Two Years before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana

Published 180 years ago, Two Years before the Mast remains a vivid portrait of 19th-century seafaring in early America.

Two Years before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana. Harper and Brothers, 1840; several editions since.

Reading Level: Teen/Adult, 18-up

Recommended for: ages 16-up

Note: Two Years before the Mast is a recommended title in our 2020 “Hope on the Horizon” Summer Reading Challenge.

In August 1834, a 19-year-old Bostonian stowed his sea chest on a brig (two-masted sailing ship) called Pilgrim, bound for California. This in itself was nothing unusual: plenty of New-Englanders took to the sea, but few had the pedigree of this young man. His family almost went back to the Mayflower, and had served as judges, lawyers, teachers, and government officials. Richard Henry Dana had just suffered a bout with the measles and 19th-century “heroic” medicine (including leeches) that sapped his energy and damaged his eyes so much he could not read for his classes at Harvard. Going to sea was his own idea as way to recover his strength and sight. He never imagined that he would also gain a literary reputation from it.

Two Years before the Mast is a memoir that describes an almost perfect story arc: voyage out as a green youth, long interlude in California, voyage home as a mature seaman. Dana uses a novelist’s sense of pacing to sustain interest through the tedious stretches. He nudges events forward or back, recalls seaman’s yarns and memorable characters during the lulls, juxtaposes moments of high tension with comic relief. Given that his journal was lost and the account reconstructed from twenty pages of shipboard notes, his recall is astonishing.

His literary style is terse and unaffected, yet a reader who follows his journey will be convinced that this is exactly how it was: the strain of holding a rudder steady under full sail, sailors draped over ice-crusted yards struggling with board-like canvas, the homey sight of rigging all aflutter with drying laundry. In an age that tended to romanticize the seafarer, Dana’s clear-eyed account stands out all the more. Herman Melville was only one of the book’s enthusiastic fans.

Its virtues overcome its faults, but the faults can be an obstacle. For one, Dana defines very few nautical terms, and the sea chapters (as opposed to the California chapters) are loaded with nautical terms. It’s not necessary to know the name of every sail, mast, and yard, but reefing, furling, close-hauling, stays, and shrouds would be useful terms to learn. Dana could have used a good editor, too. The California chapters contain sharp and colorful insights of a culture that was soon to disappear, but they are also repetitious and rambling. It’s been 70 years since a good abridged version was published; high time for another. And finally, though Dana was an unbiased observer, he shared some of the casual prejudices of his time, and though he never uses the n-word, there are a few instances where he quotes it.

Before the Mast is well worth reading, though, as an indelible portrait of life at sea. Or, in his words: “the beautiful . . . linked with the revolting, the sublime with the commonplace and the solemn with the ludicrous.”

Overall rating: 4.5

Worldview/moral value: 4

Literary value: 4.5

NOTE: The Kindle version (link below) is available for .99, while the Project Guternberg version is free. Both include a rough diagram of the Pilgrim, naming sails, masts, and yards (not rigging).

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