Two Years Before the Mast: A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea
By Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
Reviewed by Rick Skwiot
In a way, the best thing for a writer is misfortune. In that regard, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. got lucky.
A young Harvard man, he signed on as a common seaman aboard the brig Pilgrim, bound for California from Boston, to help improve his health. Had it been smooth sailing over benign seas under a wise and beneficent captain, with good food and a leisurely stay on California beaches, we likely would never have heard of Dana.
But, thanks to the treacherous and icy waters of Cape Horn, a power hungry captain keen on flogging his men on slight pretence, a year of hard labor hauling hides in anarchic California (still part of Mexico in 1834, the year Dana sailed), and shipboard living conditions that today’s Supreme Court would find cruel and unusual, Dana and his work have remained icons in American literature and history. (To wit, re living conditions: When he and his shipmates mistakenly believe war has broken out with France and they might be captured and spend time in a French prison, they view the prospect as a pleasant break from their hard routines and shipboard incarceration.)
Part of the lasting success of this book lies in its rich complexity: part memoir of a privileged youth’s right of passage into full manhood; part sociological treatise on the people and politics of Mexico; part polemic and muckraking journalism exposing the indignities, injustices and virtual slavery suffered by merchant sailors; part technical manual on sailing; part travel narrative; and part detailed history of commerce on the high seas circa 1835.
-We learn much about mizenmasts, marlinespikes, and the how-to of sailing a brig (more, perhaps, than a landlubber cares to know).
-We see a California without streets or, for that matter, firm laws, but with a rigid Mexican social hierarchy of criollos, mestizos, and Indians—the last often literal slaves—as well as a smattering of Yankees, Hawaiian sailors, drunks, deadbeats, murderers, and rogues.
-We are given the particulars of a booming hide trade—the tanning, hauling, and loading in which Dana is forced to participate.
-We glimpse the endless work of the common seaman and the absolute power of ship captains, which, in the case of the Pilgrim’s skipper, culminates in a mean-spirited tyranny.
-We share a perilous winter passage around Cape Horn and the Straits of Magellan, through great, iceberg-littered fog banks, driving rain and snow, and mean seas, where the perpetually sodden and frigid seamen must negotiate pitching iced decks and rigging to perform their never-ending, life-threatening tasks.
-We view avarice, duplicity, ignorance, and cruelty, albeit leavened by loyalty, generosity, friendship, and perseverance. In that way, and more, Dana’s tale is a microcosm of the human condition: a seemingly endless and at times pointless journey on a small ark afloat in perilous seas, filled with ceaseless toil yet anointed with sublime natural beauty.
Dana’s descriptions of the seas, skies, and landscapes often turn poetic. In fact, most all the language of Two Years Before the Mast tends toward the formal and writerly. For despite it being a journal of a common seaman, Dana is an uncommon jack-tar, with a Harvard education, bourgeois manners, and Boston connections that keep him, just barely, from spending another two years in California hauling hides. (Some of his not-so-well-connected mates, from whom he always keeps a distance, at least in his mind and in his journal, were not so lucky.)
The reader never forgets Dana’s Boston background, as he spouts Latin and quotes English poets. Although this book was the first to give us a seaman’s, not the captain’s, point of view, the language is not that of a seaman, and it will be another 45 years before Huck Finn comes to free us all from formal Boston English.
Though nominally an American, Dana exhibits a tone, demeanor and delicacy more English than Yank. (A possible influence: his lawyer father, who argued for an American monarchy and a House of Lords.) This delicacy also leads Dana to omit from his narrative most anything that might cast him in a common light—such as his consorting with Indian prostitutes in California.
But Dana’s great fortune as a writer was, seemingly, his misfortune as a gentleman. Upon returning to Boston, he graduated first in his class at Harvard, became a celebrity with the publication of Two Years Before the Mast in 1840, married, and became a prosperous Boston lawyer. However, he never seemed to settle into a life of propriety, as if inoculated against it on his rough and formative two-year voyage. This unresolved inner conflict apparently resulted in a series of nervous breakdowns, which he cured with long sea voyages.
Yet we sense this conflict between his upper-crust snobbery and his genuine affection for the rigorous life and his vigorous shipmates seething beneath the surface throughout his journal. We see a young man made over by his experience—a patrician who, in his heart, becomes a common sailor, but one who never comes to relinquish his previous social status and persona.
For most memoirs to succeed, the reader must be convinced that the author has set off on a sincere sojourn of personal discovery, to find his or her true self. Here, in Two Years Before the Mast, we see that discovery take place before our eyes, even if the author never fully admits it.