by Matt Bergstrom
New Worlds to Conquer
Richard Halliburton was born in 1900 to a middle-class Memphis family. His early life was spent in preparation for a good middle-class career favored by his parents. After his second year at Princeton, however, Richard secretly escaped from Memphis to New Orleans where he signed on as a sailor on a ship bound for England. The tough life of the sea soon proved too much for young Richard and he returned to his home at the nearest opportunity. When he arrived, however, he found to his surprise that his mother did not welcome him but insisted that he return to the ship to fulfill his obligation to sail to England. His parents did not approve of his adventure plans but thought it best that he get it out of his system and return to respectable life. Grudgingly, Richard boarded the dreaded ship once again, but this time he came to enjoy the journey and continued his rambling through England and then France for the next several months.
Richard returned to Princeton but his adventurous spirit had not faded but increased. Soon he was making plans for a return visit to France. After graduation, having secured several contracts to publish articles on his adventures, Richard and a classmate were off tramping the breadth of Europe. The magazine articles were not nearly as much of a success as he had hoped, however, and attempts to sell them as a book after he had returned to the U.S. met only rejections. Though he had a poor speaking voice, he managed to get a job with a lecture-circuit company. In the 1920's, public speakers were very popular entertainment at civic clubs, camps and colleges. From a small start, Richard's thrilling stories soon catapulted him to nearly the most popular of the company's speakers. Suddenly publishers were interested in printing his book which came out in 1925 as The Royal Road to Romance. This increased his popularity, bringing more speaking engagements, more money to finance further adventures and more books: The Glorious Adventure in 1927, New Worlds to Conquer in 1929, The Flying Carpet in 1932, Seven League Boots in 1935, and Book of Marvels in 1936.
Being one of the most popular figures in the U.S. took its toll. The constant schedule of speeches, book signings and public appearances wore down Richard's health and spirit. After several years he started to despise the mobs of fans who followed him everywhere and soon he was merely going through the motions at his appearances. His critics attacked him for his following. He disliked being called a "travel writer" but his efforts to write a serious literary work were blocked by the brand created by the millions of housewives, teenagers and middle-class armchair adventurers who were his fans. Like Lawrence of Arabia, these pressures served to undermine his self-confidence in whether he was really extraordinary or simply a talentless nobody set up by the masses. His anxiety attacks were only worsened by his inability to keep any of his money very long. He was constantly asking his publishers for advances on his next book to cover travel expenses. His later adventures required ever-increasing amounts for ever more spectacular stunts.
This is readily apparent in the book New Worlds to Conquer. In it, Halliburton follows the trail of Cortez across Central America, then Pizarro and Balboa to Peru, and then around South America back to the Caribbean. Along the way, he frequently wins the natives' approval with gifts. In Buenos Aires he even bought a monkey and hurdy gurdy from an old Italian so that he could experience playing it on the street.
His methods of travelling often would seem contrived or preposterous to modern readers. When there was no adventure happening by itself, he would create his own. A highlight of the book is Halliburton's swim across the Panama Canal. Some of his critics pointed out his obsession with proving his heroism through such stunts, for many of them were not especially dangerous but described as such by the adventurer.
Despite these shortcomings, the book is interesting and entertaining to read. The child-like enthusiasm of Halliburton's personality comes through, clearly adding to the enjoyment. It is easy to see why he was such a popular storyteller in his day.
As Richard adventured further, he became less satisfied with what he had already done. Even his journeys were no longer as exciting as they once were, and he grew bored with the smaller stunts. Now the only things that thrilled him were near-death experiences, such as when he nearly crashed into Mount Everest on his flight around the world. He began to think he had burned out and had done everything there was to do and see, which made him more anxious about his financial security. He started thinking that death was the only thing he had not done.
In 1939, Halliburton embarked on his riskiest adventure yet to sail a Chinese junk from Hong Kong to San Francisco in time for the World's Fair. The custom-built ship was judged by many as unseaworthy and top-heavy. The bullheaded captain caused terrible strife among the crew, forcing new Chinese sailors to be hired at the last minute. On her shakedown cruise, the ship nearly sank and barely made it back to the harbor. To top off all these bad omens, their course would take them through pirate-infested waters and then up the coast of hostile Japan into a major storm alley. After many financial and construction delays, the Sea Dragon set sail on March 4, 1939. She made good progress until, on March 24th, she lost radio contact in a terrible typhoon. Richard Halliburton and crew disappeared forever off the face of the earth.