Alan's Reviews > Two Years Before the Mast: A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea

Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana Jr.
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's review
May 27, 11

Recommended to Alan by: Clayton
Recommended for: Salty dogs and anyone smitten by the romance of sail
Read in May, 2011, read count: 1

It is not until more than three hundred pages in that Richard Henry Dana Jr. comes to state explicitly what I believe to be the moral and central theme of this most excellent work:
"We must come down from our heights, and leave our straight paths, for the byways and low places of life, if we would learn truths by strong contrasts; and in hovels, in forecastles, and among our own outcasts in foreign lands, see what has been wrought upon our fellow-creatures by accident, hardship, or vice. (p.335)"


There are very few narratives like this one, ones in which a largely voiceless group gains a powerful and articulate spokesman. (I know of one other, Jack Black's You Can't Win, the forceful autobiography of a 19th-century hobo riding the rails.) Dana came down from his heights—a Harvard-educated intellectual, fearful of losing his eyesight to too much study, he shipped out from Boston aboard the brig Pilgrim in 1834, not as a pampered passenger but as a common sailor, just another Jack whose berth was in the forecastle of the ship (hence "before the mast"). Dana was bound on a trading journey around Cape Horn, to the wilds of California, that would end up lasting more than two years.

Though some people more used to today's stripped-down prose find it difficult, and sometimes the nautical jargon really is almost impenetrable to one who's never reefed a sail, Dana's tale remains intensely vivid and compelling overall. The meanings of the various specific terms come clear, mostly, with time, and there is a glossary of nautical terms at the back (in the volume I read), which helps as well.


I was surprised at how soon the first part of the book, where Dana recounts his voyage to California and how he learned to be a sailor, was concluded. I had expected the beginning stages to take up more of his attention, but in fact the bulk of the book concerns the trade up and down the California coast, as Dana served the Pilgrim (and, later, the Alert) gathering cowhides to bring back to Boston.

Dana's autobiographical work is more than just a sailing manual and travelogue, though. To be sure, there are many lyrical descriptions of storms at sea, of whales and sails, of the wild and desolate California coast (so soon to be thoroughly settled—within Dana's lifetime, in fact, as the concluding essay "Twenty-Four Years After" notes with nostalgia). But even while describing the beauty of the landscape, Dana cannot refrain from observing keenly and presciently the fate of that very landscape. Upon entering the "magnificent" San Francisco Bay, for example, Dana says
"We passed directly under the high cliff on which the presidio is built, and stood into the middle of the bay, from whence we could see small bays, making up into the interior, on every side; large and beautifully-wooded islands; and the mouths of several small rivers. If California ever becomes a prosperous country, this bay will be the centre of its prosperity. (emphasis added -APS) The abundance of wood and water, the extreme fertility of its shores, the excellence of its climate, which is as near to being perfect as any in the world, and its facilities for navigation, affording the best anchoring-grounds in the whole western coast of America, all fit it for a place of great importance[...] (p.305)
Dana must have felt quite vindicated upon his return in 1859, to find San Francisco a bustling city of over 150,000, many of whom had used his book as a reference.


Though definitely a product of its time in many ways, Dana's observations sometimes seem as contemporary and biting as anything from, say, Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States—as when, having befriended some of the native Hawai'ians who crewed many of the ships plying the Pacific, he resignedly notes that "[...]the white men, with their vices, have brought in diseases before unknown to the islanders, and which are now sweeping off the native population of the Sandwich Islands, at the rate of one fortieth of the entire population annually. They seem to be a doomed people. The curse of a people calling themselves Christians, seems to follow them everywhere; and even here, in this obscure place, lay two young islanders, whom I had left strong, active young men, in the vigor of health, wasting away under a disease, which they would never have known but for their intercourse with christianized Mexico and people from Christian America."


Despite the despairing tone of the above, Dana concluded his book with a call for more religious observance aboard ship, as a way of civilizing both captains and crew. After his return to Boston, he went into maritime law and politics, where his advocacy for improvements in sailors' working conditions continued. He became an Abolitionist, and an advocate for the downtrodden.

Two Years Before the Mast is deservedly recognized as a classic, one which, despite the disappearance of both the lifestyle and the landscape Dana observed, remains both readable and relevant today.
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