Gnomicon 219

If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.

Gnomicon  219
Monday 17 December 2012
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 I write to escape; to escape poverty.
Edgar Rice Burroughs ( 1 Sep 1875 – 19 Mar 1950)

Best known as the creator of Tarzan, this prolific writer covered a wide swath of ‘popular’ literature.  Beginning to publish his material at age 37 in the pulps (the October 1912 issue of All-Story Magazine), he wrote vastly and imaginatively, earned much money and thus achieved his stated goal of wishing “to escape poverty”, and bought up large tracts of the San Fernando Valley (almost two thirds of which is today a part of the city of Los Angeles) when there was still lots of land there to buy up for little money.  Today there is even a city there – Tarzana – eponymously named for the author’s most enduring hero:  the city even has two ZIP codes all for itself – 91356 and 91357.

Burroughs claims that he began writing because he was hungry – thus in effect repeating (whether intentionally or not is unclear to me) Boswell’s report of a comment by Samuel Johnson that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” – and he thought he could write at least as badly as what he was reading in the pulps.  And his language was at times taken to task as fustian, although as eminent and fastidious a literary figure as Gore Vidal in an Esquire essay had some rather nice things to say about Burroughs.  And his works have been treated seriously in the literary world and here and there (check under ‘Critical Reception’) in academic circles.

As for that bit about a reason for writing, if true, seems to me to be reasonable enough.  There are of course as many reasons as you could wish (cf. a previous blog posting) for sitting down with pen to paper or fingers to a (mechanical or digital) keyboard and pouring out fantasies of the most grandiose kind imaginable.  And, as Burroughs did, do it in such a way as to make them appeal to eras and cultures as distant from each other as the early decades of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and countries as different as France and China.

Writing can be a compulsion, it can be a kind of therapy, it can be a way of ‘getting out’ what’s inside and resists revelation even to oneself.  It can be a kind of articulated day-dreaming, and I hold that writing fiction is something like that.  Given the rules the writer sets herself for the universe she inhabits or is creating, as long as she follows the rules anything goes.  There is such a thing as ‘suspension of disbelief’, and all that means is that once you enter this creation — as either creator or user — the normal laws of quotidian life no longer apply.  Accept that, or leave.

Burroughs, as I see it, was able to codify in his own mind, and heed, his established norms of the given fiction (African jungle, Martian landscape, Venusian topography), and readily bring his readers along for the fabulous fables he spun for them – and himself.

If you’ve never read him, and are intrigued, I recommend you start with the start of it all:  Tarzan of the Apes – there are worse ways to spend a couple of evenings.  I shall venture a guess that if you finish that book, you will probably be tempted to read the second book in the series, Return of Tarzan … and the third … and …


This year (2012) the United States Postal Service did finally honor Burroughs with a long-overdue stamp, but (in keeping with so much postage stamp art in recent years) a stamp so unspeakably ugly that one can only weep – especially when you consider the vast amounts of fabulously good art out there based on his creations!

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