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Picture of Richard Henry Dana, author of Two Years Before the Mast; nineteenth century American Literature


 
August 14, 1834
Richard Henry Dana   (1815 - 1882)
 
Richard Dana, Before the Mast
 
by Steve King

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On 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:
    The Californians are an idle, thriftless people, and can make nothing for themselves. The country abounds in grapes, yet they buy bad wines made in Boston and brought round by us, at an immense price, and retail it among themselves at a real (12 1/2 cents) by the small wine-glass. Their hides, too, which they value at two dollars in money, they give for something which costs seventy-five cents in Boston; and buy shoes (like as not, made of their own hides, and which have been carried twice around Cape Horn) at three or four dollars....
At almost two years out, and facing the terrors of Cape Horn for the second time, Dana's attentions are now on the "thundering sound" and "true sublimity" of mammoth icebergs, during a forty-eight-hour shift on deck trying to spot them, in "a gale dead ahead, with hail and sleet, and a thick fog, so that we could not see half the length of the ship." The captain would not share his hot coffee or his rum-though a temperance ship, "the temperance was all in the forecastle" -- and the ship was so vulnerable that "any cake of ice might knock a hole in her." Because Dana had a toothache that had swollen his mouth too shut to eat, the first mate eventually sent him below to recover, but this made the situation even more anxious: "It was not easy to sleep," writes Dana, "lying, as I did, with my head directly against the bows, which might be dashed in by an island of ice, brought down by the very next sea that struck her...."

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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Related authors:  Herman Melville, Richard Henry Dana
 
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