I am still working my way through China, Japan, and parts of India, thanks to this large collection of Asian books. One small item I found as I worked my way through the underbrush was a collection of essays on India by Jim Corbett. “Jim Corbett,” says I, “That name’s familiar. Jim Corbett.” Glancing through the table of contents, I spotted a familiar name. “Eureka!” I cried, startling a cardinal taking shelter just outside the door. “Man-Eaters of Kumaon!”
Man-Eaters of Kumaon, published in 1944, is one of those books without which we could not have a Book Fair. It would be like trying to pretend we’re selling records without a copy of Carole King’s Tapestry, or that we have any novels at all if we haven’t a copy of The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Thinking of the Man-Eaters, I considered some other adventure tales we somehow have never gone without at a Book Fair.
“Adventurer” is not a job title the IRS would understand, but Martin Johnson, born in Rockford, Illinois, never wanted to be anything else. He started by serving aboard Jack London’s Snark on one of that author’s ocean ventures, and then, as many adventurers did, set off across America giving lectures to make enough money to pay for more adventures. On his way through Kansas, he met Osa Leighty, whom he married and who was to make him immortal with her bestseller, I Married Adventure. They went adventuring together, first in the South Seas (as recounted in the 1918 silent feature Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Seas) and then in Africa, which resulted in books (Three Boy Scouts in Africa) and movies (Congorilla). They were the first pilots to fly over Mt. Kilimanjaro and the first married couple to appear on the Wheaties box. Martin was killed in a plane crash in 1937. Osa went on to write all this up in a big zebra-striped book which sold plenty of copies and led to her hosting the first television wildlife series.
Richard Halliburton decided at Princeton that a career in adventure was for him. Starting along conventional lines by signing aboard a freighter as a seaman, he went on to swim the Panama Canal, live for a while on a desert island to see how it felt to be Robinson Crusoe, hike across Greece in search of Homeric adventure, and fly around the world. His first, and best selling, book, The Royal Road to Romance, was rejected by numerous publishers who sneered at it as the childish effort of a show-off. When finally published in 1925, it was a huge hit, and led to further books, and a career in “adventure journalism”, a style of story-hunting which took him to all sorts of romantic and exciting places. He sought out celebrities for fun and added publicity. They, as he became more famous, sought him out for the same reasons. His home, known as Hangover House for its location on a sheer cliff, is still regarded as an architectural marvel. When he disappeared trying to sail a Chinese junk across the Pacific, he sealed his reputation as an adventure-seeker.
Jim Corbett, now, was a professional who just happened onto adventure from time to time. It wasn’t his fault: men who specialize in tracking down man-eating tigers find this sort of thing goes with the job. (As a sideline, he also went after a couple of man-eating leopards.) He was born in Kumaon, in India, of English parents, and his day job was with a railroad. But as a kid, he had spent all his spare time among the trees, learning the ways of the animals, and he was a natural for tracking them down when they became threatening. In his bestselling Man-Eaters of Kumaon, he makes it clear that he never blamed the tigers for this bad habit. Careless hunters who wounded an animal and didn’t follow through could hurt a tiger badly enough that it couldn’t hunt its usual prey and had to settle for less tasty but more easily caught two-legged game. He helped establish a national park in India, to preserve the Bengal tiger (after his death, this was renamed Corbett Park), and also had a species of tiger named for him.
You will find these books in the Travel section among other perennial adventurers like Thor Heyerdahl (Kon-Tiki), Frank Buck (Bring ‘Em Back Alive), and Sir Francis Chichester (Gipsy Moth Circles the World). Good reading for those days when riding the CTA just isn’t dangerous enough for you.