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A Few Months With Dana’s Two Years Before The Mast

February 18, 2008

Several months ago I picked up Richard Henry Dana, Jr.‘s Two Years Before the Mast. I became interested in the book for two reasons—one solid and the other false.

My solid motivation was the desire to read a non-fiction book on early nineteenth-century sail ships and the seaman’s life. This grew out of having recently completed Patrick O’Brian’s twenty-book series on his fictional Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin characters. [Aside: What a fantastic epic in historical fiction. Am I overstating the case by calling O’Brian a genius?] Returning to Dana, I wanted to obtain a sense of seafaring life on American ships in the same period. The book is essentially Dana’s journal of his two years at sea, from 1834-36. In that time he journeyed through the Atlantic, around Cape Horn, and up to California. In California, Dana spent about a year helping collect hides before returning in a different ship to Boston.

My false reason for reading Dana’s book was the mistaken belief that Robert Maynard Hutchins had recommended it, in the 1940s, for Britannica’s Great Books set. Somehow I had convinced myself that Hutchins mildly lobbied to include the book, along with a more fervent advocacy for Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. I confirmed my mistake this morning by searching the minutes from Britannica’s 1943 Advisory Board meetings, the year the Board decided most of the set’s authors and books.

I must’ve mixed Hutchins’s desire up with my other readings in U.S. intellectual history. Dana’s name definitely arose in Louis Menand’s Metaphysical Club, in the context of discussing Oliver Wendell Holme’s pre-Civil War life in Boston. Dana was one of the Holmes’s Harvard crowd who virulently opposed slavery, to the point of getting involved in a plot for a Southern insurrection (supporting John Brown, I believe). Gerald Graff also discusses Dana in the former’s Professing Literature.

But what brings me to this post? Well, if you’ve read O’Brian thoroughly, and all you’re interested in is sailing life, there’s no substantial reason to read the whole of Dana’s book. You’ll learn everything you need to know about life at sea through O’Brian, including a fair amount on life “before the mast.” Yes, Dana is more thorough in covering the ship’s forecastle life, and his book deals with a non-naval setting, unlike O’Brian. But O’Brian doesn’t neglect informing the reader of the fundamentals of being a common sailor.

I found Dana’s book reasonably interesting for its middle third on California. Two Years Before the Mast certainly holds appeal for the professional historian desiring to know something about ground-level colonial California—as it was then the property of Mexico. The other two-thirds covered ground that O’Brian had already done quite well. Of course it was nice to have a confirmation, but I felt safe with O’Brian’s descriptions of sea life in the Royal Navy (from about 1790-1830) because I triangulated O’Brian’s work with book reviews and fact-checking along the way.

The last chapter of Dana’s book does contain a thoughtful reflection on the legal status of sailors, in the United States and beyond in the 1840s. Dana advocates for the reform of how court cases are handled on behalf of common “jacks” (non-officer sailors who work before the mast). But this is a bit of legal history, or a kind of primary historical document dealing with maritime history, and not a compelling reason to read all of Two Years Before the Mast.

In sum, it took me two months of interrupted reading to get through the book, and I wish I had about two-thirds of that time back.

Has anyone else read Dana’s book? Thoughts? Do I have it wrong? What would you add to my analysis? Would you include this book in a course on the period, one dealing with settling the West or on U.S. maritime history? – TL

PS – Who knew there was a movie version of the book? Check out the sexy dude, Brian Donlevy circa 1946! – TL


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