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Two Years Before the Mast is a book by the American author Richard Henry Dana Jr written after a two year sea voyage starting in 1834While at Harvard College Dana had an attack of the measles which affected his vision Thinking it might help his sight Dana rather than going on a Grand Tour as most of his fellow classmates traditionally did and unable to afford it anyway and being something of a non conformist left Harvard to enlist as a common sailor on a voyage around Cape Horn on the brig Pilgrim He returned to Massachusetts two years later aboard the Alert which left California sooner than the PilgrimHe kept a diary throughout the voyage and after returning he wrote a recognized American classic Two Years Before the Mast published in 1840 the same year of his admission to the bar


10 thoughts on “Two Years Before the Mast

  1. says:

    “The utmost was reuired of every man in the way of his duty”“Two Years Before The Mast” was not always an enjoyable read for me but overall it was a good one and maybe even a necessary one Published in 1840 this book is the account of Richard Henry Dana a Harvard graduate who spent two years as a regular sailor on a merchant ship in the mid 1830s This text is a slow read at times and often especially early on very repetitive Thus it took me a while to really get into it However it is an interesting anthropological study of the life of an American merchant vessel in the 1830s Mr Dana was not really a writer so I can forgive some of the elements of his style that I found grating to read For example for most readers Mr Dana gives too much specific and very detailed information on the smallest details of sailing pulling in sails especially during storms minute details of ship life etc I could not begin to understand a lot of it Historically valuable Yes Interesting to me NoSome praises for the book I really enjoyed the chapter “California and its Inhabitants This chapter focuses on the people of what was at that time a foreign country It reveals a lot about the attitudes of the period and was fascinating I also liked how much the text kept reinforcing the Yankee work ethic Hard work and hardship did not bug these men The only thing that seems to really upset them is treatment that denies them dignity I love thatI believe the book really hits its stride in the last uarter Dana’s descriptions of icebergs is simply beautiful writing No way around it In chapter 32 “Doubling Cape Horn” we read one of the most exciting and interesting aspects in the entire piece Dana is concise and to the point in this chapter and it works wellThe original last chapter of the text also offers some interesting thoughts on religion and its ability to aid the life of a sailor and it also cautions the reader against judging the economic value of sailing or overregulating it when they don’t know much about it It is fascinating“Two Years Before The Mast” was an intriguing read I feel my understanding of the world and early America is a little broader For that I am glad I read it


  2. says:

    In a way the best thing for a writer is misfortune In that regard Richard Henry Dana Jr got luckyA young Harvard man he signed on as a common seaman aboard the brig Pilgrim bound for California from Boston to help improve his health Had it been smooth sailing over benign seas under a wise and beneficent captain with good food and a leisurely stay on California beaches we likely would never have heard of DanaBut thanks to the treacherous and icy waters of Cape Horn a power hungry captain keen on flogging his men on slight pretence a year of hard labor hauling hides in anarchic California still part of Mexico in 1834 the year Dana sailed and shipboard living conditions that today's Supreme Court would find cruel and unusual Dana and his work have remained icons in American literature and history To wit re living conditions When he and his shipmates mistakenly believe war has broken out with France and they might be captured and spend time in a French prison they view the prospect as a pleasant break from their hard routines and shipboard incarcerationPart of the lasting success of this book lies in its rich complexity part memoir of a privileged youth's right of passage into full manhood; part sociological treatise on the people and politics of Mexico; part polemic and muckraking journalism exposing the indignities injustices and virtual slavery suffered by merchant sailors; part technical manual on sailing; part travel narrative; and part detailed history of commerce on the high seas circa 1835For example We learn much about mizenmasts marlinespikes and the how to of sailing a brig perhaps than a landlubber cares to know We see a California without streets or for that matter firm laws but with a rigid Mexican social hierarchy of criollos mestizos and Indians the last often literal slaves as well as a smattering of Yankees Hawaiian sailors drunks deadbeats murderers and rogues We are given the particulars of a booming hide trade the tanning hauling and loading in which Dana is forced to participate We glimpse the endless work of the common seaman and the absolute power of ship captains which in the case of the Pilgrim's skipper culminates in a mean spirited tyranny We share a perilous winter passage around Cape Horn and the Straits of Magellan through great iceberg littered fog banks driving rain and snow and mean seas where the perpetually sodden and frigid seamen must negotiate pitching iced decks and rigging to perform their never ending life threatening tasks We view avarice duplicity ignorance and cruelty albeit leavened by loyalty generosity friendship and perseverance In that way and Dana's tale is a microcosm of the human condition a seemingly endless and at times pointless journey on a small ark afloat in perilous seas filled with ceaseless toil yet anointed with sublime natural beautyDana's descriptions of the seas skies and landscapes often turn poetic In fact most all the language of Two Years Before the Mast tends toward the formal and writerly For despite it being a journal of a common seaman Dana is an uncommon jack tar with a Harvard education bourgeois manners and Boston connections that keep him just barely from spending another two years in California hauling hides Some of his not so well connected mates from whom he always keeps a distance at least in his mind and in his journal were not so luckyThe reader never forgets Dana's Boston background as he spouts Latin and uotes English poets Although this book was the first to give us a seaman's not the captain's point of view the language is not that of a seaman and it will be another 45 years before Huck Finn comes to free us all from formal Boston EnglishThough nominally an American Dana exhibits a tone demeanor and delicacy English than Yank A possible influence his lawyer father who argued for an American monarchy and a House of Lords This delicacy also leads Dana to omit from his narrative most anything that might cast him in a common light such as his consorting with Indian prostitutes in CaliforniaBut Dana's great fortune as a writer was seemingly his misfortune as a gentleman Upon returning to Boston he graduated first in his class at Harvard became a celebrity with the publication of Two Years Before the Mast in 1840 married and became a prosperous Boston lawyer However he never seemed to settle into a life of propriety as if inoculated against it on his rough and formative two year voyage This unresolved inner conflict apparently resulted in a series of nervous breakdowns which he cured with long sea voyagesYet we sense this conflict between his upper crust snobbery and his genuine affection for the rigorous life and his vigorous shipmates seething beneath the surface throughout his journal We see a young man made over by his experience a patrician who in his heart becomes a common sailor but one who never comes to relinuish his previous social status and personaFor most memoirs to succeed the reader must be convinced that the author has set off on a sincere sojourn of personal discovery to find his or her true self Here in Two Years Before the Mast we see that discovery take place before our eyes even if the author never fully admits it


  3. says:

    By my own reckoning there are 2 books held within the sea tale by Richard Henry Dana Two Years Before The Mast one being a delightful account of the landscapes the people encountered ashore the other a virtually baffling rather overwhelming collection of nautical terminology nomenclature jargon that would have been most familiar to any seaman working on a mid 19th century merchant ship such as the brigantine Pilgrim a two masted suare sailed ship the one that a young Dana shipped out on in August 1834 leaving Boston's harbor bound round the horn of South America for CaliforniaHowever my own version of the book had no helpful commentary footnotes glossary or other aids but having long ago bought a copy of the nicely bound Harvard Classics Edition for 1 at a local library sale after dusting it off I decided to muddle through An interlinear edition of the sort I used for Horace Virgil Cicero while laboring through school Latin would have been most useful Here is just one exampleWe got up tricing lines from the jib boom end to each arm of the fore yard thence to the main cross jack yard arms Between the tops the mast heads from the fore to the main swifter then to the mizzen rigging all directions athwartships tricing lines were run Then the head stays guys spitsail yard were lined we got out the swinging booms to the forward after guys If the weather took hold the royals were clewed up fore aft top gallant yards clewed down the flying jib hauled downAt the risk of putting readers off on reading this classic book I still feel compelled to give fair warning You either skip all of this detail or spend ages attempting to master the inner workings of such a ship Suffice it to say by way of an introduction having entered Harvard Mr Dana contracted measles had a discomforting loss of sight So instead of taking a modified gap year from Harvard by touring Europe in style or joining the French Foreign Legion the young man a certified Boston Brahman signed on to be a merchant seaman ordinary class a voyage that lasted 2years proved to be a growthful experience that affected the rest of his lifeOn board such a ship the work detail is almost constant especially since to save the company money it was understaffed The ship's captain is lord master but like a god with the chief mate akin to a prime minister in charge of men supplies the ship's log while the 2nd mate is looked on as dog's berth or sailors waiter disliked by all There is also a cook a steward who acts as the captain's servant a carpenter a sailmaker The social distance between the captain the crew was extreme something that must have entailed a great adaptation for a well bred Harvard man used to some degree of luxury Dana seems to have headed into all of this with a considerable amount of energy self reliance an ability to assimilate life on board rather uickly Every day a sailor's life hangs in the balance due to freuently shifting weather patterns sometimes unpredictable ropes sails lack of sleep occasional outbreaks of scurvy tightly rationed food water and the relationship among the seaman can make a critical difference One young sailor falls overboard with heavy winter togs unable to swim he perishes Even a sudden misstep by a seaman that brings him close to death while furling sails in treacherous weather is never acknowledged by his mates for a sailor not being free agent is indifferent to the rights of others It is all just part of the job with compassion commiseration in very short supplyThe Pilgrim has been enlisted to sail far around South America via Tierra del Fuego the Drake passage with its severe winds rogue waves seasonal ice snow in order to reach California a most hazardous endeavor but at this time the fur hide trade at various ports in California was still uite lucrative At the point of the voyage California was still Mexican territory but many Americans others were attracted by the lure of gold among other commodities the appeal of the unknown While ferrying back forth along the California coast Dana's ship encounters a ship from Sitka in what was then still Russian Alaska Part of the charm of Two Years Before The Mast comes in considering just how perilous such a voyage was before the Panama Canal was completed modern navigational euipment came to be and also how different America was before Manifest Destiny caused its eventual expansion from the Atlantic to the Pacific Alas the book details a period toward the middle of the 19th century a time when even a Harvard man who believes in the abolition of slavery in America refers to the African American cook as a darkie sees all Mexicans he encounters as shiftless lazy with their color like an Irish man's pig their form of speech a creole drawl while also being untrustworthy knaves Meanwhile Indians Dana meets ashore speak speak a brutish inhuman language and the Irish who found their way to California in an attempt to better their fortunes are described as of low collective intelligence in relation to the number of faces In spite of this seeming aversion to diversity Dana does take a particular very keen interest in a group of Sandwich Islanders he encounters Hawaiians who were then part of Great Britain seems to genuinely embrace them one all calling them the most interesting intelligent kind hearted people I'd ever metDana attempts to teach himself Spanish to enhance the trading of tobacco cloth other items for the hides that the ship will transport back to Boston to be rendered into shoes gloves He also learns to sew repairing his own clothes making some new togs from cloth acuired along the way En route to California the captain of Dana's ship becomes irascible and severely flogs both a younger sailor an older Swede who speaks in his shipmate's defense something that gravely offends Dana so much so that when given an opportunity he switches to another much amenable ship the Alert On board the new sailing ship he befriends learns from a man named Tom Harris 20 years at sea but someone with an amazing memory an interest in books The new ship is also due to return to Boston a year sooner than the Pilgrim something that will allow Dana to re enroll at Harvard much soonerThe return trip after 18 months away at that point including a great many weeks ashore salting curing hides for the long transit home proves to be perilous with occasional doldrums but also including a winter southern summer transit of the Horn of S America in the midst of gale force winds fog icebergs snowstorms and then later hurricanes after safely clearing the Horn finally heading north We stood hour after hour until our watch was out During all of this time hardly a word was spoken not a bell was struck the wheel was silently relieved The rain fell in heavy showers we stood drenched blinded by the flashes which broke the Egyptian darkness with a brightness that seemed almost malignant; while the thunder rolled in peals the concussions of which appeared to shake the very ocean A ship is not often injured by lightening for the electricity is separated by the great number of points she presents We went below at 4 o'clock leaving things in the same state but it is not easy to sleep when the very next flash may tear the ship in two or set her on fire or take the masts downSome but not all seamen do survive such voyages upon his return RH Dana was the toast of his Harvard campus After completing his degree at Harvard writing Two Years Before The Mast gaining a law degree Dana spent a great deal of time representing the cases of common seamen of the sort that he had once been proposing legislation that would benefit them even arguing a case before the US Supreme Court Thus an elite Bostonian once the student of Ralph Waldo Emerson whose own son married Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's daughter who Herman Melville befriended feeling a kind of Siamese link of affection for in time became the benefactor of many he felt were without an advocate His 1840 book endures the tale of an adventure at sea that changed the author's life in so doing that of many others because of Dana's experiences during the voyage


  4. says:

    I read part of this in Jr HS then all of it after I graduated from college; my Shakespeare teacher 38 plays in the full year course asked me as he read it why so much reference to the lee scuppers For a beginning sailor like me an easy answer those are the drains that fill because of the heel of the boat away from windward By the way sailor's usage for going wrong say gambling blown hard to Lee I recall how Dana records the loss of their first crewman off South America; this from a small crew perhaps 15? As soon as they got on deck after the news the sailor's clothes were auctioned No time for sentiment onboard as RHD says Then I recall the great joy of their tea and molasses or after reefing the topsail some grog with rum The weather around Cape Horn was abysmal with big seas and sleet and snow but they were on their way to pick up hides dropped down from the high coast of Santa Barbara Dana observes that if the Californians ever learn to make shoes their services will no longer be reuired shipping hides taking them around Cape Horn to New England to be made into shoes which are then shipped around Cape Horn to be sold to the Californians Dana observes that SpanishCalifornian culture is not workers there are the upper class owners then the servants and slaves of other ethnicities A century earlier John Adams in Galicia observes that the only ones thriving are the clerics of numerous churches convents etc The fear of the captain and mates the appreciation of the cook and his tea the hard work and danger aloft these remain with me fifty years after reading Dana On my only trip to the coast south of LA I did get down to Dana Point CA where I was impressed how the mock up of the brig Pilgrim was even smaller than I envisioned


  5. says:

    this book is absolutely essential for anyone who has any desire of stepping off the uarterdeck of his historical fiction O'Brien novels and heading down to the focs'l to hear about sailing traditional ships from the men who were actually sweating lines heave yo ho ing and climbing the rigging to furl the royals before a gale dana passes the euator four times over the two years that he is a merchant mariner sailing to the then mexican owned california to load his ship with hides bound for boston's leather factories the narrative style is straight forward and matter of fact dana hardly lets his bias sit between the reader and the tale filled with technical sail handling language the amateur mariner might choose to read up on suare sail theory before reading or merely depend upon his imagination dana provides a vivid description of pre US california and the hide trade that provided americans with their first contacts with the pacific coast not the western colonization or the gold rush and some supplementary essays by dana show upon his return 10 or so years later how the settlements thrived around the embryonic ports of san franscisco san diego etc ultimately an engaging travel narrative providing a particular flavor for the modern euivalent of the author in the matter of fact 1st person narrative characteristic of the genre before twain


  6. says:

    Two Years before the Mast is a captivating account of Richard Henry Dana Jr's service as a common sailor on a voyage from Boston to the California coast in the early 1830s The long expositions on the technical aspects of navigation under canvas may not be of interest to those without familiarity with maritime life but his personal narrative of daily life aboard a sailing vessel and the work of the cowhide trade in early California make the book worthwhile Two Years before the Mast is an excellent non fiction counterpart to the novels of Patrick O’Brian and Captain Marryat’s Mr Midshipman Easy I recommend it to those with an interest in nautical life in the days of sail


  7. says:

    Second Reading April 11 2014 Two Years Before the Mast is somewhat uniue in that my enjoyment of this book is mostly related to the fact that this book exists I say this as a native Californian with roots that reach back into Mexico Two Years provides a snapshot of one point along my ancestral pastIt's truly fortunate that Dana a member of the educated professional class of the early 1800s decided to remedy his eye fatigue by taking one of the lowest working class positions of the time a common sailor on board a merchant ship He was completely out of his element both physically as well as intellectually The sea terms used in his new capacity as a sailor must have been just as foreign to him as they are to anyone reading this book today And yet he still found time to record his experiences and produce this bookThe history that this book imparts is mesmerizing It depicts California as a backwater of Mexico and as an unknown frontier of the United States The ports that it depicts are unbelievably simplistic in comparison to the development that has transpired over the past 180 years The only export at the time was cattle hides from ranches located in the vast open plains that are now the inland cities of CaliforniaJust 10 years after publication gold was discovered in California and most of Dana's setting was drastically and irreversibly changed However if one looks close enough Dana's past is still easy to findSan Juan now known as Dana Point San Juan is the only romantic spot on the coast The country here for several miles is high table land running boldly to the shore and breaking off in a steep cliff at the foot of which the waters of the Pacific are constantly dashing For several miles the water washes the very base of the hill or breaks upon ledges and fragments of rocks which run out into the seaHaving nothing on but shirt trousers and hat the common sea rig of warm weather I had no stripping to do and began my descent by taking hold of the rope with both hands and slipping down sometimes with hands and feet round the rope and sometimes breasting off with one hand and foot against the precipice and holding on to the rope with the other In this way I descended until I came to a place which shelved in and in which the hides were lodged Keeping hold of the rope with one hand I scrambled in and by aid of my feet and the other hand succeeded in dislodging all the hides and continued on my way First Reading April 28 2007This is the uniuely historic view of California as told by Dana prior to the gold rush invasion of 1849 Descriptions of various coastal cities including Santa Barbara San Francisco Los Angeles and San Diego are provided at a time when cowhides were the only things worthwhile for ships to trade in along the California Coast The descriptions of California weather patterns are fascinating in that they describe storms that no longer at least not yet exist Also if you’re looking for good Mexican food Dana’s account proves that good Mexican food existed in California long before Taco Bell


  8. says:

    Mr Richard Dana Jr or Dana as his shipmates called him is a man I would like to know Based on his autobiographical Two Years Before the Mast a recounting of his 1834 1836 seagoing adventures aboard the Pilgrim outbound and Alert return Mr Dana was a popular hard working man’s man able to tell a tale While attending Harvard he contracted measles weakening his eyesight choosing to become an ordinary seaman on a two year voyage to California—then the farthest hinterlands—for his ‘recovery’ This wasn’t the only odd well to me anyway medicinal prescription used back then either How does a teaspoon of raw potatoes and onions beaten to pulp administered every hour and held in one’s mouth as long as possible strike you as a cure for scurvy for a patient in the very last stages? When you are desperate you do what you have to right? view spoilerIt worked hide spoiler


  9. says:

    This book made me cry multiple times but not for the direct subject matter I think there were just a few too many references to the California coast described in enough detail that the effect was to pry out long lingering ghosts haunting the coastline of my own isle of denial his descriptions are never uite up to the par of his literary contemporaries but the detail leaves any California lover desperately lamenting the irretrievable passage of those first rough and tumble times that modern man first began journeying to that area of the worldDana's description of first arriving in San Francisco made me shiver and I still get goosebumps thinking about it The complete and utter irretrievability of that outpost wilderness fills me with something than sadness and something less than rage The book itself is a fascinating look at pre gold rush California and Dana treats the California coastline and journey there and back from Boston as a sort of seafaring pioneer narrative it is cast in plain terms and he calls things as he sees them the concept of an intelligent thoughtful voice penning such a journey as opposed to what I would assume might typically be the voice of an ignorant uneducated sailor gives the story a fresh slant as the journey progresses on there are moments where Dana's amusement with the whole situation wears uite thin and the reality of the possibility in becoming a career sailor inches just too close to reality for his comfort it is in these moments that his true humanity shines through This is an excellent read for any twentysomething who is still not convinced of what their life and career should look like


  10. says:

    This is supposedly a classica sailor's life at sea in the year 1834 A Harvard student enlists as a common sea man to improve his healthHe stays onboard a ship for two years and keeps a diaryBut if I was expecting adventureI was disappointed I found it rather boring and monotonous with little actionThe writing style didn't engageThere is a lot of sailing terminology and technicalities which were of little interest to meAbandoned