Pt. 3: Four Crucial Years In The Life Of Edgar Rice Burroughs

May 27, 2010


Four Crucial Years

In The Life Of Edgar Rice Burroughs

Part 3 of 4


R.E. Prindle


     There was a tremendous rush of events at this time which would shape the future of not only ERB but of the Burroughs Boys.

     The signficance of the first of these would have passed unrecognized by any of the Burroughs.  This was the election of Frank Steunenberg as the govener of Idaho in 1896.  Steunenberg brought the Burroughs Boys into an association with his name when he appointed them representatives at a mining conference.  The boys were thus connected with the anti-Western Federation Of Miners forces.

     In 1899 in Coeur D’ Alene up near the Canadian border a terrific showdown occurred between the mineowners and the WFM.  This is an exciting story.  For details see the autobiography of Big Bill Haywood, ‘Big Bill’s Book’, Clarence Darrow’s autobiography and Charlie Siringo’s autobiography, ‘A Cowboy Detective’.  Very rewarding books, especially Charlie Siringo’s.

     Steunenberg called in the Army to crush the union thereby incurring their hatred.  On December 30, 1905 as returned home from Office he opened his mailbox and disappeared into thin air from the bomb blast.

     There is yet no conclusive proof that the Burroughs Boys found it expedient to vacate Idaho for fear of the WFM but at any rate they chose to leave.

     ERB formed a distaste for Big Bill and for the IWW which Bill headed after leaving the WFM as a result of the bombing.  ERB never gives up lambasting the IWW.  The character of the Sky Pilot in the ‘The Oakdale Affair’ is undoubtedly based on Haywood.

     The second of these events was the really stupendous story of the discovery of gold in the Klondike in July 1897.  By the beginning of 1898 a hundred thousand or so prospectors including Jack London set off the fabled Big Rock Candy Mountain in the Yukon.  This last of the great gold rushes probably fired the imaginations of the Boys who were having a very difficult time of making their cattle ranch go.  They would shortly abandon ranching, building a mammoth dredging raft to sift the bottom of the Snake River for any spare flakes and nuggets.

     What effect this had on the mind of ERB is difficult to assess although the Tarzan novels are filled with episodes of found gold and diamonds.  Most notably Tarzan uses the gold of Opar as his personal bank.  He perhaps found his brother’s seach for gold curious.  He didn’t seem to catch the fever at the time.

     On top of these two items the Maine was sunk in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898.  The legendary newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst had been beating the drums for war and now got it.  The sinking of the Maine may have been the spur that caused ERB to petition Capt. Smith for an appointment.  The Spanish American War agitated his military ambitions as he tried to get that elusive officer’s appointment.

     As he left home again in 1898 ERB was 22 soon to be 23.  Time was passing.  He was no longer a boy but having been coddled as a youngest son and brother he was having difficulty making the transition to a responsible young man.  Not unusual, but true.  He was in that difficult learning period of 21-25 when great demands are made on one’s developing maturity.  Somehow when one turns twenty-five one had better have learned enough to make it from there.  How well I remember crossing that bar from youth to maturity.  What a kick in the pants it was.  Don’t know how I made it or, perhaps, if I have.

     Unfortunately for ERB any maturity he was to experience was well in the future.  Perhaps he never really made the transition.  He had no money of his own.  He would have had to ask his dad for fare and traveling money.  He was used to being supported, just asking for the money he needed.  We will now come on several examples.

      Young ERB was one light headed son-of-a-gun.  His route took him through Denver.  There he met an Army buddy from Fort Grant who had been a member of his Might Have Seen Better Days Club.

      This was apparently a joyous reunion as the two got roaring drunk, hired a brass band then marching behind it paraded through the streets of Denver.  Always seemingly conversant with the seamy side of town he and his friend blew whatever money they had remaining  in a gambling dive.  Now broke, he blithely  wired his brothers in Idaho asking for more money to continue his journey.  As he already had his ticket this fifty dollars represented the equivalent of an easy five hundred today, perhaps a thousand.  It was pocket money to him.

     What effect this stunt had on his family’s evaluation of him is open to conjecture.  ERB was no longer a kid; he ought to have been showing some sober responsibility.  I’m sure the story reached Chicago where possibly the Hulberts heard of it thanking their lucky stars the ne’er do well had checked out of their daughter’s life leaving the way clear for Frank Martin.  Wishful thinking.

     I don’t think ERB gave it another thought, probably laughingly telling his brothers about it while I am sure they looked at him with puzzled astonishment.

     As Porges notes they had little use for him on the ranch or could not afford to pay him wages, which is to say give him money which they had not factored into their expenses.

     Events were now crowding fast on ERB.  On April 19th, 1898 Congress authorized the war on Spain.  Burroughs once again appealed to Colonel Rogers as his best bet to get him a commission.  Rogers fobbed him off, nothing coming of his appeal.  Hearing of Teddy Roosevelt’s formation of the Rough Riders Burroughs sent an appeal to him which was once again a rejection.  The military was and would remain a mirage.

     Had he been accepted either his father or his brothers would have had to provide transportation and incidental money.  I’m sure one of them may have done it but there would have been no guarantee that ERB wouldn’t gamble it away en route, cabling for more.

     The Boys were not flush, as Porges relates.  They had borrowed a thousand dollars from their father, use your multiplier for today’s equivalent, on which they were unable to make the principal payment, instead sending their dad the interest only which was a fairly steep 8%.  Technically since they couldn’t meet the obligation they were bankrupt.  Nevertheless brother Harry, who seemed to be a much softer touch than brother George, bought ERB a stationery story in Pocatello.  Porges doesn’t give any financial details but perhaps it was at this point that ERB gave Harry his note for three hundred dollars.  It is quite probable that this money also came from George T. who wished to remain anonymous.  Harry may just have forwarded the note to Chicago.  The loan was never repaid; George T. presented the canceled note as a Christmas present a decade later.

     ERB was to keep the store for six months.  Those six months were probably very important to him intellectually.  He later said he wasn’t cut out to be a retailer but he did keep the store for six months selling it back to the former owner at that time.  If the owner bought it back for the three hundred then ERB kept the money never retiring the note.

     The evidence indicates that Burroughs gave the business his best shot.  He seems to have advertised well while developing contacts to the point that he could offer to obtain any book or magazine from the U.S., Canada or England.  Although he advertised statewide, how much demand there may have been for any magazines other than the most common ones is questionable.

     Once again, details of this period are tantalizingly lacking.  Porges says that ERB made at least one trip to Salt Lake City in this period.  One would like to know why.  What need was there for him to incur the expense of such a trip.  As impractical as he was he probably spent one or two hundred dollars out of the till which would better have gone to developing the business.

     One would like to know what he read at this time.  It would be of interest to know how many different titles of magazines he actually stocked.  What books other than Capt. King’s he sold.  He appears to have studied Darwin’s Descent Of Man at this time although the volume he used was twenty years old.  It still may have been bought new for the store, I suppose.  On the fly leaf he drew a picture of an ape labeled Grandpa which shows he was giving it some thought.

     Darwin was being much discussed as ERB obviously incorporated later thought into his drawing.

     One would like to know was the store making money?  At any rate when the former owner returned to Pocatello at the beginning of 1899 ERB was only too happy to sell it back to him.  What did he do with the money?  I’m sure he could have found a poker game somewhere in Pocatello.


     When he returned the store to the former owner he became superfluous to his brothers who couldn’t afford to pay him as a ranch hand.  He now had no real place in Idaho.  He began to think of returning to Chicago.  Though he may have exasperated family and friends with his erratic behavior, behind his nonsense his mind was busily at work absorbing the tremendous range of influences occurring on a daily basis.

     Important among these was the West’s relationship to the world.  While the Spanish American war was intended to free Cuba, an unintended consequence was the acquisition of the Philippine Islands as a colony or ‘possession.’  Other countries had colonies, the US had possessions.

     Rudyard Kipling who had toured the US in 1889 beginning in San Francisco moving East had formed some very definite impressions of the country and its inhabitants.   In February of ’99 in connection with the Philippines he published his very famous poem The White Man’s Burden.  The US had been traditionally anti-imperialist, except moving West, condemning England most severely but now faced with Philippine intransigence the country was involved in a brutal war of suppression.  Perhaps reacting to taunts of colonialism against the English Kipling wrote what can be viewed as a mocking poem.

     Anachronistic when published on the eve of the twentieth century, it was reflective perhaps of an earlier intellectual climate.  Burroughs reaction was immediate reflecting a deep, if not long, he was only 23, reflection on the problem.  The Pocatello paper printed his response shortly after the original appeared.  This was apparently written in white hot heat.

     As the response is a synopsis of his later views I will reproduce both poems for comparison with comments.  If mocking, Kipling still presents a bright or positive side of the European invasion of Africa and the East.

The White Man’s Burden:

The United States And

The Philippine Islands, 1898


Rudyard Kiping

Take up the white man’s burden-

Send forth the best ye breed-

Go bind your sons to exile

To serve your captives’ need;

To wait in heavy harness,

On fluttered folk and wild-

Your new-caught, sullen peoples,

Half devil and half-child.


Take up the white man’s burden-

In patience to abide,

To veil the threat of terror

And check the show of pride;

By open speech and simple,

An hundred times made plain,

To seek another’s profit,

And work another’s gain.


Take up the white man’s burden-

The savage wars of peace-

Fill full the mouth of famine

And bid the sickness cease;

And when your goal is nearest

The end for others sought,

Watch sloth and heathen Folly

Bring all your hopes to nought.


Take up the white man’s burden-

No tawdry rule of kings,

But toil of serf and sweeper-

The tale of common things.

The ports ye shall not enter,

The roads ye shall not treat,

Go make them with your living,

And mark them with your dead.


Take up the white man’s burden-

And reap his old reward:

The blame of those ye better,

The hate of those ye guard-

The cry of hosts ye humour

(Ah, slowly!) toward the light-

“Why brought ye us from bondage,

Our beloved Egyptian night?”


Take up the white man’s burden-

Ye dare not stoop to less-

Nor call too loud on Freedom

To cloak your weariness;

By all ye cry or whisper,

By all ye leave or do,

The silent, sullen peoples

Shall weigh your Gods and you.


Take up the white man’s bureden-

Have done with childish days-

The highly proffered laurel,

The easy, ungrudged praise,

Comes now, to search your manhood

Through all the thankless years,

Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom,

The judgment of your peers!


Originally published in

The New York Sun, February 5, 1899


The Black Man’s Burden

A Parody

The dark side presented by

Edgar Rice Burroughs


Take up the white man’s burden,

The yoke ye sought to spurn;

And spurn your fathers’ customs;

Your fathers’ temples burn.

O learn to love and honor

The white God’s favored sons.

Forget the white-haired fathers

Fast lashed to mouths of guns.


Take up the white man’s burden,

Your own was not enough;

He’ll burden you with taxes;

But though the road be rough,

“To  him who waits, “remember”

The white man’s culture bring you

The white man’s God, and rum.


Take up the white man’s burden’

“Tis called “protecorate,”

And lift your voice in thanks to

The God ye well might hate.

Forget your exiled brothers;

Forget your boundless lands;

In acres that they gave  for

The bood upon your hands.


Take up the white man’s burden;

Poor simple folk and free;

Abandon nature’s freedom,

Embrace his “Liberty;”

The goddess of the white man

Who makes you free in name;

But in her heart your color

Will brand you “slave” the same.


Take up the white man’s burden,

And learn by what you’ve lost

That white men called as counsel

Means black man pays the cost.

Your right to fertile acres

Their priests will teach you well

Have gained your fathers only

A desert place in hell.


Take up the white man’s burden;

Take it because you must;

Burden of making money;

Burden of greed and lust;

Burdens of points strategic,

Burdens of harbors deep,

Burden of greatest burdens;

Burden, these burdens to keep.


Take up the white man’s burden;

His papers take, and read;

‘Tis all for your salvation;

The white man knows not greed.

For  you he’s spending millions-

To him, more than his God-

To make you learned and happy,

Enlightened, cultured, broad.


Take up the white man’s burden

While he make laws for you,

That show your fathers taught you

The things you should not do.

Cast off your foolish feathers,

Your necklace, beads and paint;

Buy raiment for your mother,

Lest fairer sisters faint.


Take up the white man’s burden;

Go learn to wear his clothes;

You may look like the devil;

But nobody cares who knows.

Peruse a work of Darwin-

Thank gods that you’re alive-

And learn this lesson clearly-

The fittest alone survive.


See the Pocatello Tribune clipping

from ERB’s scrapbook at ERBzine 0291

     Burroughs response to Kipling may also explain why he refused to join a Pocatello volunteer regiment destined for the Philippines and the assumption of the White Man’s burden.  Burroughs is accused of an excess of pride in refusing to join the regiment because he would have to serve under a man he didn’t like, a good enough reason for me, by the way.  One doesn’t know the details but possibly his fellow volunteers refused to make him an officer.  His local reputation may have been such that his fellows had no confidence in him.

     Also pertinent I believe is the fact that while the war in Cuba was to free the Cubans from Spanish tyranny, the war in the Philippines was to crush the freedom of the Filipinos.  As Burroughs’ answer to Kipling clearly demonstrates he was opposed to the imposition of  Western values on native peoples.  The Tarzan novels should be read in the light of this answer.

     While Kipling’s poem has been much derided by the moribund Liberal establishment with no attempt at placing it within a historical context it nevertheless does express certain truths.  Whether misguided or not, unlike all previous conquests, the White Man with his superior scientific consciousness did try to uplift the peoples they conquered rather than merely exploiting them on their own established historical model.

     The poem is an interesting example of evolution in progress before the reaction against the West began.  Darwinian evolution, you know, does not only apply to the past and other species, it also applies to the present and humankind.  Kipling himself does not appear to have absorbed the new scientific learning.  He was eleven years older than Burroughs, but his parodist was thoroughly imbued with evolutionary ideas having, apparently, just read The Descent Of Man.  The final quatrain:

Peruse a work of Darwin’s

Thank gods that you’re alive-

And learn the reason clearly-

The fittest alone survive.

indicates this.

     While biographer Taliferro believs that Burroughs got no further in the Descent Of Man than drawing a picture on the title page the quatrain would indicate a much deeper familiarity.  ‘A work of Darwin’s’, Darwin wrote several books, points to a wider reading of the evolutionary scientist than just the Descent.

     So at some time before reaching the age of 25 ERB had obviously been immersing himself in evolutionary reading and speculation.  He may have been flighty but he was industrious and intelligent.

     The advice to the subject races is peculiar while being ambiguous.  On the one hand he advises them to take up Western learning, which as they haven’t makes them unfit, while on the other hand he implies that they have not been exterminated because they are the fittest.

     The bright side of the Western subjugation of the peoples is clearly and accurately presented by Kipling who had much more experience in the wide world than Burroughs.  On the other hand one tends to underestimate Burroughs whose brief experience in Apacheria is still analogous to Kipling’s in India.

     On an evolutionary basis the West’s conquest of the world represented a radical departure from the historical model.  Prior to and outside the West the world’s conquerors had been mere freebooters who plundered and destroyed while contributing nothing to their subject peoples who were most frequently intellectually superior to the invaders.

     Thus Attila was merely an incubus on Western civilization whose potential was wholly destructive.  His reputation cannot be rehabilitated.  Genghis Khan and his successors inhibited the development of superior civilizations dragging the subject peoples back toward more primitive conditions.  The crimes the Golden Horde committed against the Russians are atrocious.  But that is why the Liberals love them better than the West.

     As Kipling states, athe West conferred solid benefits on the subject peoples.  It imposed superior organization, scientific methods and standards although today, after several hundreds of years resistance, through the superior methods of the West certain areas are profiting.  Not many though.

     In the terms most people relate to, famine has all but disappeared- this through no efforts of their own- through Western medicine billions lead more comfortable lives, certain diseases have disappeared while most others can be treated- through no efforts of their own- these benefits have been a gift, a boon from the West.

     The prevalence of fevers gave sub-Saharan Africa the name of the White Man’s Grave but in fact no people could prosper in the African climate.  Even the native Blacks, who one would assume, should have acclimated themselves over their hundred fifty thousand year existence seldom lived past forty.  They were incapable of creating medicine before the White Man arrived and they are incapable of even manufacturing the White Man’s medicine today.

     So that, while Kipling’s poem is denigrated today as an example of ‘racism’ by the Red-Liberal ideology, apart from the insufferable condescension it is an accurate description of the altruistic role played by the West in civilizing the world.

     Reacting to the poems apparent insufferableness as much as anything Burroughs counters it by listing the negatives which are as real as the positives but with no material value.   Once again the negatives are inconsequential compared to the brutality of the Mongol conquests in the West.  One has only to glance over the wars of Tamerlane to arrive at some sort of balance, one hopes.

     Burroughs is ostensibly taking the side of the subject peoples but in reality he identifies with the defeated accepting their defeat at the hands of the West as analogous to his defeat at the hands of John the Bully.

      This view would relieve the lines:

Thank gods that you’re alive

And learn the reason clearly-

The fittest alone survive.

of some of their ambiguity because what he is saying is that he has survived comparable conditions- he still lives as he has his characters say repeatedly.  Therefore he is one of the fittest if not superior to his conqueror.

     Thus beneath the foolery and compulsive failure caused by his 1884-85 confrontation the true Edgar Rice Burroughs is struggling toward Bethlehem and rebirth.  It may in fact be no coincidence that the initials of both John Carter and John Clayton are JC.

     In the Spring of ’99 he can only put together this parody of another man’s work where it touches his fixations most directly.

     For the present, after the roundup our wandering boy pulled up stakes yet again to return to Chicago.  Who bore the expense isn’t clear.

Continue on the Part IV and conclusion

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