Calling one-time Memphian Richard Halliburton “America’s greatest adventurer” sounds like hyperbole — until you read a few chapters of “The Glorious Adventure,” subtitled “Through the Mediterranean in the Wake of Odysseus.”
The phrase is part of the publicity for a series of Halliburton’s travel books, which Tauris Parke Paperbacks will release through August. The account of Halliburton’s odyssey in Greece, written in 1927 from his parents’ apartment in the Parkview Hotel on the edge of Overton Park, was re-published in November. Deze maand, Tauris Parke will publish Halliburton’s “The Flying Carpet: Adventures in a Biplane from Timbuktu to Everest and Beyond,” which will be followed in August by “Seven League Boots,” waarbij “America’s most dashing 1920s Explorer rides in search of Hannibal.”
In the course of an economical 200 pagina's, written about his 1925 adventures inspired by Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin), Halliburton spends the night on top of Mount Olympus in a violent rainstorm, sneaks past guards and dogs to break into the Parthenon in the middle of the night, and swims the Hellespont, the treacherous strait near the site of the city of Troy in which Helle drowned in the myth of the Golden Fleece.
All those stops occur before Halliburton arrives at the start of Odysseus’ reis.
Halliburton is an obscure figure outside of Memphis, where the bell tower at Rhodes College is named for him, and where the Rhodes library maintains a collection of his scrapbooks, journals and pictures. But those familiar with Halliburton’s exploits regularly compare him to Indiana Jones.
Born in 1900 in Brownsville, Tenn., Halliburton was a student at Memphis University School before he attended Princeton. His melodramatic death in 1939 contributed to his legendary status. While he was attempting to cross the Pacific from Hong Kong to San Francisco, the Chinese junk he had commissioned and all its crew were lost without a further trace at sea.
“Southerly gales rain squalls lee rail under water wet bunks hardtack bully beef having wonderful time wish you were here instead of me.” It was Halliburton’s last dispatch.
“To disappear on the trail of a glorious quest is surely the secret dream of any travel writer,” writes Tahir Shah in a foreword to the new edition of “The Glorious Adventure.” As Shah warns, Halliburton’s writing style “froths with verve and, at times, exhausts even the most devoted fan.”
Halliburton sets out for Greece in a Jazz Age funk. “Suddenly I became bored and impatient with everything I had and was: bored with people, bored with knowledge. I realized I didn’t want knowledge. I only wanted my senses to be passionately alive, and my imagination fearlessly far-reaching.”
In another page and a half, the reader finds Halliburton cowering atop Mount Olympus — along with his wryly sarcastic pal Roderic Crane and a Greek shepherd boy named Lazarus — as thunder and lightning assail the party, blowing over their makeshift shelter of piled rocks. “I lay stiff and aching under my granite grave, until I heard Lazarus, somewhere in the mêlée of arms and legs and stones, shout some terrible blasphemy at the elements. Here was the old fighting spirit!”
While Halliburton’s prose tends to the florid, the youthful travel writer can also create a lovely sense of awe and reverence. In a chapter called “Acropolitis,” he decides he must see the Parthenon by moonlight. After stalking the perimeter, waking a guard and a pack of watchdogs, he finds a wood-frame wall covered with tin and joined with rock facing — “a perfect ladder of cracks and crevices up which any normally agile person could climb with perfect ease.”
De “sublime Palace of Art” inspires a lyrical and refined admiration in Halliburton: “With all its prostration, the Parthenon is still the most overpowering ruin on earth — overpowering not from magnitude or richness, but because of its serene and classic perfection of form. Its terrible beauty is intellectual, not sensual.”
Such informed enthusiasm resurfaces in successive chapters about the Grecian grave of his hero, the poet Rupert Brooke, and finally, the stations of the Odyssey, ” The Windy Walls of Troy,” “Lotus Land,” “The Cyclops’ Cave.”
Halliburton wrote seven travel books, but was most successful as a lecturer. It was a time when only the privileged and determined could see the world by choice. Would-be wanderers from the middle-class had to find their thrills vicariously.
“Not for three thousand years has a day passed but some Greek, or Roman, or Byzantine, or modern Occidental has dreamed of Troy, or read of Troy, or gone to Troy,” Halliburton writes. He satisfied his own wanderlust, and that of early 20th-century readers.
–Peggy Burch: (901) 529-2392