I have discovered an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel that I am sure I’d never read before.
Burroughs is best-known as the creator of Tarzan. I read him regularly, because no one ever did a better job of juggling complicated plots and keeping the action moving forward. Some reviewers have said I do that rather well. If I do, I learned it from ERB.
I Am a Barbarian, written in 1941 but not published until 1967, 17 years after Burroughs’ death, is a first-person “memoir” by Britannicus, a lifelong slave to the mad emperor Caligula. As a depiction of the life and politics of ancient Rome, it was based on fairly extensive research and is vivid and convincing. But that’s not why I’m telling you about it.
This story is written with a savage bitterness that one does not generally associate with ERB. Indeed, as a lifelong Burroughs fan, I would have trouble recognizing Barbarian as his work if his name weren’t on the cover. What was going on in his life to make him write like that?
Despite being one of the most popularly successful writers in American history, ERB had a terrible habit of investing his hard-earned money in various real-estate and other get-rich-quick schemes that never bore fruit. He’d been poor for most of his young adulthood, and now he wanted to be rich. Very rich. Which he would have been, if he’d only stuck to writing and left the other stuff alone!
In 1941 his second marriage was falling apart–his fault, by all accounts–resulting in a 1942 divorce. The wife, a former silent movie actress 28 years younger than he, Burroughs married on the rebound from his first wife, by whom he had three children. It must have been a very bad time in his life: the tone of I Am a Barbarian shows it.
ERB died in 1950, only a year after I was born, so in spite of all I owe him as a writer, there’s nothing I can do for him. The Bible teaches us that we don’t have to live in bitterness, we don’t have to screw up our own lives. (There are plenty of individuals out there who’ll be only too glad to do it for us.) I suspect ERB wasn’t much committed to the Christian life.
Too bad. He would’ve done better, if he had been.