As he planned a sailing jaunt after graduation from college, Geoffrey Wolff ’60 took a friend’s advice and read Joshua Slocum’s travel masterpiece, Sailing Alone Around the World. That 1900 book tells the story of Slocum’s audacious 1895 voyage of 46,000 miles in a converted oyster sloop, Spray — without companions or even a chronometer to judge his location. It was the first solo circumnavigation of the globe.
“I was just stunned by the writing,” remembers Wolff, who would read Slocum’s account many times in subsequent years. “It’s been a touchstone book for me.” Last month, Knopf published Wolff’s biography of the colorful character, The Hard Way Around: The Passages of Joshua Slocum.
An author of both fiction and nonfiction, Wolff is best known for Duke of Deception: Memories of My Father, an account of a troubled relationship. It is a kind of companion to his brother Tobias Wolff’s acclaimed This Boy’s Life (when the family split, Geoffrey went with their father, Tobias with their mother). Geoffrey Wolff also wrote a novel based on his experiences at elitist 1950s Princeton, The Final Club, as well as a biography of writer John O’Hara, who lived near the University.
Recently retired from teaching creative writing at the University of California, Irvine, Wolff lives on the rocky coast of Maine, in the shipbuilding town of Bath. For four years he has been immersed in the nautical world of Slocum, whose literary gifts included the ability to mingle nonfiction and fiction techniques. “He used the boundaries of fact — real places and real things,” Wolff says, “but would create the most imaginative sentence constructions around them.”
Born in Nova Scotia, the irrepressible Slocum went to sea at 16 after his mother died. He commanded a succession of schooners, taking his wife along and raising a family amid the countless hazards of ocean voyages. On his solo trip, he experienced the psychological torture of dense fogs, an illness that caused him to hallucinate, even a rogue wave “towering masthead-high above me.” On other expeditions, the mariner described braving murderous pirates near Tierra del Fuego and quelling mutinous crewmen, but Wolff had to fill in the details of his inner life. Slocum, he explains, showed “reticence in his writing. He leaves many clues as to what hurt or inspired him, but he does not speak directly.”
Age proved to be Slocum’s most formidable foe. He craved new adventures even as his physical powers weakened and the great age of sail creaked to an end. In 1908 the 65-year-old attempted another solo voyage in the then-dilapidated Spray and disappeared at sea.
“I like his wit,” says Wolff of the seafarer he has spent a lifetime admiring. “He’s a very funny man. And there’s no resentment of nature in him, ever. I find that quite heroic.”
By W. Barksdale Maynard ’88
W. Barksdale Maynard ’88 is the author of five books on American history, including Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency.