The Hard Way Around by Geoffrey Wolff

The Hard Way Around is the best of books: a literary biography that also happens to be an adventure story.” —Nathaniel Philbrick, The New York Times Book Review

A masterful biographer now offers a thrilling, definitive portrait of one of history’s most legendary icons of adventure.

In 1860, sixteen-year-old Joshua Slocum escaped a hardscrabble childhood in Nova Scotia by signing on as an ordinary seaman to a merchant ship bound for Dublin. Despite having only a third-grade education, Slocum rose through the nautical ranks at a mercurial pace; just a decade later he was commander of his own ship. His subsequent journeys took him nearly everywhere: Liverpool, China, Japan, Cape Horn, the Dutch East Indies, Manila, Hong Kong, Saigon, Singapore, San Francisco, and Australia—where he met and married his first wife, Virginia, who would sail along with him for the rest of her life, bearing and raising their children at sea. He commanded eight vessels and owned four, enduring hurricanes, shipwrecks, pirate attacks, cholera, smallpox, a mutiny, and the death of his wife and three of his children. Yet his ultimate adventure and crowning glory was still to come.

In 1895 Slocum set sail from Gloucester, Massachusetts—by himself—in the Spray, a small sloop of thirty-seven feet. More than three years and forty-six thousand miles later, he became the first man to circumnavigate the globe solo, a feat that wouldn’t be replicated until 1925. His account of that voyage, Sailing Alone Around the World, soon made him internationally famous. He met President Theodore Roosevelt on several occasions and became a presence on the lecture circuit, selling his sea-saga books whenever and wherever he could. But scandal soon followed, and a decade later, with his finances failing, he set off alone once more—and was never seen again.

Geoffrey Wolff captures this singular life and its flamboyant times—from the Golden Age of Sail to a shockingly different new century—in vivid, fascinating detail.

An acclaimed novelist, essayist, biographer, and critic, Geoffrey Wolff is a prominent voice in contemporary American literature. Educated at Cambridge and at Princeton, from which he graduated summa cum laude, he is Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, where he was the Director of the Graduate Fiction Program from 1995 to 2006. Previously, he served on the faculties of Istanbul University and Princeton University and has been a book editor at the Washington Post and Newsweek. He is the author of six novels, including The Age of Consent (Knopf, 1995), set in a close-knit utopian community in upstate New York, and The Final Club (Knopf, 1990), about secretive social networks at Princeton. His nonfiction books include Black Sun (Random House, 1976), on the short-lived avant-garde poet Harry Crosby; The Art of Burning Bridges: A Life of John O’Hara (Knopf, 2003), a literary biography of the American fiction writer; The Duke of Deception (Random House, 1979), a memoir that was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize; The Edge of Maine (National Geographic, 2005), a rich portrayal of the salty, sea-pounded, and seasonally gentrified Maine coast; and The Hard Way Around: The Passages of Joshua Slocum (Knopf 2010), a biography of the legendary icon of adventure. He received the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1994 and his honors also include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. During 2007, he was a Fellow of the American Academy in Berlin. He lives in Bath, Maine with his family.

From our Q&A with the author

Q: What drew you to Joshua Slocum as a subject?

A: The personal history that led Capt. Slocum to be the first to sail alone around the world was fascinating on its face. Why around and why alone were not questions that he directly answered in Sailing Alone Around the World, his extraordinary book about the adventure. To explore his life I hoped to understand what prepared him to succeed and what might have drawn him to endure more than three years of solitude. (In fact, while I say “endure”—thinking of solitary confinement—he might well have said “enjoy.”) And while Slocum had written about two other adventures—the self-rescue of his family after a shipwreck in Brazil by building and sailing 5,500 miles in a canoe (the Liberdade) and bringing a warship (the Destroyer) from New York to Brazil during one of its comic-opera civil wars—he never had the leisure to write about the many other extraordinary feats and perils he experienced afloat and ashore during the second half of the 19th century. He ran away to sea from Nova Scotia to Liverpool at sixteen, and rocketed through the ranks to become a very young master of a majestic bark in the San Francisco-Sydney trade. He sailed everywhere, and experienced astonishing trials: mutinous murders, shipwrecks, piracy, the eruption of Krakatoa, deadly shipboard epidemics, the capricious booms and busts of the shipping trade, the deaths of his beloved wife and three of their children.

Q: Did his wife join him at sea?
Virginia Walker was a young American beauty when she and Slocum met in Sydney, where her father had brought her during the Australian gold rush. After a whirlwind courtship they married, Joshua twenty-six and Virginia young enough to require the consent of her parents. A crack shot, an adventurer always eager for a new escapade, she was Slocum’s full partner at sea, from San Francisco to Alaska to Manila to Hong Kong to the Okhotsk Sea to Portland to Honolulu to Liverpool to New York, around Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope. That is, until her death at sea near Buenos Aires thirteen years later. Four children—three boys and a girl—survived; the deaths of the other three in infancy—twins and a little girl—caused unspeakable grief. I have tried to imagine and convey what it must have been like to be anchored in the Philippines, pickle your baby in brandy to preserve her corpse for a proper burial, and then raise sail and navigate to Hong Kong.

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