The legend of Tarzan was born from desperation and boredom. Edgar Rice Burroughs desperately wanted to be a writer, but had run through a long list of miscellaneous jobs: railroad cop, storekeeper, gold prospector, lightbulb peddler, and even patent medicine hawker. One fateful day he was browsing through the classified ads in a pulp fiction magazine and had a revelation. Maybe he wasn’t a greater writer, but he could certainly write as badly as those who got published in that magazine. He decided to put his fingers where his brain was and pounded out a manuscript for Tarzan of the Apes.
The All-Story ran Tarzan of the Apes in October 1912, and by 1914 Burroughs’ wildly popular character appeared in book form. More than two dozen adventures penned by Burroughs would follow and upon those would be a series of popular Hollywood films and serials, TV shows, comic books and radio dramas. Few critics ever forwarded the proposition that the books were an example of great writing, and that group of naysayers includes the author himself. The critics are generally in agreement on another point: that first Tarzan book was the best of the lot.
What that book created was not great literature, but one of the bona fide entertainment brands in American literature. The story of the baby orphaned on the coast of Africa and raised by apes spoke directly to the heated debated about Darwinian evolution going on at the time; those on both sides of that debate could find support for their own arguments within the book. Beyond that, however, Tarzan just simply presented an irresistible hero in an exotic land representing the ultimate freedom from the restrictions of civilization. Something about the image of the grown-up Tarzan, practically nude with large muscles rippling as he swings across the jungle from vine to vine, connects at some level with nearly every generation. Great writing was no requirement to keep readers coming back for more. All that was necessary was more exciting adventures to Tarzan to face and Burroughs kept them coming and in the process became one of the most-widely read writers of the 20th century.
A large tract of land that Burroughs bought in the San Fernando Valley was subdivided, sold to residential developers, and eventually named after his most famous creation to become the affluent Los Angeles neighborhood of Tarzana.