In his first book, McSweeney's contributor Jason Roberts has achieved something that more veteran biographers like Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough never bother to attempt: take a near-forgotten historic figure for whom no full-length biography has ever been written and only scant documentary records even exist and write a rich, absorbing account of his life. A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler (HarperCollins, 382 pages, $26.95) tells the story of Lt. James Holman, R.N., F.R.S., K.W., who overcame not only blindness but the limits 19th-century society placed on blind people to circumnavigate the globe—without the aid of a companion.
When a mysterious illness deprives him of his sight while serving as an officer in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, Holman doesn't become a street beggar; he petitions to become a knight. He then uses the modest pension from his knighthood (and defies the rules of his knightly order) to attend medical school and launch on a career of world travel. The Blind Traveler, as he became known, would traverse more than a quarter-million miles in his lifetime, mostly on foot or horseback or by horse-drawn cart. He thoroughly explored every inhabited continent and made contact with more than 200 distinct cultures. Roberts brilliantly re-creates what it must have been like for a blind stranger in strange lands: Holman taps his cane on cobblestones (or frozen tundra) to create "sound maps" of his surroundings; he wraps his head in gauze (no handicap for someone already blind) to fend off stinging insects in Siberia; he judges the beauty of women not by their looks but by their words—and celebrates them in his poetry.
Although Holman published two books about his travels (the first a runaway bestseller, the second a disappointing failure), Roberts must puzzle together the explorer's early and later life from odd scraps left behind in naval records and the papers of Holman's contemporaries. One such memoir reveals a remarkable anecdote in which Holman locates an old acquaintance in a noisy restaurant without the man uttering a word. Roberts introduces his readers to a rich cast of characters the Blind Traveler either met or influenced, including the real-life inspirations for Capts. Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey, and Lord Jim, as well as Charles Darwin and Sir Richard Burton.
Roberts' biography is a tour de force not only for its innovative research into a life that is terra incognita but for the masterful way it conveys a towering spirit who illuminated the world with every sense but his sight.
Jason Roberts appears at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Wednesday, July 12. Free.