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TARZAN FOREVER: THE LIFE OF EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS, CREATOR OF TARZAN, by John Taliaferro, Scribner, 400 pages, $30.00.

With Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs devised one of popular culture’s most enduring icons, perhaps second only to Sherlock Holmes in terms of impact and universal recognition. In this new biography of the creator of Lord Greystoke, the author not only recounts how a 36-year-old, down-on-his luck salesman dreamed up the tale of a boy raised by apes, but how that improbable yet powerful adventure shaped Burroughs’ career and private life for the next four decades.

Born in Chicago in 1875, Burroughs spent his early years as a cavalryman, a cowboy, and a gold prospector. He didn’t begin writing in any serious fashion until he was 35, but he immediately sold his first professional submission, A Princess of Mars. That unexpected bit of commercial success was quickly overshadowed the next year by the publication of Tarzan of the Apes in the pulp magazine The All-Story.

Tarzan was a genuine phenomenon, one Burroughs was savvy enough to exploit to its full potential. Taliaferro details how Burroughs became one of popular culture’s first multimedia marketers, using sequels, syndicated comic strips, movies, and toys to build the Ape Man’s popularity worldwide. The biography pays special attention to Burroughs’ arduous quest to bring Tarzan to the silver screen and the many flops that were produced before and after Johnny Weissmuller made the role his own.

What Tarzan Forever makes clear, however, is that for all his commercial success, Burroughs was profligate with his finances and insecure about the quality of his writing. Although he had the foresight to incorporate himself and protect his copyrights for his heirs, Burroughs also had a habit of spending more than he earned. This tendency was best exemplified by his decision to purchase a 550-acre San Fernando ranch formerly owned by Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times. The property became the nucleus for the community now known as Tarzana, but Burroughs ended up selling most of the acreage to stave off bankruptcy.

With two failed marriages behind him and the well of inspiration long run dry, Burroughs found a renewed sense of purpose late in life as a war correspondent during World War II. By the time of his death in 1950, he had written two dozen Tarzan novels and sold an estimated 30 million books. But none of the characters in his 50 other books ever came close to the Jungle Lord’s popularity, the “slick” magazines never chose to publish Burroughs’ work, and his realistic novels won few fans among editors and readers.

Taliaferro ably captures both the brash confidence of Burroughs’ early years as an author and the poignancy of his later life. Tarzan Forever presents a lively chronicle of an American writer who will never be regarded as either a great stylist or a deep thinker, but one who surely ranks as one of this century’s most popular storytellers.

Michael Berry reviews science fiction and fantasy for the San Francisco Chronicle and is the author of Georgia O’Keeffe (Chelsea House).