First published in Tin House #45, Fall 2010.
I first came across Richard Halliburton during a layover in Brooklyn on my way from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to New Orleans. I was moving because I’d failed to find work as a deckhand in the Caribbean, my goal for the winter. The main problem was I knew nothing about sailing--an issue that never stopped Halliburton, an adventurer who was eventually lost at sea while trying to navigate from Hong Kong to San Francisco for the 1939 World’s Fair.
Brooklyn isn’t on the most direct route between Puerto Rico and Louisiana, but it’s where my stuff lives--one shelf in a friend’s living room, a plastic bin in her basement. I drop by a few times a year to exchange sweaters for shorts, T-shirts for thermals. Living out of a backpack is a great way to make stories, but it does not encourage exploring your roots. When, in my reading, I found hints of a gay man born in 1900 who swam the Panama Canal, crossed the Alps on an elephant, and made the first recorded winter ascent on Mount Fuji, I was determined to read every word he’d written. It felt like finding a picture of my great-grandmother and recognizing my eyes in her wrinkled Irish face.
Not that I’ve done anything half as grand as Halliburton. At nineteen, he left Princeton for a semester to work on a merchant marine vessel bound for Europe; I left Cornell at twenty-one to go cross-country for a few weeks on a Greyhound bus. Not quite as romantic. But I recognized a longed-for spiritual ancestor in the man who wrote, “Those who live in the even tenor of their way simply exist until death ends their monotonous tranquility.”
Finding his books turned out to be a journey in itself. The Glorious Adventure languished deep below the accessible parts of the Brooklyn Public Library, its wandering heart momentarily stilled by the vagaries of popular acclaim. If the punch card was accurate, The Glorious Adventure had been borrowed twice in the last sixty years. The thick, ragged pages were cold from their long interment, and as my finger traced the map drawn on the endpapers I felt I was holding the relic of a saint. Saint Halliburton, patron of fagabonds and hobosexuals; of traveler kids with dogs and dreadlocks; of myself and my friends.
A classicist who longed for critical acclaim as well as popularity, in The Glorious Adventure Halliburton traveled the route Ulysses took in The Odyssey. By attaching himself to a great historical figure, Halliburton hoped to be elevated beyond the derisory title of “book club writer” with which he was labeled after the publication of his first work, The Royal Road to Romance. In many ways, The Glorious Adventure, despite being published in 1927, could be on the current nonfiction bestseller list. Our protagonist, bored with the modern condition, shakes off monotony and reconnects with what is vital--except in Halliburton’s case, the softening effect of urban life had to do with talkies and roadsters, not iPhones and McDonald’s.
The Glorious Adventure opens with Halliburton stultifying in his Manhattan apartment, jealous of “every sailor that would wave farewell to the sky-line of New York, and turn his salt-stung face to some strange enchanted land beyond the far horizon.” Within a chapter, he and his “friend” Roderic are attempting the first recorded ascent on Mount Olympus in modern history. (Halliburton was a man who did nothing in half measures.) He goes on to swim the Hellespont, spend a night in the cave of Polyphemus the Cyclops, and attempt to run the route that killed Pheidippides and created the modern marathon.
Though some have criticized The Glorious Adventure for purple prose, it has that irrepressible sense of hope and wonder that abounds in travel literature of the Roaring Twenties and disappears with World War II. In the opening chapters, he worries that a massive thunderstorm is the result of offending Zeus. When Roderic scoffs at this idea, Halliburton writes,
Yet even if he were right and rid of all illusions, and even if I were only inspired by crazy dreams to crazier action, was I not the richer of the two for having indulged myself in the poetic notions of that fine old Greek god faith? Its fancy, its grace, its lyrical appeal . . . these things the rationalists can not know or love. They have their faith of reason, but their hearts still have no language.
In other adventures, Halliburton broke into the Taj Mahal, crossed Africa by prop plane, and lived in Devil’s Island, the infamous French colonial prison. His works inspired generations of travelers and writers, perhaps most famously Susan Sontag, who wrote, “Halliburton made me lustfully aware that the world was very big and very old; that its seeable wonders and its learnable stories were innumerable; and that I might see these wonders myself and learn the stories attached to them.” Yet despite the carefree tone that enchanted Sontag and others, Halliburton was endlessly worried about two things: the respect of literary critics and the mercurial rise and fall of his bank account. Reviewers wrote off his early books as juvenile and overblown, fit only for women’s tea clubs. Yet they were wildly successful, with both The Glorious Adventureand The Royal Road to Romance spending years on the bestseller lists. His later books, more universally praised, never sold quite as well, though perhaps this has more to do with the economic situation of the 1930s than any intrinsic change in his writing. It seemed he could never have both critical praise and popular success, and despite his boastful, boyish persona, his ego was fragile. He labored over each harsh review and rejection letter, driving himself to ever more elaborate and dangerous stunts that were ever more removed from the joyful and self-directed wanderings of his early work.
Halliburton lived a particular species of the American dream, the life of a profligate traveler, constantly setting off for new horizons. Yet there was a nightmarish quality to this peripatetic life, demanding as it did always more; nothing would ever be enough. He came from a genteel southern family of the affluent yet striving variety: his father was a civil engineer turned Tennessee land speculator, his mother a music teacher. He attended private school and Princeton. Yet his family’s wealth seemed only to allow Halliburton a view of how much further up the social ladder he might still climb. Sitting on the lowest rung of the highest tier, he hungered for more. Here is the dark side of meritocracy: the inability to ever be content.
Money treated Halliburton like he treated the world: it flowed through him, never staying for long. His parents financed his first adventures, and though he later supported them for many years, his letters to friends, well-off relations, and publishers were full of demands and pleas for more money, advances on books not yet written, and higher percentages of royalties. The life of the freelancer seems to have changed little in the last hundred years.
Halliburton was not oblivious to his fiduciary ineptitude, and after the success of The Glorious Adventure, he instructed his publishers to sink most of its revenue into investments. This was 1927; two years later, his one shrewd financial move would be checked by the stock market crash. In the end, he begged money from everyone he knew to build The Sea Dragon, a traditional Chinese-style junk that he planned to sail across the Pacific. Friends and professionals alike told him the boat could not handle the trip, but his need for both money and acclaim would not let him turn back. On March 23, 1939, he disappeared at sea and was presumed dead, though neither his body nor the wreck was ever definitively identified. Like many caught in his spell, I still imagine meeting Halliburton, gray-bearded and strong, a guy on each arm, living on the beach or in a Parisian pension, his light undimmed by the passing of a century, recounting the tale of his adventure in the lands beyond death.