Richard Henry Dana

(1815—1882) American adventurer, lawyer, and writer

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born at Cambridge, Massachusetts. His family had been lawyers for generations, and Richard was sent to Harvard to study for the same profession, but an attack of measles during a period when he was rusticated from the university so affected his eyes that he was unable to continue his studies. He had the idea that a sea voyage and work on board a ship would cure his eye troubles, and he signed on as a paid hand in the Boston brig Pilgrim, for a trading voyage round Cape Horn and up the Pacific seaboard. The brig sailed in August 1834, and Dana stepped ashore again in Boston in September 1836 with the eye weakness permanently cured. However, he returned in a larger ship, the Alert, which he joined halfway through the voyage to escape the brutalities of the brig's captain.

He kept a log throughout the two years of his spell at sea, and during the intervals of his law studies prepared the log for publication under the title Two Years Before the Mast. No New York publisher would look at it until eventually Harper's was persuaded to give it a trial. They bought all rights in the manuscript for $250, and the book was published in 1841. The simple, direct style of writing, the ‘voice from the forecastle’ as Dana himself described the book, stamped it as one of the great masterpieces of marine literature.

Dana became an authority on maritime law, and was also something of a politician, but public office in this field always just evaded him. Nor, in his writing, did he ever again reach the heights of his first book. He wrote a Seaman's Manual (1841) that went into four editions, and A Voyage to Cuba and Back (1859), which has none of the freshness and delightful simplicity of Two Years Before the Mast.

Subjects: Literature — Maritime History.

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Works by Richard Henry Dana