An American Legacy: The Story of Tarzan

For much of his life, Edgar Rice Burroughs was a drifter between jobs, never quite sure what his next job would bring.

But all that changed when Burroughs brought pen to paper in 1912, soon penning what was to be one of the most popular stories in American literature: Tarzan of the Apes.
Burroughs recalled years later that:

…if people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines, that I could write stories just as rotten. As a matter of fact, although I had never written a story, I knew absolutely that I could write stories just as entertaining and probably a whole lot more so than any I chanced to read in those magazines.

After trying and failing in many other attempts at bringing in enough money for his wife and children, soon Burroughs discovered that writing would be his success story. He sent in half of a story to a magazine and after receiving encouragement, sent in the second half in return for $400.

Later he wrote, “No amount of money today could possibly give me the thrill that first $400 check gave me.”

From The New Adventures of Tarzan pop-up book (via S&C ETC.)

From a vintage The New Adventures of Tarzan pop-up book, published 1935 (via S&C ETC.)

He soon quit his job to write full-time.

At the time, pulp magazines (so called because of their cheap, high pulp paper) ran stories in installments, ensuring that readers would buy the next issues to find out what happened next in their favorite stories. But the editors of the All-Story magazine found Burroughs’ first Tarzan story so exciting that they published the full story in one issue.


Burroughs’ daughter Joan later married James Pierce, who played Tarzan in the film Tarzan and the Golden Lion.

While Burroughs wrote many other successful stories like his Mars exploration series, the Tarzan series was by far his most popular. (Miss the Disney movie? See here for a good summary of the Tarzan story.)

Something about the primitive Tarzan struck a chord with readers – and continued to do so, leading to twenty-five sequels and countless radio, movie, TV, and other pop culture adaptations.

The poster for the 1933 movie Tarzan the Fearless

The poster for the 1933 movie Tarzan the Fearless. 

Tarzan is still a memorable character in literary history, and he’s not going anywhere. While the story may have resonated the most with its early 20th century readers, the amount of modern Tarzan adaptations prove that this is a character ingrained in the American psyche.

What is it about the story of Tarzan that has stuck to this day? Do you have any theories?

Leave a Reply