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With Dana Before The Mast

July 2024
18min read

A long and arduous voyage around the Horn made a man of a sickly socialite and gave literature an enduring classic

This brief entry in a Boston commercial newspaper is the first official record of perhaps the best-known sea journey in American history. The voyage itself, curiously enough, was no more eventful than a hundred others to Spanish California by New England ships in quest of cheap leather for the shoe factories of Lynn and Cambridge.

This brief entry in a Boston commercial newspaper is the first official record of perhaps the best-known sea journey in American history. The voyage itself, curiously enough, was no more eventful than a hundred others to Spanish California by New England ships in quest of cheap leather for the shoe factories of Lynn and Cambridge. A member of the Pilgrim’s crew lost overboard on the outward trip, two sailors flogged by choleric Captain Thompson in California waters, some foul weather off Cape Horn in another ship, the Alert, to which Pilgrim transferred her cargo of hides for the voyage home—these hardly seem the stuff out of which to make a literary masterpiece. Yet the pen of a Harvard undergraduate who served on board the Pilgrim and the Alert as a common sailor was to rescue these two ships and their crews from the oblivion that swallowed up all the others.

The young man's name was Richard Henry Dana, Jr. and he was just a few days past his nineteenth birthday when he stepped aboard the Pilgrim clad in the duck trousers, checked shirt, and tarpaulin hat of an ordinary seaman. Scion of the oldest and most important family in Cambridge, Dana was something of a snob, and proudly conscious of his descent from Edmund Trowbridge, a colonial judge; William Ellery. a signer of the Declaration of Independence: and Francis Dana, a chief justice of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Three generations of the family had gone from Harvard to legal practices and political ca-reers, and young Richard Henry confidently expected to follow in their footsteps. A voyage “before the mast,” once fairly common among New England boys of good family, was becoming increasingly rare in the 1830’s, and was definitely beneath the dignity of a Dana. It had taken a combination of unhappiness at school, measles, and the primitive medical practices of the time to send the aloof young patrician to sea as a common sailor.

Richard Henry and his younger brother Ned caught the disease while vacationing at Plymouth in the summer of 1833. Both boys recovered from the illness itself in a few days, but the medicines they were given had a lasting deleterious effect. Blistering, bleeding, powerful purgatives, and massive doses of nauseating ipecac made them thoroughly miserable, and the inflammation of the eye membrane that accompanies measles was aggravated by the repeated application of leeches. After ten days of such treatment, Dana’s eyes were so weak that they could not bear the light of day. In the months that followed, his eyesight improved somewhat, but he was still unable to read and had to drop out of his class at Harvard, where he had never been very happy anyway. For the better part of a year he “lingered about at home, a useless, pitied & dissatisfied creature.”

My father [Dana later wrote] was at this time embarrassed in his pecuniary condition, & I felt that I was a burden upon him. This consideration … added to a strong love of adventure which I had always with difficulty repressed … determined me upon making a long voyage, to relieve myself from ennui, to see new places & modes of life, & to effect if possible a cure of my eyes, which no medicine had helped, & which nothing but a change of my system seemed likely to ensure....

Life before the mast speedily succeeded in accomplishing what calomel and leeches had failed to do. Dana’s eye ailment and mental malaise vanished before he had been a week at sea, and soon he was scram-bling up and down the rigging as nimbly as any of the crew. His voyage took him far from the dull grind of college, his father’s shabby gentility, the swarms of idle, aged female relatives with whom he lived in Cam-bridge. At sea he saw man and nature in a primitive state, with all their ferocity and grandeur. For the first time in his life he had a chance to live anonymously, to win acceptance for himself because he could reef or furl a sail and not because he was a gentleman’s son. At nineteen, he had been a delicate, overrefined, somewhat priggish youth; when he stepped ashore on the North End wharf after his long absence, he was a sunburned, healthy, vigorous young man, buoyant with a new understanding of the world.

Back at Harvard, Dana soon discovered that he had come alive intellectually during his absence at sea. During his last year he surpassed every other student in every branch of study, made Phi Beta Kappa, was chosen to both the rival social clubs, Porcellian and Hasty Pudding—an honor at that time very unusual,” he noted in his autobiography—and won prizes in English prose writing and declamation. A year after his return from California he was studying law with Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, translating Xenophon’s Cyropaedia into Latin, reading Euclid, Hume, Whately’s Logic, Schiller, and Mme de Staël, teaching elocution to freshmen, composing long love letters to his future wife, and writing up an expanded version of his sea journal. In the fall of 1840 he published his book and saw it turn into an immediate best seller.

A striking success from the day it was issued, Two Years Before the Mast has remained in print continuously from 1840 to the present. Harper & Brothers, who paid Dana only $250 for the original copyright, may have made as much as $50,000 on the book; a particularly fine “first issue of the First Edition” has brought nearly $1,000 at auction. Houghton Mifflin alone has sold more than one hundred thousand copies since 1911, and fifty-four other publishers in this country have issued seventy-seven different editions, with total sales approaching a quarter of a million copies. There have been twenty-three separate editions in England and translations into a dozen foreign languages. Two Years has been made into a movie and reprinted in a collection of the World’s Greatest Books (1901), as one of the Harvard Classics (1910), and in the Modern Library (1936) series. Within the past dozen years, it has been reissued as a paperback in the United States, England, and Australia. Dana is preeminently “the man of one book,” but that book has made for itself a permanent if minor place in world literature.

Before examining the reasons for such continuous popularity, it is worthwhile disencumbering the book of sonic legends that have grown up about it. Two Years did not, as half a dozen carelessly romantic writers have asserted, inspire Herman Melville to go to sea. Melville had already made his first voyage to Liverpool the year before Dana’s book was published, and was thinking of another sailor’s berth even before Two Years came out. We have no definite evidence that he read the book before he sailed from New Bedford on the Acushnet in January, 1841. Perhaps he never saw it until his service as an ordinary seaman on board the frigate United States several years afterward.

Another common mistake has been to regard Two Years as part of the literature of reform that flourished so vigorously in this country in the decades before the Civil War. Some critics have regarded it as a kind of companion volume to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and asserted that Dana did for the common sailor what Mrs. Stowe was to do for the Negro slave. Dana’s vivid description of the flogging of two men, and his comment immediately afterward, gives some color to this view:

“No,” shouted the captain; “nobody shall open his mouth aboard this vessel but myself,” and began laying the blows upon his back, swinging half round between each blow, to give it full effect. As he went on his passion increased, and he danced about the deck, calling out, as he swung the rope: “If you want to know what I flog you for, I’ll tell you. It’s because I like to do it! because I like to do it! It suits me! That’s what I do it for! … You’ve got a driver over you! Yes, a slave-driver,—a nigger-driver! … I’ll see who’ll tell me he isn’t a NIGGER slave! …”

I vowed that, if God should ever give me the means, I would do something to redresss the grievances and relieve the sufferings of that class of beings with whom my lot had so long been cast.

Dana’s contemporary, J. Ross Browne, congratulated him for “putting down quarter-deck tyranny with … might and main,” and so well-known a critic as Van Wyck Brooks has asserted that Dana “battled like an avenging angel for … seamen’s rights.”

Evidence available from the book itself, and from Dana’s later career, however, proves that the book was not intended to be a plea for reform. The story of the flogging takes up only six pages out of some four hundred and fifty; from the rest of the book one gets the impression that the crews with whom Dana sailed, while they worked hard and had scant leisure, were on the whole fairly well treated. Dana himself called the Alert “a favorable specimen of American merchantmen … supplied with an abundance of stores of the best kind that are given to seamen”; her owners had such a high reputation for liberality that half an hour before the time set for signing on new hands “sailors were steering down the wharf, hopping over the barrels, like a drove of sheep.”

Had Dana really wished to campaign for better treatment of sailors he would have emphasized the abysmal living conditions aboard both the ships on which he sailed, the overloading, undermanning, overcrowding, and underfeeding that were so much more serious than an occasional use of the lash. But he had, he explained to his fiancee, “an aversion to having the sympathy … of the public at large,” and he deliberately suppressed as “inartistic” and “repulsive” those details that might have won greater sympathy for the sailor’s hard lot: “the loathesome sanitary conditions, the vermin-infested wood, the beetles they picked from their clothing, the bedbugs they skimmed from their mugs of tea and bowls of stew.”

Dana himself thoroughly enjoyed his two years before the mast and always looked back on his experiences at sea and in California with nostalgia and delight. It is his enthusiasm and not his occasional complaints about injustice that communicates itself to the average reader, and his book had far more effect on prospective immigrants to California and young boys anxious to go to sea than it did on congressmen who might pass legislation benefiting seamen. In none of the debates on the bill that eventually did away with the lash on American ships did legislators refer to the flogging scene in Dana’s book or to the far longer and more detailed one in Melville’s White Jacket.

Dana himself did not believe that improvement in the seaman’s lot should be sought through legislation. What had appalled him on the Pilgrim was the injustice of Captain Thompson’s action; Dana actually favored the retention of flogging, provided the offense was serious and provided the victim had been found guilty after a fair trial. What sailors really needed, he thought, was the stoppage of their rum ration and a plentiful supply of Bibles aboard ship. Most of the trouble at sea could be blamed on the sailors themselves, many of them “abandoned men” whose blasphemy, lying, and drunken habits were a “mortification and [a] disgrace. … A bad crew will make a bad captain.” Hopefully Dana looked forward to the time when “every ship will be a Bethel; with religious services every morning and evening, and officers and crew guided by the principles of love.”

The first acts that really aided the sailor were passed, without any support from Dana, some thirty years after the publication of his book; seamen were subject to involuntary servitude long after the abolition of Negro slavery and half a century after Two Years Before I the Mast .

If the book’s effect on the condition of sailors was trivial, its literary influence was not. Nearly three dozen books with titles resembling Dana’s were published in the two decades after 1840; Two Years, one of the first American books to win wide popularity in England, started a vogue for realistic tales of the sea and doubtless helped create an audience for Melville’s early work. Recent research has destroyed the old picture of Melville as an artless spinner of sailors’ yarns, “the man who lived among cannibals” and made literature out of his personal experiences. He was, it is now clear, a literary man, to whom a book was as exciting as any actual adventure. Two Years, which Melville read many times and thought “unmatchable,” was the probable source of a dozen incidents in his books, ranging over nearly half a century.

But Two Years is more than just an item in a Melville bibliography. Although it is dismissed in less than a page in surveys of our literature, Dana’s book still manages to outsell many of its more famous contemporaries. Most of the people who read Two Years have discovered it, along with Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels, in their teens; it thus has a kind of sub-literary fame not dependent on the fashion among professors of American literature.

Both the book’s interest for young readers and its lack of appeal to critics can be partially explained by its simple, straightforward style and lack of erudition or philosophical depth. The conditions under which Dana wrote it fortunately kept him from that overelaboration and striving after effect which mar so much of his other writings. The detailed journal Dana had kept on the voyage was lost by his cousin Frank as soon as the Alert docked, so he had to work his story up from, a notebook account that was only twenty pages long. While writing Two Years, he was kept so busy with other work that he had no time to polish his narrative. Although he took nearly two years to finish it, his first draft was his final one, and he made only a few, unimportant corrections in the manuscript. The resulting prose was simple and easy to grasp, with a great power of communicating the feeling of an experience. Here, for example, is Dana’s quiet, unemotional observation about a shipmate’s death:

The watch on deck were lowering away the quarter-boat, and I got on deck just in time to fling myself into her as she was leaving the side; but it was not until out upon the wide Pacific, in our little boat, that I knew whom we had lost. It was George Ballmer, the young English sailor, whom I have before spoken of as the life of the crew. …

Death is at all times solemn, but never so much so as at sea. A man dies on shore; his body remains with his friends, and “the mourners go about the streets”; but when a man falls overboard at sea and is lost, there is a suddenness in the event, and a difficulty in realizing it, which give to it an air of awful mystery. A man dies on shore,—you follow his body to the grave, and a stone marks the spot. You are often prepared for the event. There is always something which helps you to realize it when it happens, and to recall it when it has passed. A man is shot down by your side in battle, and the mangled body remains an object, and a real evidence; but at sea, the man is near you,—at your side,—you hear his voice, and in an instant he is gone, and nothing but a vacancy shows his loss. Then, too, at sea—to use a homely but expressive phrase—you miss a man so much.

In writing his one great book Dana was fortunate in the nature of the experience he was describing. Travel journals, of the kind turned out by dozens of Bostonians on the Grand Tour, are almost uniformly boring. Dana’s material, on the other hand, like Francis Parkman’s, was fresh, new, and exciting, both to himself and to his readers; he was the first writer to give a real picture of the common sailor’s life, and the first to exploit Mexican California for literary purposes.

Even the pattern of Dana’s experience was helpful, for his two-year adventure had a natural beginning (the outward voyage), a middle (the sojourn in California), and an end (the return to Boston) which brought the hero back once more to the starting point. Dana, with so much less literary ability than other writers, was fortunate in being able to tell his story as it happened and yet give it an artistically satisfying form.

The first section of Dana’s book, describing the five-month voyage from Boston to Santa Barbara, gave him an opportunity to describe his change from frock coat and kid gloves, to explain the routine on board a merchant vessel, and to give his impressions of life at sea, of Crusoe’s island of San Fernandez, and of Frank Thompson, his “regular-built down-east johnny-cake” of a captain. Reliving the experience after his return to Cambridge, Dana remembered with satisfaction the first time he had taken the wheel and won approval on his own, and not because of his family name:

Inexperienced as I was, I made out to steer to the satisfaction of the officer, and neither Stimson nor I gave up our tricks, all the time that we were off the Cape. This was something to boast of, for it required a good deal of skill and watchfulness to steer a vessel close hauled, in a gale of wind, against a heavy head sea.

The central part of the book, dealing with the time Dana spent gathering hides on the California coast, has always been of particular interest to historians of the West and to young people fascinated by colorful and distant places. To his own generation, eagerly looking to fulfill its destiny by pushing the frontier westward to the Pacific Coast, Dana gave an attractive description of California in the day of the ranchero, a picturesque land of whitewashed adobe houses with red tile roofs, gorgeously accoutered Mexican hidalgos, and women, even of the lower classes, who wore silk gowns and gold earrings and spent money on the Pilgrim’s cargo of finery “at a rate which would have made a seamstress or waiting-maid in Boston open her eyes.” Ironically enough, although Dana nowhere seemed conscious of the fact, he and his shipmates were helping to bring an end to this pre-industrial paradise. The Pilgrim and the Alert, with their manifests of “boots and shoes from Lynn, calicoes and cotton from Lowell,” and their return cargoes of leather for the Massachusetts shoe factories, were in the service of nascent American industrialism, which was to abolish Mexican rule and threaten Spanish ways of life in California just a dozen years after Dana’s voyage there. Many energetic young easterners who arrived in California in these early years settled down and made their fortunes there through ranching, shipping, trade, or in the mines, but Dana was completely oblivious of the transformation in the region's economy that was taking nlace before his eyes.

Most of the sixteen months Dana spent in California were occupied by the dreary and tedious business of peddling cargo at retail up and down the coast, and gradually collecting forty thousand hides for the homeward voyage. He therefore made skillful use of the few unusual events that occurred while he was in those waters, even shifting a few of them out of their proper place in his narrative to sustain the reader’s interest. Such events as the flogging of two sailors, the arrival of mail and six-month-old Boston newspapers, a day’s liberty, and the wedding of Doña Anita de la Guerra de Noriego y Corillo—all these gave variety to an account that might otherwise have been a little tedious.

The moral climate of the age, and Dana’s own fastidiousness, however, led him to censor some details that might have enlivened his narrative still further. One of the few attractions of the barren California coast was its supply of wanton native girls; after Two Years was published, a shipmate twitted him for saying nothing about

the beautiful Indian Lasses, who so often frequented your humble abode in the hide house, and rambled through those splendid groves attached thereto [or] the happy hours experienced rambling over those romantic hills, or sitting at twilight on those majestic rocks, with a lovely Indian Girl resting on your knee.

But Two Years , like Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn , was to have an all-male cast of characters. [Years later Dana wrote in his Autobiographical Sketches… well do I know that many things are omitted there from necessity.... from that book I studiously kept out most of my reflections, & much of the wickedness which I was placed in the midst of. These I have no inclinations to go over again. The dangers to a young man’s moral purity … are more to be dreaded in such a life, than gales, mast-heads & yard-arms.”] 

The California section of Dana’s book closes dramatically. The Pilgrim and her crew were to remain in California while the hides they had collected were sent home in the Alert. Captain Thompson, short-handed, tried to order Dana to remain with his shipmates, but here privilege prevailed; despite some grumbling among the other sailors, one of them was induced to take his place on the Pilgrim, and Dana was free to return to the pattern of life set out for him by his ancestors. Two weeks later, with the Alert’s hold so crammed with hides that her beams creaked, Dana was homeward bound.

The last part of Dana’s book, in which he had to repeat, in reverse order, the course of his outward voyage, might have been anticlimactic. But the cowardice and incompetence of Captain Thompson, who like Dana had transferred to the Alert, gave Dana the opportunity to tell an exciting story of men in conflict with the tremendous forces of the air, the ice, and the ocean. After four weeks of glorious sailing in the trades, the ship ran into a series of violent storms while still 1,700 miles west of the Cape, and for the better part of a month she was in danger of foundering or being crushed by the ice every day. Dana, suffering from a toothache that left him unable to sleep for three days and unable to eat anything but a few handfuls of boiled rice, lived through this period in a somnambulistic daze. His account of this frozen nightmare world of sleet, high winds, iron-hard sails, and an icy ocean, which Melville thought “must have been written with an icicle,” is the high point of his book, and one of the great epics of the sea. And afterward, by contrast, there is the ship’s serene beauty as she makes her way through the tropics:

One night … I went out to the end of the flying-jib-boom upon some duty, and, having finished it, turned round, and lay over the boom for a long time, admiring the beauty of the sight before me. Being so far out from the deck, I could look at the ship as at a separate vessel; and there rose up from the water, supported only by the small black hull, a pyramid of canvas, spreading out far beyond the hull, and towering up almost, as it seemed in the indistinct night air, to the clouds. The sea was as still as an inland lake; the light trade-wind was gently and steadily breathing from astern; the dark blue sky was studded with the tropical stars; there was no sound but the rippling of the water under the stem; and the sails were spread out, wide and high,—the two lower studding-sails stretching on each side far beyond the deck; the topmast studding-sails like wings to the topsails; the top-gallant studding-sails spreading fearlessly out above them; still higher, the two royal studding-sails, looking like two kites flying from the same string; and, highest of all, the little skysail, the apex of the pyramid seeming actually to touch the stars, and to be out of reach of human hand. So quiet, too, was the sea, and so steady the breeze, that if these sails had been sculptured marble they could not have been more motionless. Not a ripple upon the surface of the canvas; not even a quivering of the extreme edges of the sail, so perfectly were they distended by the breeze. I was so lost in the sight that I forgot the presence of the man who came out with me, until he said (for he, too, rough old-man-of-war’s-man as he was, had been gazing at the show) half to himself, still looking at the marble sails,—“How quietly they do their work!”

After rounding the Cape, the Alert came home with a rush, sometimes making 250 miles in a day. Despite illness, hard work, and hurricanes, Dana was in perfect health when he got back to Boston, and had had enough toughening to stand up to overwork and nervous strain for the next two decades. On the last day of the voyage his former anxiety to see family and friends vanished, to be replaced by something very like indifference:

A year before [he recalled], while carrying hides on the coast, the assurance that in a twelvemonth we should see Boston made me half wild; but now that I was actually there, and in sight of home, the emotions which I had so long anticipated feeling I did not find, and in their place was a state of very nearly entire apathy.

A final reason for the book’s continued appeal, especially to younger readers, is its psychological truth. Despite Dana’s aristocratic reserve and his care not to permit any “exposure or development of [his] own mind & feelings” in the book, it nevertheless resembles the novel of adolescence that has been so popular a form in America. Like Wellington Redburn, Huck Finn, Nick Adams, and a hundred other heroes, Dana is a young, inexperienced boy at the beginning of his book, and a grown man, with knowledge of the world and of good and evil, at the end of it. The adolescent reader quite naturally identifies himself with the young man who comes aboard the Pilgrim green and ignorant, and gradually, by willingness and hard work, earns his place among the other members of the crew. Such a reader triumphs vicariously with Dana over seasickness, injustice, ice and storms, and comes to understand what it is to make one’s way in the world. Success in real life replaces the narrow and artificial successes of the schoolroom: “I got through [sending down a royal-yard] without any word from the officer, and heard the ‘well done’ of the mate, when the yard reached the deck, with as much satisfaction as I ever felt at Cambridge on seeing a ‘bene’ at the foot of a Latin exercise.” Two Years has doubtless meant much to thousands of boys who never went on to appreciate more complex and more demanding literary forms.

To Dana himself, although he dismissed his voyage as a “parenthesis” in a life devoted to politics and the law, the experience was well-nigh decisive. At nineteen he was apparently about to succumb to the same kinds of obscure nervous disorders that made invalids of his uncles, his father, his brother, and his future wife, and tormented his friends Parkman, Prescott, and Longfellow. Hard work, sea air, and freedom from the genteel tyranny of Cambridge restored him to robust health in a matter of weeks and strengthened him for a life of strenuous effort. He owned his later success as a lawyer, as an antislavery politician, and as Lincoln’s wartime U.S. attorney for the district of Massachusetts, to the toughening effects of his voyage.

Like many men of his class and generation, Dana was tormented by the feeling that he had failed to equal the achievement of his ancestors, that he had not accomplished enough. “My life,” he wrote forty years after his voyage, “has been a failure, compared to what I might and ought to have done. My great success—my book—was a boy’s work, done before I came to the Bar.”

To a Dana only public service and high political office seemed really important, to bring him up to the level of his ancestors. Yet he had, as a young man of twenty-five, achieved something rarer than political success, and far more lasting. He had written a book which, after the passage of a century, may fairly be said to have achieved a kind of immortality; and no man who has managed to write a book that lives on after him can truly be said to have been a failure.

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