October 21, 2017
Richard Dana, Before the MastOn this day in 1834, Richard Dana boarded the merchant brig, Pilgrim for the Boston-California return voyage that would become Two Years Before the Mast. Dana had just turned nineteen and finished his second, reluctant year at Harvard; these two facts, along with a belief that the trip would be good for his health, were behind Dana's decision to escape his comfortable, upper class life for the high seas, in search of hides and tallow. The 1840 book was based on his letters, notes and recollections -- the diary he kept was lost as soon as he disembarked in Boston -- and was meant to tell of the ordinary seaman's life at sea, in "a voice from the forecastle." It was immediately and internationally popular, praised for veracity, for having "the romantic charm of Robinson Crusoe" and, according to Melville, for being one of the inspirations of Moby Dick.
In Chapter I Dana is quoting Hamlet and all too aware that "There is not so helpless and pitiable an object in the world as a landsman beginning a sailor's life." By Chapter VI one man has been lost overboard; soon Dana would witness others flogged for pleasure: "If you want to know what I flog you for, I'll tell you," shouted the Captain. "It's because I like to do it! --because I like to do it! --It suits me! That's what I do it for!" By the West Coast, he's got his legs and is starting to look around:
Dana returned to Harvard and went on to become a prominent attorney. He returned to the West Coast a quarter-century later, his journal this time commenting on the industry and bustle which greeted him in San Francisco Harbor, instead of the herd of deer.
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