Richard Henry Dana’s “Two Years Before the Mast”

BLOG #13, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #28
RICHARD HENRY DANA’S TWO YEARS BEFORE THE MAST
March 26, 2014

Class, for our 28th book selection, we are turning to a book unlike any other previous selection. For all those who love true history, unvarnished biography, and the all too rare opportunity to step back in time and experience life as it once was without interrupting commentary, this is your book.

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Heritage Edition                                                                                                                                                       Signet Classic Edition

There is much to be amazed about in the story of this book: First, the author was in his twenties when he wrote it, and never again wrote anything comparable to it. Second, it has never been out of print since Harpers first published it in 1841! It was an almost instant classic and best-seller and has remained so ever since.

Let’s step back in time 199 years, only six years after the birth of Abraham Lincoln, Richard Henry Dana (1815-1882), was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Both his father and mother were members of the New England aristocracy.

Early on, attending a local school, the boy was regularly flogged by sadistic schoolmasters. Such flogging was indiscriminate and administered without justification. Later, he studied with Emerson. He was only sixteen when he enrolled at Harvard. All went well until, in his sophomore year, he came down with the then deadly measles. A side effect was that he all but lost his sight. Unable to read or even endure ordinary sunlight, he was forced to drop out.

What should he do now? After wrestling with what few options were open to him, he concluded that his best chance of recovery was to go to sea; but not in style for that would not provide an arena of intense living, complete with suffering. So he signed on as a common sailor on the sailing brig, Pilgrim in 1834. The initial voyage was around the Horn of South America and then sailing north to San Francisco in then Spanish California.

He stoically took whatever the brutal captains dished out, climbing up the masts in the stormiest of weather, and working night and day, through terrible storms and just as terrible calms.

Somehow, however, he found time to journal what he saw and experienced. Two years later, some 20,000 miles later, when the clipper ship Alert nosed into the Boston Harbor, he’d fully recovered his sight and was at the peak of physical conditioning.

So he returned to Harvard, then passed the bar and set up practice. One day, his father discovered his son’s journal; was so impressed by it that he suggested that he consider publishing it. William Cullen Bryant, a family friend, ran interference with Harpers, and the book was published in 1841. But even with Bryant’s urging fairer reimbursement, all the author received for his efforts were two dozen copies of the book and $250. Not until the 28-year copyright expired was Dana able to secure more revenue from what was by then an international best-seller.

But people read it now for the adventure of it, the swan-song period of those most beautiful of all sailing ships–the windjammers, a world which was even then coming to an end as steamships remorselessly displaced sailing vessels.

Dana’s book, told in its simple unimpassioned way, detailing the courageous men who dared the sea and suffered such brutality in the process, ended up waking up readers to the reality of merchant marine life, gradually resulting in more humane treatment.

Melville (four years younger than Dana) was tremendously impressed by the book, even borrowing from one of Dana’s real shipmates, Bill Jackson, and immortalizing him as Billy Budd. Thoreau too was much impressed by it.

I’ll not tell you any more about Dana’s later life, mainly because I want you to journey the rest of the way on your own. What I will guarantee is this: You will not be the same person at the end you are now. Bryant maintained it is as great a book as Robinson Crusoe. But, in a very special way, it is more significant than Defoe’s novel–for every word of it is true, actual.

So step into this long-ago world. Let me know what you think about it when you come out.

Many editions are available of course; just make certain your copy is unabridged. The Heritage edition is stunning (346 large format pages). The Signet paperback contains 384 pages.

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WHERE DOES “MORNING” COME FROM?

BLOG #12, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
WHERE DOES “MORNING” COME FROM?
March 19, 2014

Some people never lose their childlike sense of wonder. Elizabeth Goudge, one of my favorite English writers, never lost the ability to think as a child, no matter how old she got.

Just so, Emily Dickinson, America’s greatest poetess, enchants us still, well over a hundred years later, because she never lost that trait.

Have you ever wondered how you’d respond to a child’s queries about something as prosaic as mornings?

Following is Dickinson’s try at it:

MORNING

“Will there really be a morning?
Is there such a thing as day?
Could I see it from the mountains
If I were as tall as they?

Has it feet like water-lilies?
Has it feathers like a bird?
Is it brought from famous countries
Of which I never heard?

Oh, some scholar! Oh, some sailor!
Oh, some wise man from the skies!
Please to tell a little pilgrim
Where the place called morning lies!”

–“Morning,” published in
St. Nicholas, May 1891

Published in: on March 19, 2014 at 5:00 am  Comments (3)  
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Once Upon A Time 141 Years Ago

BLOG #11, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
ONCE UPON A TIME 141 YEARS AGO
March 12, 2014

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What’s so significant about 1873, 141 years ago? Let’s find out.

Lincoln had been assassinated at the end of the horrific Civil War during which virtually every family, North or South, had been bathed in blood. The terrible Reconstruction Period was bringing a new species of hell to the South. To add even more misery, the terrible bank panic of 1873 was blighting the hopes and dreams of millions of people, for there was then no FDIC to fall back on.

But in the midst of all this, something totally unforeseen took place: Roswell Smith (1829-1892), cofounder of Scribners and founder of the Century Publishing Company, woke up one never-to-be-forgotten morning with a dream; but, unlike most people, this publisher believed in constructing lasting foundations under his dreams. Since he had more than enough money, all he lacked was a young energetic visionary editor who’d help him to change the western world. He found her, a widowed Mary Mapes Dodge, whose best-selling book, Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, eight years before, had elevated her to the pinnacle of national popularity. Once she’d signed on, the stage was set.Scan_Pic0080

On my lapboard this stunning late winter day in the Colorado Rockies, is a very old book containing two 141-year-old magazines and four 140-year-old magazines. The crystallization into reality of Smith’s and Dodge’s dream: the very first volume of a life-changing magazine, St. Nicholas.

I’ve always been attracted to visionary dreams that change the world. I can only imagine what it would have been like in that New York editorial office when Smith handed Mrs. Dodge that very first magazine. In my introduction to “A St. Nicholas Magazine Christmas” (Christmas in My Heart® 17, 2008), I took our readers back in time to what it would have been like for a child or a teen to have been handed a copy of that magazine.

The fastest speed known to man was the train; transportation in general was still dominated by the horse. The telegraph office and the newspaper in each town were their windows to the world. The center of home life was the stove, kitchen, or fireplace–here is where family reading took place in the evenings. Paper was so rare that children, both at home and at school, tended to write with chalk on slate rather than using a pencil on paper. Childhood, as we know it today, didn’t exist back then, for children were expected to work as hard as adults. Education was all too brief; maybe, if you were lucky, three or four grades in a one-room schoolhouse. Girls especially faced an unenviable future for few careers other than marriage and motherhood were open to them. They were expected to marry by the ages of 14 to 17 (boys 15 to 18); children would then arrive on an average of every two years. No small thanks to the failure of doctors and midwives to wash their hands between patients, untold millions of women died of puerperal fever or childbirth “complications” – hence men tended to go through three wives in a lifetime. Life expectancy was short.

So just imagine yourself as an 1873 child or teen, as this magazine created just for you was delivered to your door. You’d be not only hungry for knowledge, you’d be voracious: all that knowledge out there, but inaccessible to you. Now here come, in your mailbox, windows to the world: history, biography, religion, literature, art, music, mythology, biology, architecture, anthropology, philosophy, technology, folklore, popular culture, and on and on. Authors and poets such as Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, Anthony Hope, Tennyson, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Longfellow, Bret Harte, Whittier, Frances Hodgson Burnett, William Cullen Bryant; and artists such as Arthur Rackham, Maxfield Parrish, Howard Pyle, Rembrandt, Rubens, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Frederic Remington, Charles Dana Gibson, Arthur Keller, etc.

Faithfully, for two-thirds of a century, three generations of young people received 1,200 pages of fascinating reading material every year. Without preaching or moralizing, the magazines helped inculcate principles of right living in its readers: character traits such as integrity, kindness, self-sacrifice, empathy, industry, courage, fortitude, self-respect, patriotism, respect for their elders, sportsmanship, etc.. – traits that bridged to the Golden Rule and service for others. Interwoven into the very fabric of the magazine was God’s leading in each of our lives. Thus, in its 66 years, St. Nicholas had a huge impact on the American people and British Commonwealth.

And yet, miraculously, defying all the odds, here is this refugee from another time, this 1873-74 artifact, on my lapboard! Thoughts and reactions almost overwhelm me. What will be the thoughts of people in 2155, 141 years from now, when they look back in time? Will there be any paper books left outside of mega library vaults? Will the average person be able to experience the thrill of touching and reading actual paper pages from times past? Or will the closest thing be digital? Digital recreations that lack any real connections to the real artifact itself. In that probable age of Orwellian Big Brother will they be forced to enter the Ray Bradbury world of Fahrenheit 451 and seek out those who memorized seminal books from the past (reason being totalitarian rulers have now erased all printed records that such books ever existed)? Even more terrifying, will there yet exist civilizations based on the Judeo-Christian belief system generations of children once grew up internalizing?

In a way, thousands of homeschooling parents are already circling their wagons around their children, earnestly seeking to preserve values worth living by for their children. Searching out real books, with the known potential to change lives for the better if their values are internalized. In a world that increasingly devalues real books, a revolution has already begun, a revolution every bit as significant as the one begun back in 1873-74 with this priceless book resting on my lapboard today.

IS UKRAINE OUR GENERATION’S MUNICH?

BLOG #10, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
IS UKRAINE OUR GENERATION’S MUNICH?
March 5, 2014

Preliminary indications and predictions add up to a bleak scenario for our time. Just to refresh your memory, go back through history to the events leading up to World War II: British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his Conservative Party agreed to a foreign policy based on appeasement of Hitler. Chamberlain sought to draw Italy’s dictator Mussolii away from Hitler by concessions. In 1938, Chamberlain and his team met with Hitler and Mussolini in Munich and agreed to the rape of Czechoslovakia; and the stage was set for the horrific war that followed. Reason being: each back-down emboldened Hitler to gobble up another nation. History has not been kind to Chamberlain and his ill-conceived policy of appeasement.

Winston Churchill, Chamberlain’s successor, likened appeasers to a tiger that appeasers hope will eat them last.

So now we are faced with Janus-faced (one face to the Olympics, another to his opponents) Vladimir Putin, who is determined to crush the former countries that were freed by the fall of the Berlin Wall. U.S. and European leaders dithered like Chamberlain over Putin’s invading Georgia and Moldova (after the breakup of the Soviet Union), doing little to stop Putin. Now Obama is faced with Putin’s next step: the invasion of another sovereign nation, the Ukraine. Apparently, noting that Obama’s famous line in the sand for Syria’s dictator Assad turned out to be nothing but rhetoric, Putin feels empowered to do another land grab–not content with Russia’s already being the world’s largest nation.

Our current administration continues to weaken our armed forces in favor of entitlements, so our military is stretched paper-thin around the world. Already, Japan, seeing the backdown of Obama where Syria is concerned, realizes that it can no longer depend on America to defend it from the new tiger of the East, China, so it is beginning to rebuild its long inactive military. Now, Obama and Kerry are faced with their own moment of truth. The long fuse lit during the fiercely-fought primaries where Obama and Hillary Clinton fought almost to a draw. The issue of presidential guts was brought up then: that whoever won the presidency, after their honeymoon was over, inevitably their guts, or lack of them, would be severely tested by leaders of nations around the world. The question brought up then is clearly the question facing Obama now: Does he have the guts to stand toe to toe to Putin and demand that he pull back from the Ukraine? Guts such as Washington had, Lincoln had, FDR had, Truman had, Reagan had.

Let’s hope Obama will rise to the occasion and institute serious repercussions with real teeth for all our sakes– such as tough sanctions and freezing of Russian assets. If he does come through with real presidency toughness, it may end up defining his presidency.

Stay tuned. The Ukraine’s Crimea will answer this question.