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4/22/14

Richard Halliburton at Nineteen and for the Rest of His Brief Life

He was the popular icon of an era, the handsome, debonair Princeton man, the admirer of Rupert Brooke and Lord Byron.  He found adventure and exotic lands while others slaved for the dollar.  He fulfilled his dream and his fame spread.  Today, his books are still found in libraries—pages brown and tattered, perhaps—but they remain on shelves.
Richard exulted in his romanticism, finding in it the means to define himself and his life and, eventually, his livelihood.  His income would come from following his heart.

He deliberately steered his life away from convention.  He deplored the grey and the humdrum.  Two words summarize what he reacted against.  To his father’s letter hoping that he return to Princeton and live in the “even tenor” of his way, he replied on December 5, 1919, “I hate that expression and as far as I am able I intend to avoid that condition.”

These were not idle words.  “Even tenor” indeed represented all that he loathed and spurned.  As he put it, “When impulse and spontaneity fail to make my way as uneven as possible then I shall sit up nights inventing means of making life as conglomerate and vivid as possible.”

Richard was after deep emotion and keen aesthetic experience.  He sought to liberate his imagination from the chains of authority and blind adherence to convention.

Even tenor.  “Those who live in the even tenor of their way simply exist until death ends their monotonous tranquility.  No, there’s going to be no even tenor with me.  The more uneven it is the happier I shall be.  And when my time comes to die, I’ll be able to die happy, for I will have done and seen and heard and experienced all the joy, pain, thrills, every emotion that any human ever had, and I’ll be especially happy if I am spared a stupid, common death in bed.”

To parents he loved and cared for, he was saying farewell to their values, the values of Memphis.  He had lived his youth in a sleepy town next the Mississippi, had watched the Twentieth Century explode at places like the Somme, blasting out of the mud, bomb craters, machine guns, and mustard gas of No Man's Land.  In the next decade, he saw the Jazz Age being born, with its scorn of the older generation and their staid sense of duty.

He not only rebuked his father, he rebuked Memphis when he wrote, “So, Dad, I’m afraid your wish will come to naught, for my way is to be ever changing, but always swift, acute and leaping from peak to peak instead of following the rest of the herd, shackled in conventionalities, along the monotonous narrow path in the valley.  The dead have reached perfection when it comes to even tenor!”

He was nineteen at the time, and for many teenagers such declarations could be dismissed as adolescent arrogance not yet confronted with hard reality, but for Halliburton a fierce determination lay behind the words.
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Excerpt from an early draft of Don't Die in Bed: The Brief, Intense life of Richard Halliburton

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