Geoffrey Wolff, a novelist and biographer who lives in Bath, has been reading and re-reading Joshua Slocum’s “Sailing Alone Around the World” (1900) for decades. The writing and the feats in the book about Slocum becoming the first person to make a solo circumnavigation have fascinated him.

So Wolff wrote “The Hard Way Around: The Passages of Joshua Slocum” in part so he could spend more time with his subject, who died circa 1909.

The book is more than a biography, however. It tells the story of sailing, fishing and clipper ships in the mid- to late 19th century, at a time when many more sailors were turning to power and steel instead of dealing with crews and hard winds.

Wolff has the experience to tell the tale of a complex man. In addition to six novels, he has written five nonfiction books, including “The Edge of Maine” in 2005; “The Duke of Deception,” a memoir that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and “The Art of Burning Bridges: A Life of John O’Hara.”


Q: You said you first read Slocum many years ago. How did you decide to write the book now?


A: One of the hardest things I do, I find, is accounting for my passions. I really wanted to write about a figure that I just absolutely admired for a change. I have been writing about people who were complex in terms of their character and of their history. I just think that this character is a person of tremendous character going where his heart led him.

The other thing is that I have, not because I told myself to but because I wanted to, read every couple of years “Sailing Alone Around the World,” spending probably as much time as it would have taken me to sail around the world. It never does anything but get better. I love the prose, and I love what he did. If I wanted to spend some years with him, the only way I could manage that would be to write a book, and it just sort of grew.


Q: But in the book, you say that there were charges of cruelty against him.

A: He was by no means perfect. Show me a man who is, and at that, he was not worse than many. There is no question that among his vices was an exceptionally tuned pride, and that cuts both ways. Of course, that pride is what drove him to do the astounding things he did. He was quick, very quick to anger, but in his defense, if you come to know what it was like to command a sailing vessel in those days, with the type of crew, it was about being a prison guard

He was certainly not as brutal as his worst enemies claim, certainly not the man the New York Times described as a brute. There may be no excuse for what he did, but I can understand it, with his family on board and with people who might mean to kill you.



Q: As much as Slocum, I enjoy the picture of history that comes in as you tell the tale: pollution at Brooklyn rotting the ships, and the line melting when thrown into the water near where the volcano Krakatoa was erupting.

A: I try and convey the things that catch my attention. I relish the kinds of things that I would say to one of my kids or grandkids, “Hey, listen to this, the sea was actually being boiled by falling pumice.” It is an expression of my exuberance for the odd that is one of the best characteristics of writing.

I don’t put Slocum on the couch. I do look at certain aspects of his expression of anger and his absolute refusal to discuss the two things most important in his life — the death of his mother and the death of his wife — other than in the most elliptical way.

Slocum had a good biographer in the 1960s, but he hired a handwriting analyst, a graphologist, to analyze his sexual inner torment; that just seemed to me outright silly.



Q: Did you get to talk to any of his descendants in doing this?

A: There isn’t anybody alive, really. There are tons of Slocums all over the place, and one of them, Joel Slocum in Wellesley, shared a letter his grandfather had received. But other than that, it was all paper research, not so much interviews as looking at the place and reading documents. The New Bedford (Mass.) Whaling Museum is really a trove of stories.

Living in Bath, there is an amazing amount of sailing history at the Maine Maritime Museum, which I visit regularly, and is a great way to get the spark flying again.


Q: How did you end up living in Maine?

A: I stalked my grandchildren all of the way from California. We have a son and daughter-in-law and two grandchildren who live in Bath and a son and daughter-in-law and two grandchildren who live in Bangor, and what could be better?


Actually, I had been coming here since I was 13, and I am now 72. I just love it. I retired from teaching at the University of California Irvine, and we bought the house before then but moved here permanently in 2006.


Q: Anything you can think of that we should talk about?

A: Only that one of the things that amazed me was the sheer volume of shipping when Slocum was at sea, the sheer number of ships, particularly on the coasts of Maine and Nova Scotia. There used to be traffic jams on the Penobscot with the droghers coming for timber.

People do not realize what a strange and busy time it was for Maine. I was stunned by how cosmopolitan Maine was in the 19th century, when people would meet in Bath and say, “I haven’t seen you since Singapore.” They would know foreign phrases and food, but now, in the age of the Internet, you look at how insular it is. That fascinates me.



Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m not writing yet, but I am busy reading the ninth of the 12 volumes of “Dances to the Music of Time” by Anthony Powell. Then we will see what comes next.


Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at


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