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TraveLit--A blog about travel literature. 

     Even with the best of maps and instruments, we can never fully chart our journeys.

Review: Two Years Before the Mast

Two Years Before the Mast
By Richard Henry Dana
(This book is available in many editions. I read it online on The Project Gutenberg.)

Richard Henry Dana is buried in an old Cambridge churchyard just down the street from my house, and I’ve passed his gravestone hundreds of times. Yet I never paid much attention to it, and until a friend recommended Two Years Before the Mast, I had never read his classic work. Indeed, not only had I never read it, I thought it was a novel!

In fact, of course, this wonderful book is an account, in journal form, of Dana’s two years—1834-1836—as a sailor in the American merchant marine. As an undergraduate at Harvard, he had suffered from a case of measles that so damaged his eyes that he was forced to drop out of school. He then signed up on a Boston brig, the Pilgrim, heading round Cape Horn to California, where it would trade its goods for hides.

Young Dana is entirely ignorant of what he has signed up for, and as he says, “There is not so helpless and pitiable an object in the world as a landsman beginning a sailor’s life." But once aboard ship, he is compelled to learn quickly, and as he learns, he passes on the knowledge to readers: by the end of his tour, we know thoroughly the daily life of a sailor, which is hard work, rough going, and—whatever we may imagine about life at sea—devoid of romance. “A sailor’s life is at best, but a mixture of a little good with much evil, and a little pleasure with much pain,” he says. “The beautiful is linked with the revolting, the sublime with the commonplace, and the solemn with the ludicrous.”

All of this Dana shows with colorful precision in his account, which describes the daily schedule, the roles and relationships of the men on board, the sleeping arrangements and food, and the dangerous risks as the crew struggles with the violence of storms.

Although Dana writes clearly, I admit that I didn’t follow all of the nautical terminology. But I found that it didn’t matter. I always got the gist of the furling and reefing of sails as the ship met different climates and weather. And Dana is such a good storyteller that I was thoroughly engaged by his portraits of shipmates, his descriptions of activities and conflicts aboard ship, his personal observations, and his exploration of California—under Mexican rule at the time, foreign, desolate, and uninhabited. The men call it “the hated coast.”

Two scenes in the book are especially riveting. One involves the efforts to get round Cape Horn in winter, when the boat ices over and the men are forced to work barehanded because their mittens slide on the ropes. The men, who had been talking of "When we get home," now think, "If we get home."

The second incident centers on two floggings that take place aboard the Pilgrim. The floggings are ghastly, and Dana writes about them with sensitivity, bringing out the inhumanity of the captain and the subsequent impact of the event not only on the two men who were flogged but also on the crew. I was relieved when Dana, finding that the Pilgrim is destined to remain in California far longer than he signed on for, manages to change ships and return home on the Alert, a boat with a better captain and a happier crew.

In a conclusion set 24 years after this journey, Dana returns to California, now part of the United States, and a very different world. The gold rush has occurred, the coast is now populated, San Francisco is a flourishing city. As he revisits the places where he worked before, and meets a few of the people he knew then, I felt moved by his nostalgia for his youthful experience, so hard and in many ways awful, yet so intensely lived.

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