“I Blamed Joseph Conrad.” How Reading Joseph Conrad Lured a Harvard Professor to the High Seas

by Owen James Burke


“Misery loves blame,” writes Harvard History professor Maya Jasanoff, for The New York Times, “so I blamed Joseph Conrad, whose fiction brought me here.” Image: Corbis Images

Literary works about the sea can’t help but conjure romanticism in their readers, and other significant realities–terror, for one, but seasickness and sheer boredom, especially, are all very real parts of the equation as well. You’d like to think there’s always something happening aboard a ship in the middle of the ocean–and there is–but most often it is a cyclical list of mind-numbingly monotonous tasks you’d encounter keeping house, too, like scrubbing decks (that’s floors, landlubbers) and washing dishes.

Such was the case for Professor Jasanoff, who first set out to retrace a historical trade route aboard a bunker-oil-chugging containership, but that included “the comforts of a queen-size bed, round-the-clock hot water and a mass of steel as big as the Empire State Building between me and the sick-making swell.” Reading deeper into Conrad, she felt she’d missed the point. She would have to go by sail.

So she hopped aboard the 134-foot brigantine Corwith Cramer, a “sailing school vessel” operated by the Sea Education Association, and joined 12 students along with a professional crew of 13 on a cruise from Cork, Ireland, to Brittany, France.

The “cruise” was not so much a cruise by today’s standards (though maybe for the 18th or 19th century sailor). To anyone living in the modern world, it would be a gruesome and laborious occupation, as Professor Jasanoff quickly came to learn. Read her account at The New York Times. -OJB

(A note to parents and undergrads: If you or your offspring happen to be considering a round-the-world “Semester at Sea” aboard a Carnival Cruise ship marauding as a floating classroom, I strongly urge you to consider the Sea Education Association‘s “SEA Semester” aboard a tall ship. You (or your child) may not circumnavigate the globe on this excursion–far from it. But you, or they, will disembark with memories–which I hear are easily taxed aboard “Semester at Sea” cruises–and all the invaluable know-how to do it themselves.)

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