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Richard Henry Dana Jr.: Two Years Before the Mast & Other Voyages: Two Years Before the Mast / To Cuba and Back / Journal of a Voyage Round the World, 1859-1860 (Library of America) Hardcover – October 6, 2005
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From the Back Cover
Together for the first time: the thrilling nautical classic by one of America's first and greatest travel writers, along with hard-to-find narratives of Dana's later journeys:
To Cuba and Back: A Vacation Voyage (1859)
Journal of a Voyage Round the World, 1859-1860
About the Author
Thomas Philbrick is professor emeritus of English at the University of Pittsburgh.
Top customer reviews
Dana's father received a law degree from Harvard and eventually closed his practice in favor of his literary leanings. It is natural, then, that Dana would also become educated at Harvard and develop into a very fine writer. After his sophomore year he contracted measles, which affected his eyesight and forced him to leave Harvard because he could not read. Not wanting to add to his father's financial difficulties (when is a publisher of a literary journal not in financial distress?), he joins the crew of a ship called the "Pilgrim" and it is his journal of his two years "before the mast" (ordinary sailors lived in the front of the ship) that became the international sensation.
The author's great gift is to observe keenly the detail that makes his life aboard the ship compelling to us as readers. Almost anyone attempting such a task would convey the boredom and drudgery of such a life without being able to see what would interest people who had never been to sea. How they eat, what the tasks are, how the sails work, what is the relation between the crew and the officers, what happens when a sailor dies and how are his belongings disposed of, and hundreds of pages of interesting stuff. Just one little detail among many that struck me. There was an incident when they suspected they were being chased by a pirate ship and were struggling to maintain distance from the suspected vessel. The captain has the men pouring buckets of water on the sails and once I read it, I understood why. The author doesn't explain why because it would have been obvious to sailors. However, to me in the 21st century, I would never have conceived of pouring water on the canvas to make it hold more wind.
And this is what is so important about the books today. It is an eyewitness account of a real world that has all but vanished. You can see that when he wrote his later books on his trip to Cuba and his journey circumnavigating the globe, that the world described of California in the 1830s was already vastly different by 1859. His observations of the places he visits are compelling and full of just the right details. Hawaii, China, Japan, India, Egypt, and more come to life in fascinating ways.
"Two Years Before the Mast" was purchased by Harpers for $250 and sold hugely. The very helpful chronicle of Dana's life included in this volume estimates that Harpers earned $10,000 by 1842 and $50,000 during the 28 years the firm held the copyright. However, don't feel badly for Dana, he sold the foreign rights, made good money as a speaker, and was in demand as a writer of other books.
I strongly recommend this book. While it certainly has a different role for us than it had for its contemporary readers, its opening us to a world gone bye gives us new insights into our own world, our history, and thereby our own lives.
Just have a dictionary handy for the nautical terms and other word usages that have changed since those days. Or have a couple of web pages handy on sailing ships. The book has notes that explain some things that one can't find in dictionaries, but even learning this new vocabulary is fascinating. In reading material on the web to learn more about what I was reading in the book, I learned how an anchor is drawn up and into the hold. The cable that goes around the capstan and the rest of that rigging is tied to the chain of the anchor with temporary nippers. This work was done by boys with small and quick hands and this is why we call boys nippers.
It is especially nice to read the words of someone who actually lived the material in this book rather than having it filtered and interpreted for me by some modern writer. However well intentioned a modern writer or historian might be, they will end up distorting the world in which Dana lived. His ability to write so well gives us a vehicle for seeing his world as he lived in. What a treat!
This is a wonderful edition of these books and the Library of America makes them a delight to hold, read, and have on your shelf (after you read them).
I would like to reiterate the praise for this particular Library of America edition of Dana's excellent book. You may be able to find a cheaper edition, but this one is really very nice. It has a strong tight binding, uses high quality paper, and the font is a pleasure to read. Also, there is a navy blue ribbon book marker sewn into the binding that is very convenient and attractive. The dust jacket is strong, with a high gloss coating, and on the back there is a painting of the brig Pilgrim.
All in all this book makes a superb presentation, something that is a pleasure to own, or that you would be proud to offer as a gift.
But through all of the pain, the discomforts and the ordeals there is a bonding and a camaraderie that can't help but bring the sailors closer together, no matter their skill and intellectual levels.
Dana writes with the honesty of a young man on his first great adventure and not as a older, intellectual that he becomes in later life.