Two Years before the Mast

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Personal narrative of life at sea by R. H. Dana, Jr., published anonymously in 1840. It is written in the form of an extended diary, based on a journal that the author kept during his voyage, for the purpose of presenting “the life of a common sailor at sea as it really is,—the light and the dark together.” A concluding chapter furnishes a general statement of conditions prevailing on merchant ships at the time, and suggests measures to diminish the hardships of the sailors' daily lives.

The narrative begins with Dana's abrupt change from the life of a Harvard under-graduate to that of an ordinary seaman, sailing on the brig Pilgrim (Aug. 14, 1834) for a voyage from Boston around Cape Horn to California. In a clear-sighted, hardheaded, and self-controlled manner, he describes the 150-day voyage, with all its petty details and routine, as well as the sailors' off-hour occupations and conversation. One of the most dramatic events is the flogging of two of his shipmates, and his vow “to redress the grievances and sufferings of that class of beings with whom my lot had so long been cast.” During his residence on the California coast (Jan. 13, 1835–May 8, 1836), he describes with similar detailed realism his life on shore, curing hides and gathering them at such ports as Santa Barbara, San Diego, Monterey, and San Francisco. There are also character portraits of such persons as Hope, a Kanaka “noble savage” who blindly adored Dana; his young shipmate, self-educated Tom Harris; the older high-tempered sailor, John the Swede; and the cruel Captain Thompson, who could gladly knock a sailor down with a handspike. Although designed to be purely objective, the narrative also reveals the author as torn between antagonistic points of view, and during the return trip on the ship Alert (May 8–Sept. 20, 1836) and the stormy rounding of Cape Horn, he tells of his intense desire to return to his original milieu and his eventual discovery that when the hardships and the realities of the voyage were finished, it assumed the character of a symbol of liberation, so that “the emotions which I had so long anticipated feeling I did not find, and in their place was a state of very nearly entire apathy.” To later editions was added the chapter “Twenty-Four Years After,” describing Dana's nostalgic return to California in 1859.

Subjects: Literature.

Reference entries

Richard Henry Dana (1815—1882) American adventurer, lawyer, and writer

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