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.





For Oct. 26, 2011

“Read the best books first, or you may not have

a chance to read them at all.”


Last week’s blog on the Williamsons’ travel books appears to have started something totally unexpected.  Or perhaps it would be more apt to say “restarted.”  Our daughter Michelle suggested I organize a series of blogs having to do with my favorite books—and I had a tough time sleeping that night.  Should I devote one blog a month to a favorite book?  I’ve since become convicted that I ought to do just that.

Former students of mine who are kind enough to check in with the daily tweets and weekly blogs will remember that for years I taught such courses as Great Books of the World and Modern and Contemporary Literature, as well as individualized Directed Reading courses.  Many of you actually took some of those courses.  In those courses, I had the opportunity to share some of my most loved books with my students.  I miss those courses.

After I left the classroom for a full-time career as an author, over a five-year period, I edited special editions of some of my favorite books for Focus on the Family/Tyndale House.  The twelve we created are: Little Women and Little Men by Louisa May Alcott, Robinson Crusoe and The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, A Christmas Carol and David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, The Christmas Angel by Abbie Farwell Brown, Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery, Freckles by Gene Stratton Porter, The Twenty-fourth of June by Grace Richmond, Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz, and Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace.

At the front of each book, under the heading of “A Life-Changing Letter,” were these words:


                                    Several years ago I received a letter that changed my life.  Sadly, I don’t

remember who wrote it, only what she said.  In essence, this was her plea:

                        “Dr. Wheeler,

    I have a big favor to ask you.  First of all, though, I want you to know how much I enjoy your story collections; they have greatly enriched my life.  Now for the favor: I was wondering if you have any interest in doing with books what you are doing with stories.

    You see, while I love to read, I haven’t the slightest idea of where to start.  There are millions of books out there, and most of them—authors too—are just one big blur to me.  I want to use my time wisely, to choose books which will not only take me somewhere but also make me a better and kinder person.

   I envy you because you know which books are worth reading and which are not.  Do you possibly have a list of worthy books that you wouldn’t mind sending to me?”

   I responded to this letter but most inadequately, for at that time I had no such list.  I tried to put the plea behind me, but it dug in its heels and kept me awake at night.  Eventually, I concluded that a Higher Power was at work here and that I needed to do something about it.  I put together a proposal for a broad reading plan based on books I knew and loved—books that had powerfully affected me, that had opened other worlds and cultures to me, and that had made me a kinder, more empathetic person.


You see, we have so little time in this tragically short life in which to read books worth reading.  If, over a seventy-year period, we read only a book a week, that would total only 3,640 books during a lifetime.  A book a month would come to only 840.

So my question to you is this: Would you be interested in such a book club, beginning this November?  Most of these titles would not be new but rather would have stood the test of time.  Some might turn out to be books you once read but might enjoy re-reading.  Others would be new to you.

There would be no cost for joining.  You could either purchase a copy of each book at a bookstore or from the worldwide web (Amazon, ABE, etc), or check it out from your library.  There is another option for some of the titles I’d choose: Eric Mayer of Bluebird Books (8201 S. Santa Fe Drive, #245, Littleton, CO 80120 (303) 912-4559.   Reason being that for most of my life I planned to open up a book business when I retired, and so purchased many thousands of books over the years for that purpose.  Well, I’ve ruefully concluded that I’ll probably never retire, so I turned over a good share of those books to Bluebird Books for him to dispose of.  He is aware of this book club concept and is enthusiastically on board.  He is honest, conscientious, prices out-of-print books at market norms, and is dedicated to securing books in the best condition possible.  You’ll find him special to work with.  Let him know you’re part of this book club.  Me too, as I’ll be making up a list of names and addresses of each of you who joins.  Would love to hear from you as to reactions to the books we select.

Years ago, I joined the Heritage Book Club and, over time, purchased most of their classic titles.  They tended to cycle through certain authors.  I would too.  Not all at once, but over time.  If you’re like me, however,  you’re not likely to wait but if you fall in love with a certain author you’ll start adding others of their books to your personal library.

As to my favorite books, I’m a sentimentalist who loves romances, family favorites, adventure, historical romances, classics, etc.  I gravitate to books that move me deeply, take me places I’ve never been to before, make me laugh or cry, incorporate values worth living by—pretty much the same criteria I’ve used in selecting stories in my 60 story anthologies.

I’ll be candid with you: I really miss the one-on-one interaction with my students.  Such a book club as this would be second best to actual classroom interaction.  I’m really looking forward to such contact.



—Harold Bell Wright


Have you ever noticed that it is only in retrospect that we realize that if certain days in our lives had never been, how different our lives would have been.  Well, there was just such a day I’d like to share with you.

It was a heartstoppingly beautiful spring morning along California’s Feather River.  Since my missionary parents were far away in the West Indies, relatives stepped in to keep me from being lonely during vacations.  On this particular day, two of my favorite relatives, Aunt Jeannie and Uncle Warren, pronounced it picnic time.  We stopped en-route to Feather River Canyon at the Tehama County Library where my aunt steered me to certain authors she thought I’d relate to.  I checked out a number of books that really looked interesting to me.  One of them was this particular book, first published in 1909 by the Book Supply Company.  After settling down on a blanket under a great oak, I opened this book, and was almost instantaneously drawn into it—so much so that I lost all track of time, only remaining aware of the haunting riversong.

I was more than ready for this romance.  Having grown up in a conservative Christian church my world view was a bit limited.  Wright, a pastor himself, disillusioned by church politics and broken in health, had come to the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas to see if he could find answers.  In time, he was strongly impacted by the Social Gospel Movement of the 1890s, the discovery of the Didache being at the root of it.  Only during the last year have I discovered (during research for my second biography of St. Nicholas) that for four centuries the early Christian Church exploded across the Roman World, not because of doctrine but because of living out Christ’s injunctions to serve others, to help those who were ill or in prison or who were in need of humanitarian aid (known as the Didache).  Wright concluded that if he incorporated Christ’s injunction to make service to others the highest calling of his life, he could revolutionize American life.  But not through sermons but rather through fiction.  He wrote three books in what has become known as the Social Gospel Trilogy: That Printer of Udel’s, The Calling of Dan Matthews, and God and the Groceryman.  Not until years later did I discover those other two books.

But the book proved to be an epiphany for me.  It radically changed my life: gave me a vision of selfless service and revealed that God was not owned by any one denomination but rather that He found ways to relate to every human being on earth, regardless of nationality or religion.  He was—and is—Father of us all.

I set out on a life-long search for all of Wright’s other books.  Wright has that effect on his readers.  I know of one woman who cried when she read the last Wright novel.  Cried because never again could she listen to Wright in an unread book.  Not all our mentors are still with us—many speak to us from the grave through their books that live on and on.

So this is why I’m starting with Wright.  As you begin building a library—or expand it to include these books—, I strongly encourage you to buy your own books, choosing First Editions or special editions, keeping in mind that in books, as in art, condition is everything.

I’ll be talking a lot more about books in blogs to come, among our other subject areas.  Next Wednesday I’ll be discussing the importance of journaling and why, if we don’t, we’ll be losing out big time!

No, I haven’t forgotten the Southwest National Parks.  I just got sidetracked!

If you wish to write me, I can be reached at Box 1246, Conifer, CO 80433.