…the best of books: a literary biography that also happens to be an adventure story. As it turns out, Slocum's back story is just as enthralling, if not more so, than anything that happened to him aboard the Spray. Indeed, portions of his life read like a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. Instead of subjecting Slocum to the needless third degree, Wolff approaches his subject as an unapologetic fan…After finishing this little book (which I did not want to end), I decided it was worthy of the admonition the British children's writer Arthur Ransome directed toward prospective readers of Slocum's narrative: those "who do not like this book ought to be drowned at once."
The New York Times
In Wolff's (Edge of Maine) biographical sketch of Joshua Slocum, a 19th-century mariner explorer and entrepreneur, accounts of Slocum's bold exploits abound, and abound, and abound. After a rigid and dreary childhood, Slocum applied his substantial engineering genius to a capricious, boat-dwelling lifestyle. "Again and again, when Slocum found himself in a fix he would boat-build his escape." According to Wolff, who all but deifies his subject, Slocum was a "carpe-diem kind of fellow... remarkable even in such a carpe-diem period in our carpe-diem country's history." He was a calculating gambling man with economic savoir faire, an awareness of the world, and a lucky-streak as wide as his wake. Ultimately, however, despite his resourcefulness, courage, and cunning, it's difficult to ignore his personal shortcomings; Wolff cannot write around Slocum's arrogance and general unpleasantness as a man. Nor can Wolff write himself out of a dull portrayal of his subject, and his biography often reads more like a reference book for turn-of-the-century folly. While Wolff may succeed in inspiring a spirit of adventure in some, it's hard to imagine him not alienating others.
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From the Publisher
“Enthralling. . . . Adroitly and economically told. . . . The best of books: a literary biography that also happens to be an adventure story.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“A rich portrait. . . . A fascinating true story.”
—The Seattle Times
“A rich seafaring yarn.”
—The Christian Science Monitor
“As one would expect from Geoffrey Wolff, The Hard Way Around is an engrossing and energetically written life of a very tricky and complex character. Slocum has at last met, in the author of The Duke of Deception, the biographer he has long deserved.”
—Jonathan Raban, author of Passage to Juneau
“Wolff captures the extraordinary life and nature of the man who in 1908 set sail from Martha's Vineyard for the Amazon and disappeared without trace.”
—The Boston Globe
“Concise. . . . Wolff holds a straight course in describing a solo sailor.”
“Engaging. . . . Wolff bores into Slocum's prose like a literary detective.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“Wolff’s book, written in muscular, academic prose, fills in the gaps [and] focuses on the legend at the peak of his powers.”
“Hugely entertaining and informative. In an era of teenage sailors routinely circumnavigating the world within a safety net of satellite phones, GPS navigation, emergency call beacons and corporate sponsorship, Wolff skillfully illuminates, celebrates and further burnishes the eccentric life and legacy of Joshua Slocum—master of tall ships and The North Star of solo travelers.”
—Eric Hansen, author of Stranger in the Forest
“Exhilarating. . . . A rewarding tale of life on the high seas.”
An exhilarating depiction of the adventurer, shipbuilder and writerJoshua Slocum, who spent nearly his entire life at sea and was the first man to sail solo across the globe.
It's tough to gauge which accomplishment merits more admiration—that Slocum left home at age 16 to start a heralded career as a deepwater captain or that in the twilight of life, he transformed a decaying sloop into a snug, fast vessel in which he sailed around the planet. Both require unimaginable stamina, courage, intelligence and love, and Slocum had plenty, as recounted in dynamic detail by Wolff (The Edge of Maine, 2005, etc.). Amid the steam revolution, Slocum held unrelenting loyalty to sailing ships, despite the frequent challenges and setbacks he and his family faced while traveling great distances to deliver cargo. On his honeymoon, he was forced to build a rescue boat from his own shipwreck. As a captain aboard theNorthern Light, he faced mutiny, and on theLiberdade, smallpox. Throughout, towering storms and touchy international relations made each voyage extremely difficult. Slocum didn't attempt a life on land until 1889, but he felt emotionally distant from both the culture and his second wife—thiswas an unsurprisingly brief period in which he spent most of his time rebuilding an old wreck given to him by an acquaintance. Literally and figuratively, the author writes, "when Slocum found himself in a fix he would boat-build his escape." By 1895, the sloop was reborn as theresplendentSpray, ready for the ocean and equipped (somewhat unbelievably) with the ability to self-sail. This boat took Slocum on his three-year solo trip around the world, a feat unrivalled for more than 25 years afterward. Wolff explores both the global political atmosphere of the time and Slocum's complicated emotional state during inconceivable periods of isolation.The author frequentlylauds Slocum's autobiographical works—especially Sailing Alone Around the World (1899)—describing his writing as fresh-voiced and richly nuanced, and he quotes from these publications to add context to the narrative.
A rewarding tale of life on the high seas.
Read an Excerpt
The Tales He Could Have Told
Joshua slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World (1900),his account of his audacious achievement as the first to complete a solocircumnavigation, is a tour de force of descriptive and narrative power. Histwo previous accounts of his voyages-The Voyage of the "Liberdade"(1890) and The Voyage of the "Destroyer" (1893)--are less remarkableonly for the huge shadow cast by his masterwork. To know what he achieved is tounderstand why the National Geographic Society, learning about Charles Lindbergh's solo transatlantic flight in 1927, elevated Lucky Lindy to a smallpantheon that included such notable voyagers as Dr. David Livingstone, SirGalahad, and Joshua Slocum. To read Slocum is to understand why GeorgePlimpton, in a charming personal essay about the most intriguing men and womenknown to history, wrote that Slocum would be one of the few he'd bring backfrom the grave to share a dinner and conversation. And what Plimpton knew ofhim didn't include the books that he'd been too busy to write.
Slocum might have made a grand adventure story of daring, catastrophe, and self-salvage from the facts of his honeymoon voyage as masterof the Washington. Following his wedding in Sydney, Australia, to Virginia-theAmerican daughter of a gold prospector-the couple sailed to Cook Inlet a coupleof years after the United States bought Alaska from the Russians. Seward'sIcebox (aka Seward's Folly) teemed with salmon that Slocum and his crew meant to catch, and did, but the Washington was driven aground and destroyed during agale. Slocum rescued his crew and their haul by building small boats from thewreckage, then daring to make the difficult passage to Kodiak Island and thenceto Seattle and San Francisco, where the fish were sold at a pretty price.
And it would be a thrilling study of enterprise andexotic geography to read Slocum's account of his adventures with the Pato, asmall packet that he and his family came by in Subic Bay as recompense for theyear they spent on a crocodile-infested beach, searching the branches above forboa constrictors and shaking centipedes and scorpions from their boots. Slocumhad been hired to build a steamship hull, but instead of his promised paymenthe was given the Pato, without a deck or cabin. Never mind: he built what heneeded to float his family and to trade in the Pacific, and soon they sailedthe schooner from Manila to Hong Kong and the Okhotsk Sea to fish for cod. Fourdays before the fishing began, Virginia gave birth to twin girls, but she thenstood undaunted at the Pato's rail with her infant son, Victor, hand-lining thehuge fish aboard. It was a great catch, and once the Pato was so loaded shebarely floated, Slocum sailed to Portland, where he sold the fish door-to-door.The twins died. The Pato next sailed for Honolulu, where his boat was shown offin an informal race against the fastest packet in Hawaiian waters, and won, where upon Slocum sold her for a small fortune in gold pieces.
And it should be wished that Slocum had written theserial tragedy of his voyages with his family aboard the Northern Light, theapogee of his merchant-shipping career. At Hong Kong in 1881, aged thirty-seven, he became one-third owner and master of "this magnificentship, my best command," as he uncharacteristically boasted. The medium clipper Northern Light, built eight years before and after the age of clipperships had passed, had a length of 233 feet, a beam of 44, and three decks. Itwas not only huge, spreading acres of canvas, but also built to demand attention: "I had a right to be proud of her," Slocum wrote,"for at that time she was the finest ship afloat."
Students of tragedy will recognize these words as aforeshadowing prologue, the pride that cometh before the proverbial sadheadline. Slocum's hubris at first seemed justified as the Northern Light sailed to Manila, Liverpool, and New York, where her progress up the East Riverwas blocked by the Brooklyn Bridge. She had to have her top masts dismantled to pass under this monumental connection in the web of land routes and steam-powered conveyances that were rushing together to end Slocum's calling.
Having refurbished his ship, Slocum began his voyage tothe Pacific with a crew that makes of "motley" an encomium. They gotas far as New London, Connecticut, before the Northern Light exhibited acharacter flaw, the failure of her rudder. The crew mutinied. The Coast Guard intervened, but not before a mutineer stabbed the first mate to death.
Slocum wrote about none of this, nor about forging aheadwith the same awful crew, seeing the prophetic Great Comet of 1882, and passingnear Krakatoa after its initial eruptions in May 1883 and before its finalcataclysm in August but in time to sail into a sea of boiling pumice. He did commit to paper his rescue of Gilbert Island missionaries adrift for more than forty days in an open boat, and his transport of these grateful castaways to Yokohama, where he attempted unsuccessfully to have members of his restive crew removed. He sailed on for the Cape of Good Hope, where the ship'srudderhead-the same mechanism that had brought such dismay near NewLondon-twisted off. Huge seas then opened other weaknesses of hull structure, and only furious pumping kept the ship afloat, till it was noticed that the pumps' discharge was slowing, a trickling brown syrup as thick as molasses,which in fact was what they were pumping-a gummy slurry of the hold's cargo ofsugar and seawater.
In newspaper interviews and court depositions, Slocum didrecord what befell him next. He reached a lucky haven in Port Elizabeth, wherethe Northern Light was patched up and he hired as a mate an ex-convict, Henry Slater, who was traveling under forged papers. Sailing for New York, the crewagain mutinied, and Slater was put in irons and confined to the hold on a dietof bread and water for fifty-three days. Upon arrival, Slater was freed and Slocum arrested, charged with excessive and unjust punishment of his prisoner.The trial was theatrical, with reversals of fortune and conflicting testimony,and the New York Times editorial page, rushing to misjudgment, vilified Slocumas a barbarian unfit to command a ship. He was fined and lost his ownership ofthe Northern Light, which was worth less in any case than repairs to her hulland rigging would cost. She was dismasted, sold as a coal barge, and tuggedport to port by a steamboat, sooty as the dust clouds from Krakatoa.
It's no wonder Slocum didn't wish to tell this sad tale,which nevertheless deserves telling. What he did write was more than enough tosecure his standing as a great writer, navigator, and adventurer, our AmericanSinbad. The historian Bruce Catton wrote of Slocum in 1959 that it was fittingto "mention Slocum on the same page with Columbus, because all truevoyages of discovery are basically alike." And what makes a voyage "true"? Above all, it must be inward, "concerned first of all with something in himself, if it be nothing more than the conviction that if hesearches long enough he can make the world give him something he has not yet had."
From the Hardcover edition.