American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

TWO YEARS BEFORE THE MAST (1840). This autobiographical account of life aboard a merchant vessel was written by Richard Henry Dana Jr.* (1815-1882) and is based on his voyage from Boston to California and back, 1834-1836. Promising a “voice from the forecastle,” Dana’s book is a combination of realistic detail and lyrical impressionism. Enormously popular when first published, Two Years helped to change the course of American sea literature, both fiction and nonfiction, away from the romanticism of James Fenimore Cooper’s* early sea novels, toward more gritty and authentic portrayals of nautical life. Herman Melville* so admired the work that he called Dana his “sea brother” and engaged Dana in correspondence as he was writing Redburn* (1849), White-Jacket* (1850), and Moby-Dick* (1851). A work with continuing and multifaceted appeal, Two Years was originally praised by Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Cullen Bryant,* Edgar Allan Poe,* and others as a documentary expose of the hardships of a sailor’s life, while this century’s appreciation turns more on Dana’s symbolic voyage of identity.

Partly as an attempt to cure his ailing eyesight, Dana left behind his Harvard education and Brahmin upbringing on 14 August 1834, sailing for California aboard the hide-carrier Pilgrim. His record of the voyage out, much of it in the form of dated diary entries, is filled with landmark initiations and immersions. After a bout of seasickness, Dana stands his first watch, reefs his first sail, twice crosses the equator, and keeps his “trick” at the helm during the rough weather of Cape Horn.* With particular pride Dana reports that he and Ben Stimson, another young man from a privileged family, move from steerage to the forecastle to join the regular sailors. He now feels “one of them.”

The life of the sailor had its own horrors, however, and in one of his most compelling passages, Dana describes the flogging of a shipmate by the sadistic Captain Francis Thompson. Dana vows afterward that, once home, he will do what he can to redress the wrongs suffered by common sailors. Dana kept his promise: as a Boston lawyer he regularly represented sailors in their grievances against captains and owners. Descriptions of California, its history and people, along with the work of hide curing and collecting, make up the long middle portion of Two Years. Once overeager to join ranks with the common sailor, Dana is haunted with the memory of the flogging and the tedium of his California work, which convince him to return home as soon as possible. He uses his influence to secure a berth aboard the Alert. In the record of his return voyage, roughly the final third of the book, Dana creates particularly memorable portraits of sea, sky, and sail, including a lyrical description of the Alert as seen from the perspective of the flying jib-boom. Upon entering Boston harbor on 22 September 1836, Dana registers the complexity of his emotions by recording a certain “indifference” and “apathy” at the moment he had looked forward to for over a year (ch. 36). Given the fact that he knew he was returning home to the prescribed routines of Boston gentility, this ending has a special poignancy.

Dana wrote Two Years while he was in law school; Harper’s published it some three and half years after the Alerts return. Dana’s book contract, negotiated by his father, Richard Henry Dana Sr.,* and the poet William Cullen Bryant,* was for $250 and twenty-five free copies. Dana Sr. turned down Harper’s initial offer for 10 percent of the sales after the first 1,000 copies sold. Given the popularity of Two Years, this was an unfortunate choice for the young author. Dana estimated that the book earned some $50,000 before the copyright ran out. In 1859 Dana made a nostalgic return to California and eventually appended a chapter, “Twenty-Four Years Later,” to later editions.

Reading interest in Two Years was immediate, reinforced by the discovery of gold in California. The book also fed an East Coast appetite for stories of the “common man” in post-Jacksonian America. Today Dana’s work is recognized more for its rich ambiguities than for its literal certainties. As much as Two Years is a realistic description of sea life, it is also a narrative search for identity and exhibits the tensions of Dana’s dual allegiance to the worlds of land and sea.

The book was adapted into a 1946 film that starred Alan Ladd. [See also THE RED RECORD]

FURTHER READING: Gale, Robert. Richard Henry Dana, Jr. New York: Twayne, 1969; Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. New York: Thomas Seltzer, 1923; Philbrick, Thomas. Introduction. Two Years before the Mast. Richard Henry Dana Jr. New York: Penguin, 1981, 7-29.

Hugh Egan