years earlier.

     He came from a well-to-do family where he developed a feeling of romance for cowboys and bums back East, although he never really belonged to either.  He may even have chosen the road for a couple years experience, for something to write about, as he intended to write being an English major in college.  He certainly became prosperous enough writing for the slicks like The Saturday Evening Post, The American and even breaking into H.L. Mencken’s Smart Set, none of which his chum Edgar Rice Burroughs could ever break into.

     Yes, so it’s up ‘Bo for a trip from Barstow to old Berdoo and back to LA for a hot bath and bottle of scotch.  That’s my kind of life on the road.

     Ta, ta, I’m getting away from myself.

     Knibbs and Rodgers and Guthrie actually came after the peak of the phenomenon which was ending by 1903 when the ‘Boes and Tramps and Bums were organizing into their supreme effort to create the Big Rock Candy Mountain right here on earth; when they made their supreme attempt to snatch supremacy from those snooty executives who wouldn’t chum with them; yes, damn them, we’ll combine in the I.W.W. and then we’ll see.

For, don’t you see, the West is dead.

What path is left for you to tread

When hunger wolves are slinking near

Do you not know the West is dead?

 The ‘blanket stiff’ now packs his bed

Along the trail of yesteryear

What path is left for you to tread?

Your fathers gold sunsets led

To virgin prairies wide and clear

Do you not know the West is dead?

Now dismal cities rise instead

And freedom is not there nor here

What path is left for you to tread?

Your father’s world, for which they bled,

Is fenced and settled far and near

Do you not know the West is dead?

Your fathers gained a crust of bread

Their bones bleach on the lost frontier,

What path is left for you to tread

Do you not know the West is dead?

Anon. As quoted by Ralph Chaplin (1887-1961) in his autobiography ,  Wobbly: The Rough And Tumble Story Of An American Radical  (University of Chicago Press, 1948)

     So that was the problem the bindle stiffs faced, it was work or die, no place to move on to, and which they began to attempt to resolve.  Burroughs was stuck in the middle, he couldn’t become a bum which he romantically would have liked nor could he realistically aspire to a seat on the board.  Nature’s gold was all taken so he could only aspire to the gold in his mind.

     While he might have yearned to be the hobo Bridge of his ‘Out There Somewhere; when he married, he had to abandon that hope, although nearly twenty years later he wrote ‘Tarzan The Untamed’ which can be read as ‘Burroughs the Untamed’.  He still yearned after his rough and rowdy ways.

The End.

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