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Walden-on-Sea

In April 1895, when he sailed from Boston in a tubby home-made sloop on a solo voyage around the world, Joshua Slocum was fifty-one and on the run from his Furies. He was then barely on speaking terms with his second wife (“[My father] and Hettie did not pull on the same rope,” said Slocum’s youngest son, Garfield). He was at the bitter—and litigious—end of his seagoing career. His one published book, The Voyage of the Liberdade (1890), had attracted little notice and almost no sales. If he had hoped to follow Dana and Melville into the ranks of seamen-turned-authors, he began from a position of huge disadvantage. His father had removed him from school when he was ten. His spelling and punctuation were stuck in the third grade. Later on, his letters to publishers would speak, unpromisingly, of “litterary production,” of his mind being “deffinately fixed” on his “voyoage.”*

Like Conrad (who was thirteen years his junior), Slocum was pigheaded in his attachment to sail at a time when the shipping industry was converting to screw-driven steamers. As a result, he captained a succession of elderly craft carrying second-rate cargoes and manned by third-rate crews. Two ships under his command ran aground on shoals and became total losses. In 1883, he was convicted in New York on a charge of cruel and false imprisonment of a crew-member, whom Slocum kept in irons in a lazarette on a voyage from South Africa to the United States. In 1884, his beloved first wife, Virginia, died suddenly aboard the Aquidneck at Buenos Aires. She was thirty-four. In 1887, in Antonina, Brazil, Slocum shot dead one crew-member and injured another; he was detained, tried for murder, and acquitted on the grounds of justifiable homicide. Four months later, he grounded the Aquidneck on a sandbar and for the next six years he engaged in a quixotic lawsuit against the Brazilian government, claiming $50,000 in damages for his lost ship. He returned from this misadventure, with his sons and his new wife, in an eccentric sailing craft named the Liberdade, built largely from the wreckage of the Aquidneck. The experience wasn’t a happy one for the second Mrs. Slocum. When Slocum invited her to join him on further cruises, she is reputed to have answered stonily, “I’ve had a v’yage, Joshua.”

He was a profoundly disappointed and frustrated man when he came to build the Spray in a field at Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Slocum’s carpentry was rough but rugged. The boat, more barge than yacht, with its low sheer, blunt bow, sawn-off stern, and shallow draft, was a private ark, designed to float free of the irksome land. With no crew to make trouble, no wife to bicker with, and no perishable cargo (except for an unusually well-stocked library), Slocum took off into the blue. He meant to make the voyage pay for itself by writing travel articles for the Boston Globe at twenty dollars a pop, and by giving lectures at his ports of call.

The voyage was a triumph of practical navigation and boat-handling. It salvaged Slocum’s reputation as a master mariner when he would otherwise have been remembered, if at all, for his misfortunes, bad calls of judgment, and costive tangles with the authorities. By the time he was halfway round the globe, he was tasting fame of the bright but evanescent kind that comes to astronauts and Olympic skaters. In 1896, the Sydney Morning Herald feted him as “a worthy descendant of an illustrious line of seakings,” and the Daily Shipping News printed a poem in his honor:

Hear the song of skipper Slocum Best Afloat.
This is not a Yankee Fairy. Anecdote…

Crowds showed up for his lectures. When he reached South Africa, he was introduced to President Kruger and taken on an ambassadorial tour of the country. Spry, bald, beginning to wizen, dressed in a crumpled suit of dark serge a size too big for him, Slocum was an unlikely, late-flowering hero. He had rescued his dignity and good name out of the teeth of a loveless marriage and a derailed career.

When he sat down to write Sailing Alone Around the World in 1899, first in his sister-in-law’s house in East Boston, then in the aft-cabin in the Spray, moored at the Erie Basin in Brooklyn, he aimed at something more ambitious than a mere record of the voyage. The record existed in the logbook and in the official entry stamps in the ship’s papers. Sailing Alone was a conscious literary production. Slocum allowed his memory and imagination free play over the events of the previous four years, and recast the facts of the voyage in the stylized and patterned form of a myth.

He was a passionate reader. His eldest son Victor (who published a biography of Slocum in 1950) remembered his father’s stateroom aboard his biggest ship, the Northern Light, as looking like “the study of a literary worker or a college professor,” with its shelves of Tennyson, Dickens, Coleridge, Cervantes, Lamb, Addison, Irving, Macaulay, Gibbon, Hume, Bancroft, and Prescott. Twain and Stevenson were favorite contemporaries, and, though Slocum never quotes Thoreau directly, Sailing Alone is so full of echoes of Walden that it reads like Walden-on-sea.

Thoreau’s cabin in the woods and Slocum’s boat are both built in the spring—the season of new life, and of new lives for their constructors.

Hardly were the ribs of the sloop up before apple-trees were in bloom. Then the daisies and the cherries came soon after. Close by the place where the old Spray had now dissolved rested the ashes of John Cook, a revered Pilgrim father. So the new Spray rose from hallowed ground. From the deck of the new craft I could put out my hand and pick cherries that grew over the little grave.

In a typically graceful maneuver, Slocum throws out a long line, lassos the Mayflower, and brings it without fuss alongside the Spray. Twenty pages later, he secures the Pinta, the Nina, and the Santa Maria by a similar stratagem. Slyly, and without immodesty, Slocum sets his own voyage beside the two most important voyages in American history. In Walden, Thoreau issued a grand injunction: “Be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you,…explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being alone.” In Sailing Alone, Slocum at once inverts that metaphor and makes it literal: he turns real oceans into the private sea of his own being.

As Thoreau tendered the accounts for his construction project (“In all, $28.121/2š”), so does Slocum ($553.62š); and as Thoreau signaled his communion with nature by charming the perch in Walden Pond with his flute, so Slocum is no sooner afloat than he is performing a broad comic riff on that famous Walden moment.

You should have seen the porpoises leap when I pitched my voice for the waves and the sea and all that was in it. Old turtles, with large eyes, poked their heads up out of the sea as I sang “Johnny Boker,” and “We’ll Pay Darby Doyl for his Boots,” and the like. But the porpoises were, on the whole, vastly more appreciative than the turtles; they jumped a deal higher.

Thoreau removed himself from Concord society in order to discover “what are the gross necessaries of life”—a question that helps to give Sailing Alone its carefully plotted shapeliness. At regular intervals on the voyage, Slocum jettisons bits of navigational equipment until, at the end, he is at one with the turtles and the porpoises. Unable to afford the $15.00 repair bill, he leaves his marine chronometer at home, and instead ships a $1.50 tin clock (reduced to $1.00 because it has a busted face), which needs to be boiled to keep it going.

The tin clock is a joke with a long fuse. One’s meant to guffaw at Slocum’s foolhardiness. To calculate longitude by the usual method, an accurate chronometer is essential. But eighty pages later Slocum confesses that he can solve the infamous equation needed to estimate longitude by measuring by sextant angle the rapid transit of the moon across the sky—the immensely difficult “lunar distance” method, for which a chronometer is unnecessary. The business of the tin clock, like the reference to John Cook’s grave, is a sly plant.

Making the lunar calculation, Slocum finds that his navigational tables are in error—and so another of the ingenious works of man turns out to be superfluous to the navigator’s needs. “If I doubted my reckoning after a long time at sea I verified it by reading the clock aloft made by the Great Architect, and it was right.” Next, Slocum hauls in the patent log (for measuring distance traveled through the water) after its blades have been chewed by a shark. His tin clock loses its minute hand. Finally, back in the Atlantic, a goat eats his chart of the shoal-ridden approaches to the West Indies. Sans chronometer, sans tables, sans log, sans chart, Slocum sails on, free of the whole technological apparatus of modern navigation, an avatar of Emersonian self-reliance.

Abandoning the contrivances that stand between himself and nature, Slocum finds his way across the ocean by instinct and intuition. He has become a creature of the sea. On the first page of the book, it is “the wonderful sea,” and on the last, the point is tartly underscored: “The Spray…did not… sail to powwow about the dangers of the seas. The sea has been much maligned.”

Before Slocum, the literature of nineteenth-century small-boat adventuring was one long powwow about the dangers of the seas. British yachtsmen like John MacGregor (The Voyage Alone in the Yawl ‘Rob Roy’), R. T. McMullen (Down Channel), and E. E. Middleton (The Cruise of ‘The Kate’) worked up their vacation cruises on the English Channel, the North Sea, and the Irish Sea into heroic tales of their own valor in the face of a cruel, treacherous, and spiteful ocean. In these books, the sea was a battleground on which manly courage was tested, and the publication of a sea-memoir was proof that the author had fought and triumphed over the terrible water.

Slocum’s kindly, hospitable ocean was a heretical novelty. In Sailing Alone, the land is the dangerous element. Inshore, pirates lie in wait for unwary small craft; on shore, Slocum is dogged by bores, thieves, and bureaucrats. He nearly loses his life on a lagoon in the Keeling & Cocos Islands, “where I trusted all to some one else.”

Whenever the land sinks out of sight astern, Slocum resumes his strange, gruff, fugitive idyll. He reads. He cooks supper. He watches the fish and the birds. He sleeps soundly. “There was no end of companionship; the very coral reefs kept me company.” The heart of Sailing Alone lies in these passages, where nothing much happens except for Slocum’s comfortable enjoyment of his own solitude and his growing kinship with the sea-creatures. It’s an axiom of the book that the Spray could sail itself for improbably long periods with the helm lashed: Slocum claims to have sailed 2,700 miles in twenty-three days, with less than three hours spent at the wheel. Whatever one thinks of that feat (and many people have doubted it), the miraculous self-steering properties of the boat are essential to the book. They set Slocum free to loaf and meditate, and they shift the burden of command and control from the captain to the Spray herself. This is her voyage, on which Slocum is a privileged passenger. In gales and shoals, he potters about his floating freehold, shortening sail, keeping watch; the Spray‘s attendant rather than her master. Most of the time, he affects a Zenlike passivity: “I was en rapport now with my surroundings, and was carried on a vast stream where I felt the buoyancy of His hand who made all the worlds.”

According to Victor Slocum, his father used to recite “the albatross part” of the Ancient Mariner by heart, and something very much like the albatross part happens in Sailing Alone. As Slocum comes to experience his own creatureliness, he recoils from the idea of eating meat:

In the loneliness of the dreary country about Cape Horn I found myself in no mood to make one life less in the world, except in self-defense, and as I sailed this trait of the hermit character grew till the mention of killing food-animals was revolting to me.

Slocum had his own albatross. He had killed the sailor in Brazil (in self-defense). He must also have felt that he was at least partly to blame for Virginia’s death aboard the Aquidneck (she died before Slocum could reach a doctor). Watching over his little family of Boston spiders in the Spray, and blessing the sea creatures unaware, Slocum reaches an atonement, which he makes explicit in a typically covert and riddling way, at the end of the book.

I had profited in many ways by the voyage. I had even gained flesh, and actually weighed a pound more than when I sailed from Boston. As for aging, why, the dial of my life was turned back till my friends all said, “Slocum is young again.” And so I was, at least ten years younger than the day I felled the first tree for the construction of the Spray.

That day was in the winter of 1892. Ten years before, Slocum was captaining his best and biggest ship, virginia was alive and well, his tangles with the law lay in the future, and Hettie was merely a cousin with whom he was on nodding terms. The voyage of the Spray symbolically expunged the worst decade of Slocum’s life.

Although he needed an editor to season his prose with commas and semicolons, Slocum had a pitch-perfect ear for tone and cadence—and he created for himself a written voice of understated eloquence and tinderdry irony. In outline, Sailing Alone can easily be misrepresented as solemn, with its celebration of the Transcendentalist watchwords of nature, solitude, self-reliance. In reality, it is surprisingly funny. Slocum was expert at sounding the plangent chord and simultaneously deconstructing it with a sardonic cough. If his book resembles Walden, it’s even more like Mark Twain’s Walden.

Slocum’s whole strategy as a stylist depends on his maintaining a calculated distance between himself and his readers. He is, in the original sense of the term, aloof: luffed-up into the wind, standing off from the shore. He is a great withholder of secrets, and his confidences come in brief flashes. Sometimes he resorts to a private code, meant to be cracked, perhaps, only by his sons, as when he revisits Buenos Aires and cheerily remembers its most entertaining citizen, a coffin-maker. Always he plays his hand close to his chest. In the Transvaal, he causes President Kruger, a devout flatearther, to erupt in a flurry of indignation because Slocum is announced as a man who is sailing round the world. “‘You don’t mean round the world,” said the president; “it is impossible! You mean in the world. Impossible!”’ Slocum sums up this encounter by saying. “Only unthinking people call President Kruger dull.”

Sailing Alone came out in 1900. It was a timely appearance. The big best seller of that year was Charles Wagner’s The Simple Life, translated from the French, an inspirational book about sloughing off the false sophistication of the city and getting back to elementals. Slocum offered a palpable version of the simple life that was calculated to inspire fond daydreams among back-to-nature urban types. He also painted the sea as an unspoiled wilderness at a time when the interior wilderness of the United States was turning, almost overnight, into a massive quilt of barbed-wire enclosures. The West was lost as a territory for solitary adventure: in 1902, Owen Wister would have a huge success with The Virginian, a tear-spattered requiem for wide-open spaces. But Slocum’s sea was still pristine. Wister’s friend Theodore Roosevelt made the connection in a fan letter to Slocum: “I entirely sympathize with your feeling of delight in the sheer loneliness and vastness of the ocean. It was just my feeling in the wilderness of the west.”

Slocum’s book sold steadily, though it never made the lists. He tried once again to settle down with Hettie, on a tiny farm in West Tisbury on Martha’s Vineyard, which he called “Fag End.” He proposed a submarine adventure, and wrote to inquire about the possibility of his becoming an aviator. Rejected as a living exhibit by the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1900, Slocum took the Spray to Buffalo and the Pan-American Exposition, where he tried to emulate Buffalo Bill by restaging his great adventure on a park lake. He sold souvenirs of the voyage to visitors, including small squares of a blown-out main sail, like fragments of the True Cross. He rambled up and down the East Coast, giving talks to yacht clubs.

The land was—as ever—a source of trouble. In May 1906, Slocum sailed up the Delaware River to give a talk at the Riverton, New Jersey, Yacht Club. While the Spray was lying on the club moorings, a twelve-year-old girl visited the boat. Some hours later the police, acting on a complaint by the girl’s father, arrested Slocum on a charge of suspected rape. The examining doctor stated that there was no evidence of rape, and the girl herself produced an incoherent account of what, if anything, had happened. The charge was reduced to one of indecent assault. Slocum, according to the local paper, “said he had no recollection of the misdemeanor with which he is charged, and if it occurred it must have been during one of the mental lapses to which he was subject.” He was kept on remand for seven weeks in the Mount Holly jail, was urged by counsel to plead no contest, and was eventually released on condition that he never return to Riverton “by rail or water.”

Walter Teller, Slocum’s best biographer, suggested that “old man that he was now becoming, Slocum may have been, as he sometimes was, negligently unbuttoned.” Whatever the truth of the matter, it makes the point that Slocum had good reason to feel safest when he was alone at sea. Three court appearances, on serious charges, in one lifetime is above par for the course, and Slocum clearly had no gift for extricating himself from tricky situations. He was shy, and he was given to bluster, a dangerous combination. Sailing Alone is punctuated with accounts of intended pleasantries that went askew; again and again, one glimpses Slocum as he must have appeared to others—an odd fish and a puzzlingly awkward customer.

The governor of Rodriquez, who had most kindly given me, besides a regular mail, private letters of introduction to friends, told me I should meet, first of all, Mr. Jenkins of the postal service, a good man. “How do you do, Mr. Jenkins?” cried I, as his boat swung alongside. “You don’t know me,” he said. “Why not?” I replied. “From where is the sloop?” “From around the world,” I again replied, very solemnly. “And alone?” “Yes; why not?” “And you know me?” “Three thousand years ago,” cried I, “when you and I had a warmer job than we have now” (even this was hot). “You were then Jenkinson, but if you have changed your name I don’t blame you for that.” Mr. Jenkins, forbearing soul, entered into the spirit of the jest…

One would dearly like to hear Jenkins’s side of this meeting. Like many people (writers especially) who habitually live inside their own skulls in a private language, Slocum had difficulty translating thought into speech. Talking to himself—writing his book—he was a sane and happy man; talking to strangers, he was often maladroit. His friendly overtures come across as clumsy and overwrought, his jokes tend to misfire.

Fresh out of jail in Riverton, he sailed to Sagamore, the summer White House on Oyster Bay, where he delivered a long-overdue cargo of a single orchid to President Roosevelt. Though his arrest and imprisonment had been widely reported, he was warmly received by the President’s family, and took the Roosevelt boys sailing on Long Island Sound.

In the fall of 1909, he cast off from Vineyard Haven, supposedly bound for the Bahamas and South America. The Spray was in bad shape, her rigging loose and frayed, her timbers frail. (L. Francis Herreshoff, the yacht designer and writer, saw the boat that year and deplored her condition.) Slocum himself, at sixty-five, was said by people who met him to be a sad and conspicuously lonely man, “eccentric” and “a little cracked.” Even in November, the North Atlantic was a more welcoming prospect than the domestic hearth at West Tisbury. That evening, a southeasterly gale blew up, making the Vineyard Haven fishing fleet run for home. Slocum was never heard from again. He was declared officially dead in 1924.

He has been sighted since. Joseph Heller’s solo navigator through the reefs and shoals of corporate America in Something Happened is named Slocum; and so too was the hero of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter (now Frank Bascombe), until Ford discovered that Heller had beaten him to the post. In Ford’s novel, Slocum/Bascombe is in a state of non-stop compulsive travel. Though the function of the Spray has been distributed among a variety of cars, cabs, and planes, The Sportswriter is unusually rich, at least for a novel set squarely among suburbs, in gale-force marine weather—rich, too, in nautical metaphor, as Bascombe navigates the inland, industrial seas charted by Rand McNally.

It’s a shame that Bascombe didn’t survive as Slocum beyond the proof stage of the book, because The Sportswriter returns a clear reflection of those aspects of Joshua Slocum that now belong to myth—his burdenedness, his flinty solitude, his carnival high spirits when under way, his danger of drowning in sorrow when he’s stuck in port. (Harbors rot boats and men, goes the saying, and it’s equally true of Ford’s hero and Slocum himself.) In the near century since Sailing Alone Around the World was published, Slocum has become the archetype of the American wanderer: creating himself on the page, he drew a classic hero, as resilient, as full of signification in his own rough-diamond way, as Huckleberry Finn.

  1. *

    For the details of Slocum’s life, I’ve relied largely on Walter Teller’s Joshua Slocum (1971), the revised edition of his The Search for Captain Slocum, published in 1956. Researching his book in the early 1950s, Teller was able to interview Hettie Slocum and to meet or correspond with many people who knew Slocum more or less well. Victor Slocum’s Capt. Joshua Slocum (1950) is a glossy, retouched portrait of his father, and is less interesting, though useful for its private memories of life aboard Slocum’s ships.

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