Edgar Rice Burroughs was a failure. The year was 1911.
He was thirty-seven years old, had a wife and two children with a third arriving soon. Each of his attempts to make a living, whether working for others or on his own, had come to naught. The family was destitute.
As a last resort, Burroughs decided to turn to writing as a way to support his family. He had written in the past—advertising copy, articles on business advice and even children's stories done for his own amusement but, the idea of writing fiction for sale...? Burroughs would later recall:
"I had good reason for thinking I could sell what I wrote. I had gone thoroughly through some of the all-fiction magazines and made up my mind that if people were paid for writing rot such as I read I could write stories just as rotten."
Exactly why Burroughs decided to submit his story to Munsey's The All-Story Magazine is not known, but he mailed his first, unfinished draft of 43,000 words in August of 1911 with the proposed title, "Dejah Thoris, Martian Princess." Editor Thomas Newell Metcalf asked Burroughs to expand the text to 70,000 words and, in short order, Burroughs delivered a completed manuscript of 63,000 words. By November of 1911, the final terms of the sale were concluded and, since Munsey paid upon acceptance rather than publication, Burroughs received a much needed check for $400 (approximately the equivalent of $10,000 in 2012). The February, 1912 issue of All-Story featured the first installment of "Under the Moons of Mars," a serial that continued for another five issues and established Burroughs in his new career as an author. Sources indicate that the title was chosen by an editor, probably Metcalf.
The novel we know today as A Princess of Mars differs somewhat from the version read by the All-Story readers of 1911. Burroughs felt that his story might be a bit too fantastic for the audiences of the day. Travel to other worlds was a rarity in early science fiction and it is interesting to note that Burroughs chose to transport his hero to another world through a sort of mystical means rather than attempting to construct a method of physical transport (this was a common post-Victorian fiction device for entry into "unearthly" realms). To quell any question about the fantastic elements of his tale, Burroughs requested the story be credited to the author "Normal Bean"—the word "bean" being synonymous with "head" in 1911 and the pen name would have been understood by readers of the day as meaning "normal in the head" or, in simpler terms, it would imply that the author was sane. Instead of this credit, readers of All-Story saw this header on the title page of each installment:
The change from "Normal" to "Norman" was a misunderstanding upon the part of an unknown editor, who changed it when giving instructions to the artist of the title art (possibly Fred W. Small). The artist lettered the author's name onto the artwork and the engraving of the art had been completed (this was in pre-computer days, remember) by the time the error was caught. It was too late (and expensive) to make the change and so, readers saw the Norman Bean byline on each installment.
Numerous changes were also made to the novel by editorial hands at Munsey's. Burroughs' preface was rewritten and condensed down from over 1200 words to a mere 250 and appeared thusly:
"Relative to Captain Carter's strange story a few words, concerning this remarkable personality, are not out of place.
At the time of his demise, John Carter was a man of uncertain age and vast experience, honorable and abounding with true fellowship. He stood a good two inches over six feet, was broad of shoulder and narrow of hip, with the carriage of the trained fighting man. His features were regular and clear-cut, his eyes steel gray, reflecting a strong and loyal character. He was a Southerner of the highest type. He had enlisted at the outbreak of the War, fought through the four years, and had been honorably discharged. Then for more than a decade he was gone from the sight of his fellows. When he returned he had changed, there was a kind of wistful longing and hopeless misery in his eyes, and he would sit for hours at night, staring up into the starlit heavens.
His death occurred upon a winter's night. He was discovered by the watchman of his little place on the Hudson, full length in the snow, his arms outstretched above his head toward the edge of the bluff. Death had come to him upon the spot where curious villagers had so often, on other nights, seen him standing rigid—his arms raised in supplication to the skies."
Many paragraphs throughout the work were also shortened and there were other minor revisions and changes. Burroughs, however, showed a remarkable bit of business acumen for a fledgling author and stipulated that All-Story was only being sold the first serial rights and that he would retain the book rights. Munsey agreed and in 1917, A Princess of Mars was released in book form restored to Burroughs' original version, including the preface, and this is the version that has remained in print since that time.
Today, it is very easy to dismiss A Princess of Mars, not because it is a bad story, but because it was so seminal in the history of science fiction that it changed the direction of the genre. Early science fiction was often more concerned with future social customs, utopian civilizations, and the machines and inventions that would change our lives for good or ill. Interaction with other worlds was a rarity. Burroughs changed that by introducing adventure and romance into a tale that took place on another world, but could, thematically, also take place here on Earth. His formula was so widely copied it now seems too familiar, especially after our exposure to all the science fiction that has appeared in the years since—from Flash Gordon to Star Wars. Burroughs was able to inject the human element, a love story, into his work and the historian Sam Moskowitz even coined a term to describe this style of science fiction: "Scientific Romance." My late friend, G. Edward Kymala, probably summed it all up best when he wrote an introduction for A Princess of Mars back in 2002:
"In 1911, with A Princess of Mars, Burroughs was creating a new style of science fiction writing. The earlier works of the genre often emphasized science over story or the science was merely window dressing that had no real importance to the plot. Burroughs made science an integral part of a story that also contained elements of adventure and fantasy. It was so different that he believed that some might think him crazy, so he used the pen name Normal Bean. Unfortunately a copy reader at All-Story thought this name a typo and re-set it as Norman Bean.
In many of Edgar Rice Burroughs' works, he combines the genres of fantasy, adventure, and science fiction into a story that cannot be described in terms of any of these genres alone. He was one of the first authors to do this and after Burroughs, modern science fiction followed his lead. His work is fast paced. It jumps from one adventurous image to the next.
Burroughs was like John Wayne. In general, you either like his work or you don't. He was not a great writer, but he sure was fun."
G. Edward Kymala
The All-Story issues that featured "Under the Moons of Mars" sold extremely well, even though it was never grranted a cover illustration. Readers of the magazine were lavish in their praise of the serial and demanded more works by Burroughs. The Munsey organization, realizing they had discovered a new best-selling author, urged Burroughs to start on a new novel while "Moons" was still being serialized. They also asked him to consider a sequel to his first Barsoom adventure and promised a higher payment for any work he submitted. Unfortunately, the new novel, an historical adventure saga, was not well received by the editors and, as a result, Munsey nearly missed out on another creation of Burroughs: Tarzan of the Apes. But that, as they say, is a tale for another time...
A Princess of Mars is a classic. We hope you enjoy it.Bob Gay
Introduction © 2013 by Bob Gay with portions © 2002 by G. Edward Kymala
(Editor's Note: This reprinting of A Princess of Mars was produced using an old version of the Project Gutenberg release of the novel. The 1970 Nelson Doubleday, Inc. edition was also used as a reference. The Frank Schoonover illustrations originally appeared in the McClurg editon and were recovered from a variety of sources.)