August 14, 1834—Richard Henry Dana, Jr., shipped out from Boston to the Pacific on the brig Pilgrim in an attempt to aid his failing eyesight. But it was actually his powers of observation that made the Harvard undergrad’s account of that voyage, Two Years Before the Mast, one of the early American classics of nonfiction.
Much like the later muckraking novelist Upton Sinclair, Dana discovered, to his chagrin, that, despite a life of considerable accomplishment, he remained best known for a book written in his mid-20s that alerted Americans to the desperate work situations of a subclass they had inadequately followed before (in Sinclair’s case, the fetid Chicago stockyards where immigrants toiled; in Dana’s, the ships where flogging was as common as it was appalling).
Dana’s fame rested on this memoir for an excellent reason: it was one of the first, premiere examples of American literary nonfiction. Similar to Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs four decades later, it dispensed with the flowery prose so characteristic of its time for a style as clear as a prism, especially appropriate for a realistic, unpretentious picture of a sailor’s life.
Years ago, a professor of mine recounted how, fired up by reading required when he was a student, he had decided to leave school and join the merchant marine. A recruiter asked why he was so interested in joining. “I just read Moby Dick,” my professor said.
The recruiter rolled his eyes, sighing. “You romantic college boys!” he said at last, before telling him to get the hell out of there.
Dana didn’t make the same excuse. A bout with measles severely strained his eyes (which, given his intense legal studies and lack of electric lighting in that time, were probably already suffering). An “entire change of life, and …a long absence from books and study,” would be just the thing he needed, the Harvard junior determined.
Dana’s privileged background (his father and namesake was a poet, novelist, and literary critic and editor; a more distant ancestor, a member of the Continental Congress and Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court) cut little ice on his small boat, where he grew used to his sometimes rough fellow crew members: “You think, ‘cause you been to college, you know better than anybody,” one jeered early in the voyage. “You know better than them as ‘is seen it with their own eyes.”
But, like his near-contemporary and fellow Harvard man, historian Francis Parkman, Dana was ready to take on a stiff physical challenge. (Parkman’s trip west would produce another nonfiction chronicle of the 1840s, The Oregon Trail.) For all the seasickness he experienced at times on this trip around Cape Horn and back, he does not appear ever to have experienced again the ocular problems that drove him to the sea in the first place.
In one sense, Dana’s account can be read as a snapshot of California at the moment before it changed utterly—a few years before it was ceded from Mexico to the United States as a result of the Mexican War, and before the gold rush transformed it from a sleepy coastal territory to a bustling American state. But it continues to be read in the spirit in which it was originally composed—as a “view from the forecastle,” showing the way of life of the common sailor.
Dana paints a clear picture of the routine life of the sailor of his time—how he dressed, how he occupied his work hours, how he interacted with officers. But readers, then as now, were more likely to be struck by the seaman’s life under extreme circumstances.
Here, for instance, is how Dana rendered the impact of the death of one of his shipmates early in the voyage:
Death is at all times solemn, but never so much so as at sea. A man dies onshore—his body remains with his friends, and ‘the mourners go about the streets,’ but when a man falls overboard at sea and is lost, there is a suddenness in the event and a difficulty in realizing it, which give to it an air of awful mystery. A man dies onshore—you follow his body to the grave, and a stone marks the spot. You are often prepared for the event. There is always something which helps you to realize it when it happens, and to recall it when it has passed. A man is shot down by your side in battle, and the mangled body remains an object and a real evidence; but at sea, the man is near you—at your side—you hear his voice, and in an instant he is gone, and nothing but a vacancy shows his loss. Then, too, at sea—to use a homely but expressive phrase—you miss a man so much. A dozen men are shut up together in a little bark, upon the wide, wide sea, and for months and months see no forms and hear no voices but their own, and one is taken suddenly from among them, and they miss him at every turn. It is like losing a limb. There are no new faces or new scenes to fill up the gap. There is always an empty berth in the forecastle, and one man wanting when the small night-watch is mustered. There is one less to take the wheel and one less to lay out with you upon the yard. You miss his form and the sound of his voice, for habit had made them almost necessary to you, and each of your senses feels the loss.
Even more unforgettably, Dana depicts the brutality of his captain. A strong hint of this is given in the latter’s address to the men upon shipping out (“If we pull together, you’ll find me a clever fellow; if we don’t, you’ll find me a bloody rascal”). But the true depths of the captain are revealed when he has not one, but two men flogged at the same time—the second for the mere “crime” of questioning what the first man’s offense was:
“Nobody shall open his mouth aboard this vessel, but myself,” shouted the captain…. “If you want to know what I flog you for, I’ll tell you. It’s because I like to do it!—because I like to do it!—It suits me! That’s what I do it for!”
True to his comparatively conservative instincts, however, Dana—the subject of severe corporal punishment himself in school—was reluctant to advocate more stringent anti-flogging legislation. He felt that the extreme conditions of the sea—including the possibility that men might mutiny against their commander, then lie about it afterward—warranted one man retaining necessary authority, and that current laws and regulations should be enough to keep them in line. To a modern reader, his ultimate solution—the mutually civilizing impact of Christianity upon a brutal captain and a coarse crew alike—is likely to seem disappointing. But the richness of detail in the account of the awful incident involving the captain remains, impossible to expunge—even for Dana himself.
Much of the immediacy of Dana’s account owes to its source: his own diary. There was just one problem, however: he lost this shortly after he disembarked in Boston. This meant he had to reconstruct everything from letters, notes, and his recollections. Nobody, however, seems ever to have questioned his account of events (unlike, for instance, John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charlie, much of which, we know now, was composed in a hotel, well off the road where everything was supposed to be happening). It may well have been that the physical act of writing his thoughts down the first time was enough to implant these in his memory.
Many people know of Two Years Before the Mast only from the 1946 film starring Alan Ladd. This is unfortunate, as the movie—well, how shall I break this delicately?—doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the book. A woman, for instance, has no real part in Dana’s account, and the author onscreen is portrayed by Brian Donlevy—a no-nonsense, forty-something Irish-American who had little in common with the sensitive, twenty-something, Boston Brahmin Dana.
Upon his return to shore, Dana carved out a thriving specialty in maritime law. Except for a two-year stint in the state legislature, he never achieved the political success that his background seemed to practically entitle him to. ''My life has been a failure compared with what I might have done,” he noted years later. “My great success -- my book -- was a boy's work, done before I came to the bar.''
This was a short-sighted—and unforgiving—assessment of the value of his life and work. To start with, Two Years Before the Mast influenced much later American maritime literature, including the greatest work of all, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
But more important, the physical toughness that enabled Dana to survive difficult, even brutal, conditions at sea also prepared him for one of his greatest successes on land: the anti-slavery movement. Though not an outright abolitionist, he became one of the founders of the Free Soil Party in 1848. A bitter critic of the Fugitive Slave Act, he acted, often without fee, as lawyer for escaped slaves trying to remain free—a stand that led to a violent attack by an opponent in the streets in the 1850s.
Dana regarded this advocacy as the “one great act” of his life. Fans of his book about the sea, though, would amend this by taking out the word “one” in that phrase.