The Voyage of the Rose City: An Adventure at Sea, the senior thesis of John Moynihan ’82, was published this fall, 29 years after his graduation and seven years after his death.
Kirkus Review calls it “a sincere study of the life of a man at sea, eschewing the romanticism often associated with the lifestyle,” and pronounces Moynihan “a talented writer, wielding crisp and clear prose.”
Moynihan, the son of Elizabeth and the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, had decided to spend a summer between Wesleyan semesters in the Merchant Marine.
“It was simply a question of escape,” he explained in his book. “Something motivated me toward the Seafarers International Union to get my Z-card and a job out at sea. Despite the sick feeling in my gut, that twinge every hitchhiker knows between the time he decides to hit the road and is actually liberated by a series of rides, I felt optimistic and recklessly carefree.”
His mother recalls: “He came home and he told us that he wanted to ship out in the summer. His father, who had been in the Navy and worked on the docks, told him that he didn’t think it was the fun he was expecting.” She, however, thought it would be exciting and helped him get a job.
The young writer soon found that acceptance from his mates was fraught, once the hands learned that he was not of their hardscrabble origins. To further complicate Moynihan’s plans, the original 45-day job ticket to the Mediterranean was changed to four months across the equator, around Africa, across the Indian Ocean, and up to Japan. The physical challenges were grueling and the dangers at sea—including piracy—were real and proved to be not only formative experiences but also the basis of his creative writing thesis at Wesleyan.
In Paul Horgan’s writing tutorial, Moynihan made up for slow progress in the fall semester by grinding out 270 typewritten pages during winter break. “Keep sailing—you’re on your way,” wrote Horgan. Moynihan graduated from Wesleyan with high honors in General Scholarship.
The young Moynihan had tried, at the time, to share the written account with his parents. While his father had been intrigued by the narrative, his mother initially declined: “…I felt so guilty, you see,” she explains. “When I heard how tough it had been, I thought, how could I have done that?
“It was after he died that I was finally able to read the journal and then I was so struck by what he knew about himself and about the world that I kept re-reading it and it helped me enormously,” she says. With this healing in mind, she published 100 copies for friends as a way to commemorate her son’s life.
The book came to the attention of a publisher at Random House, who saw it as a gem, a true coming-of-age-at-sea story—and Moynihan’s Wesleyan thesis reached commercial bookshelves all over the country this year. Liz Moynihan describes a bookstore event—with Wesleyan friends in attendance—as a real turning point. “We all felt a great cloud had lifted—we were now celebrating his book’s publication rather than mourning his death,” she notes.
The Voyage of the Rose City was chosen by New York Times book critic Dwight Gardner as one of the 10 best books of 2011. The Kirkus reviewer offers a heartbreakingly true summary: “He brings the narrative to a satisfying close, only marred by the fact that the author’s life was cut tragically short.”
—CYNTHIA E. ROCKWELL