Book Review | Passages of H. M.

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Ian Aldrich

In April 24, 1895, Captain Joshua Slocum set sail from Boston, Massachusetts, in a 37-foot sloop he called Spray. He was alone. Three years, two months, two days, and 46,000 miles later, he dropped anchor in Newport, Rhode Island, having completed the first solo voyage around the globe–unless you accept his claim that the ghost of the pilot of Christopher Columbus’s Pinta took the helm one night when he fell ill.

Slocum’s feat was equaled by the book he wrote about it, Sailing Alone Around the World, a little-known classic. I read it and loved it 30 years ago, and so it was a joy to read Geoffrey Wolff’s The Hard Way Around, a lyrical, tough, funny examination of the captain, his craft, and the world he sailed. “A genius at navigation … he was frequently lost on land,” Wolff writes. A harsher critic called him “60 percent fine seaman, 10 percent liar, and 30 percent showman.”

Disappointed by life ashore, Slocum boarded the Spray and left Martha’s Vineyard and his family on November 14, 1908, at the age of 64, intending to explore the Orinoco River in South America–alone, of course. He was never seen again. The mystery surrounding his end typified his life: His son Garfield once wrote that his father “was a mystery to me and will be to my dying day.”

Slocum’s circumnavigation began just four years after the death of Herman Melville, another sailor who was frequently disappointed on land. He wrote Moby-Dick, the towering, baffling novel that begins with the most famous three words in American literature: “Call me Ishmael.” Hailed as a masterpiece now, it was a commercial disaster in 1851. Jay Parini attempts to unravel the man and the writer in his novel Passages of H. M. “He was opinionated, willful, and oblique, with a stormy intelligence,” Melville’s wife once said of him. “This proved an affliction more than a gift, as he often saw around corners that did not exist.”

Nevertheless, Melville produced a novel that continues to puzzle and attract us. Chasing the White Whale, by David Dowling, explores with erudition and wit the phenomenon of marathon Moby-Dick readings, such as the 25-hour epic held every January at the Whaling Museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts. That’s where Ishmael meets his cannibal friend, Queequeg, and their journey begins. “Such is the situation with the reading as well,” Dowling observes, “for it is a commitment, a leap onto a ship that will drift away from one’s prior life: This reading will take us on a familiar voyage, but we will experience its course anew.”


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