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.











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.