A cursory overview of Geoffrey Wolff’s biographies – ”Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby,” “The Art of Burning Bridges: A Life of John O’Hara,” and “The Duke of Deception,” about his unreliable father – reveals his predilection for writing about fascinating but difficult men. Joshua Slocum, the legendary sailor profiled in The Hard Way Around, fits right into Wolff’s belligerent lineup.
Slocum is best remembered as the first person to circumnavigate the globe solo. He set sail from Massachusetts in 1895 on the Spray, an unusual, remodeled 37-foot sloop, and returned home three years, two months, two days, and 46,000 miles later. (His route was indirect and punctuated by long stopovers.) It was a feat that wouldn’t be repeated for another 25 years.
As impressive as Wolff finds Slocum’s nautical prowess, he is even more bowled over by his literary skills. Slocum documented his solo voyage in his third book, “Sailing Alone Around the World,” published in 1900. “The Hard Way Around” is in large part a tribute to this book. Wolff remembers its profound impact when he first read it 50 years ago: “Having meant to read a sea adventure ... I stumbled on this run of language, bearing its load so easily, and the emotional burden it discharges so cunningly. Taking my breath away, it made me feel what I can only describe as love.”
He adds, “To read Slocum is to understand why George Plimpton, in a charming personal essay about the most intriguing men and women known to history, wrote that Slocum would be one of the few he’d bring back from the grave to share a dinner and conversation.”
That’s high praise, and it’s a tribute to Wolff’s own narrative powers that his readers aren’t tempted to put his book aside for Slocum’s. Good thing, too, because Slocum’s life was filled with adventures about which, as Wolff points out, “he’d been too busy to write.”
Right after his mother’s death, 16-year-old Slocum left the harsh life of “full-time Dickensian labor” – farming and cobbling shoes for his severe father in Nova Scotia – to become a seaman. The profession he joined, maritime commerce on wooden sailing vessels, was already doomed by steam and iron. But in a world of drunken, conscripted sailors, he rose quickly, commanding his own ship by 25. Wolff likens Slocum’s rare gift for navigation to perfect pitch in music.
In 1871, after 11 years at sea, Slocum was lucky enough to meet and marry a fellow adventurer and soulmate, Virginia Walker, the daughter of a gold prospector. For the next 13 years, until her death at 34 off the Buenos Aires coast, Virginia traveled with him through tempests, mutinies, and the loss of three of their seven children, turning his ships into “hen frigates.” “The Hard Way Around” celebrates this rare marriage, barely mentioned in Slocum’s writings.
One of the many pleasures of Wolff’s book is its rich seafaring terminology. We learn that “williwaws” are “explosive gusts peculiar to mountainous fjords,”and “a larrikin” is “a wise guy and a loafer.” “Paying homage to Neptune” is a euphemism for vomiting from seasickness, while “skipping along with a bone in her teeth” refers to “the benign bow wave that announced a vessel traveling near her maximum hull speed.”
Wolff charts Slocum’s restless, quixotic career, from boat to boat, port to port, and disaster to disaster. At one point he pauses for a recap: “The tally thus far for Joshua Slocum at the age of 45: He had lost to death three infant children and his first wife. He had lost to shipwreck two clippers, been charged with cruel imprisonment of one crew member and the murder of another. His second wife, Hettie, in sympathy with that seasick sailor of the Odyssey, wished to flee so far inland that local citizens wouldn’t recognize the purpose of an oar. He was broke. The age of sail had ended. The captain was, that is, entirely at sea.”
Despite Slocum’s multiple misfortunes and his notorious stubbornness and hot temper, Wolff remains resolutely admiring of this legend of adventure, who disappeared at sea sometime after 1908. As for the reader, by the time Wolff gets to Slocum’s solo voyage – “the nautical equivalent of Walden” – after all the mutinies, assaults, lawsuits, epidemics, and jail time, we’re relieved that the contentious captain sailed on his own steam, even if he always, as Wolff’s title suggests, took the hard way around.
Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent Monitor contributor.