An Essay: Discovering Sloan Wilson

By John Horchner

Back in 1994, I visited the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts, to see a friend who’d moved there to sell real estate.

One day, we stopped at a garage sale where I picked up a hardcover book that was missing its dust jacket.

I wasn’t sure about it; my friend looked at the title and said: “Never heard of it — probably a waste of time!” I finished the book that weekend. Even then we were drifting apart.

About a year later, I was driving around for work on a travel-related publication in upstate New York and when I went through the town of Ticonderoga, the sights began to remind me of that book.

I remember seeing a small inn off the main street with a white wooden sign held by an iron bracket swinging in the wind. I decided to stop in.

A woman who looked very much like a librarian I had in high school that everyone called “Mouse,” because she was always sneaking up on people, was sitting behind a dark wood check-in desk. She wore a pink sweater, stiff gray hair and of course, thick glasses.

I was nervous when I told the Ticonderoga librarian that I stopped in to ask about a book and racked my brain for something more to say about it.

“Our Town,” I added finally, knowing what a long shot it was but proud that I remembered the title.

She looked off before squinting directly at me, trying to size up my intentions.

“You mean ‘Small Town.’”

I nodded.

“Oh yes, Sloan Wilson.”  

When nothing registered on my face, she added, “‘The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.’ It was made into a movie with Gregory Peck.”

I didn’t know then that the book was so famous it defined an era of middle class striving in the 1950s. I only knew about the other book, which I read and which I thought was terrific.

“Being a writer is not easy,” she said. “It was hard on him. Nothing achieved the success of his early novels.”

She talked as if she knew him.

Later, I learned that Wilson lived in Ticonderoga during the time he wrote “Small Town” in the 1970s. Maybe she did know him.

I want to say that I followed her over to the white wall on the side of the room and watched her pull an autobiography of his from the built-in bookshelf called “Away from It All” and then, I went to my room and started reading right away. That would make for a good story. But, it didn’t happen that way.

Regardless, I did read the book. “Away from It All” was the first of two autobiographies Wilson wrote. It was published in 1969 and written when he was still in his 40s.

Recently, I read it again.

Sure enough, Wilson talks about the troubles that the librarian alluded to. He wrote, “After five novels, three of them best sellers, and two movies that made millions … Gone-gone the way money disappeared, driven before the cold winds of divorce, high living, taxes and the rash kinds of investments that lawyers recommended … ”

However, Wilson had an answer to all the pressure, and it formed the basis of this autobiography.

Wilson would buy a sailboat and sail down the Mississippi with his second wife and young daughter. He wanted to eventually reach the Bahamas and use the trip to get away from it all. Hence, the book’s title.

Practical boating advice

At this point it was early October, and I took a break from reading Wilson to ask a friend to coffee at Mim’s Café in St. Paul, Stefan Kistler of Lauderdale. He keeps a sailboat on the Mississippi in Pepin, Wisconsin. I asked him if such a trip that Wilson described was even possible in a sailboat.

Stefan said he knows a couple that used to own a coffee shop in Pepin that made the trip on their sailboat Rhapsody two years ago. He said their trip is well documented on social media and showed me the page for Sailing Rhapsody on Facebook on his phone.

“Sailing the Mississippi is a magical idea but it’s probably not as magical as it appears,” he told me. “You’d need to take your mast down and bring a lot of your own fuel… . Then there’d be technical issues with the motor.”

He mentioned barge traffic and staying in the channel, which may not always be well marked. He concluded that it sounds like “… more of a technical trip than an enjoyable trip.”

The couple that Stefan mentioned did not sail all the way to New Orleans on the Mississippi but turned off near St. Louis into the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and then completed their trip to Florida from there.

Back to Sloan Wilson

For his part, Sloan Wilson decided against sailing the Mississippi River, declaring it too polluted at the time and even decided against a sailboat, purchasing a used motor yacht that he named the Pretty Betty after his second wife, who was accompanying him on the trip along with their daughter.

The book follows Wilson as he makes a hundred decisions as captain — taking time out for cocktails in the evening. Wilson grew up with boats and served as a lieutenant aboard ships in WWII for the U.S. Coast Guard. He wrote about those experiences in three of his novels.

By the end of “Away from It All,” Wilson returned from the Bahamas, declared that he’d given up drinking and was ready to tie-up in Coconut Grove, Florida, where he could write and his daughter could start school.

Wilson competed 15 books in his lifetime but never lost his love of boats. His last home was a boat floating in the water at Colonial Beach, Virginia. He died at 83.

He may be forgotten by the literary world, but I’d say you’d be lucky to find one of his books at a garage sale. 

John Horchner is a professional writer and lives in St. Anthony Park.

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