Stamps typically mark the anniversary of an honoree’s birth—but with the Edgar Rice Burroughs stamp, set to be issued Friday, August 17, in Tarzana, California, the U.S. Postal Service is doing something a bit different. This time, we’re celebrating the centennial of the start of the honoree’s writing career—an event to inspire anyone who dreams of escaping a dead-end job.
Born in 1875, Burroughs was a famously restless soul. After high school, he briefly taught geology before joining the Army, serving in the Arizona Territory with the U.S. Cavalry until being honorably discharged for health reasons. Afterwards, he ran a stationery store, dredged for gold in Idaho, worked as a railroad policeman, and sold books door-to-door. Craving adventure, he even sought—unsuccessfully—a commission in the Chinese army.
Ironically, Burroughs found adventure in one of the least swashbuckling jobs of his life. In 1912, while working as a manager at a pencil-sharpener company, he published his first story, “Under the Moons of Mars”—with the first Tarzan story springing from his typewriter later that year, and more than 70 books in the decades that followed. Young writers who fear that their chances of literary fame diminish with maturity can take heart in Burroughs’s example: One of the most prolific authors of the 20th century didn’t publish his work until he was 37 years old.
Far from an irrelevant prelude to a successful career, that endless stream of unsatisfying jobs appears to have honed Burroughs’s professionalism. As he told Writer’s Digest in 1930, “the profession of fiction writing should be carried on upon a high plane of business integrity and professional ethics, without any vain and silly illusions as to the importance of fiction outside of the sphere of entertainment.”
Burroughs frequently downplayed his own literary merit, but from the first word to the last, he felt a deep sense of professional obligation. “My first stories were the best stories that I could write, and every story that I have written since has been the very best story that I could write,” he insisted. “I have felt that it was a duty to those people who bought my books that I should give them the very best within me.”
The Edgar Rice Burroughs stamp, which is available for pre-order now, commemorates the author who invented Tarzan, but it also celebrates an ambitious American who continually reinvented himself until finding his true calling. The lesson of his life story may be that tangents have something to teach us, and that even an unfulfilling job can stir the imagination, filling our futures with stories untold.
Tarzan™ Owned by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. and Used by Permission.