Slocum biography hardly clear sailing

Prose bogs down the adventure

By Kevin O’Kelly
November 9, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

By any measure Joshua Slocum (1844-1909) lived a remarkable life. At age 15 he walked away from a life of desperate poverty in Nova Scotia to go to sea. At a time when many young sailors returned to shore at the first opportunity or died, Slocum not only survived but succeeded. He was first mate (second in command) at 19, master of his own ship at 25. Over a 20-year career as a captain, his ship was destroyed twice. The first time he rescued both crew and cargo with lifeboats. The second time he built a boat himself and sailed it from Brazil to Boston with no crew but his wife and two sons. And at 54, he became the first person to circumnavigate the world by himself.

For a biographer this material is writer’s gold. What a pity Geoffrey Wolff didn’t do a better job with it in “The Hard Way Around.’’ His narrative is at times confusing, and in taking on a 19th-century subject, Wolff seems to have absorbed a Victorian sensibility. Wolff occasionally indulges in classical allusions that aren’t particularly helpful. Does he expect readers to know what he means when he writes of Slocum’s departure from Nova Scotia: “Unlike Orpheus fleeing Hades, he needed no warning: Joshua Slocum would not look back’’? Or when he compares Slocum’s command of the ship Northern Light to Oedipus’s exile in Colonus?

But such preciousness pales in comparison to the frequent bizarreness of his prose. He describes one of Slocum’s business dealings as showing “what a carpe diem kind of fellow he was, remarkable even in such a carpe diem period in our carpe diem country’s history.’’

There are many other ways to describe the gusto with which Slocum took to writing about his adventures at sea besides “reporting put a busy bee in his bonnet.’’ When Wolff comes to one of the more controversial aspects of Slocum’s seamanship — the charges of brutal treatment of his men during his tenure as captain of the Northern Light — Wolff abandons the authoritative tone and piles on quote after lengthy quote from witness testimony and newspaper articles — much more than is necessary to convey the contradictory accounts of a matter that Wolff, in a rare moment of dispassionate clarity, concedes is ultimately unknowable.

However, Wolff does a remarkably good job of explaining the realities of 19th-century sailing: the variety of skills necessary to command a ship or be second mate, the brutally hard work required of officers and crew, and the complete isolation of long voyages. I put the book down with profound respect for those who ran and manned the ships during the last great years of sailing. But that knowledge and respect isn’t quite enough return on investment.

Enthusiasts of sailing history will probably find something of interest in this book. For general readers, however, “The Hard Way Around’’ is hard going.

Kevin O’Kelly can be reached through his blog at

THE HARD WAY AROUND: The Passages of Joshua Slocum

By Geoffrey Wolff

Knopf, 218 pp., illustrated, $25.95