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Two Years Before the Mast: A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea (Modern Library Classics) Paperback – October 9, 2001
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--Ralph Waldo Emerson
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Richard Henry Dana must have been a most extraordinary man. While attending Harvard as a young man, his eyesight became weak and his health declined. He decided that the austere prescription of salt air and plain hard work would be the cure. Not many would give up comfort and privilege, but for two years, Dana served as a common sailor, given no special treatment as the gentleman he was, and lived in the forecastle of the Alert, eating the mess of salt beef and common hardtack, risking his life and serving under a captain crueler than most.
Dana was able to write in such a way as to re-create the life on board a sailing ship, down to the smallest details and that's what makes this book so real and touching. You can feel the cold of Tierra del Fuego, taste the salt beef, and feel the wind and damp. What's more amazing is that Dana's carefully-kept journal was lost along with his other mementos of his voyage when he landed back on shore in Boston, due to some tragic carelessness of someone he entrusted with his chest of belongings. Yet he was able to recreate his voyage in loving detail and in some very excellent writing.
Dana's later life as a lawyer was far from happy, though he made some critical contributions to maritime law. He died a poor and disappointed man, but left us the richer with his book. I just re-read it again for the tenth time, and it is fresher than ever. Read it along side of Moby Dick. It's American literature and American history and culture at its very best.
"So quiet too, was the sea, and so steady the breeze, that if the sails had been sculptured marble they could not have been more motionless. Not a ripple upon the surface of the canvas; not even a quivering of the extreme edges of the sail, so perfectly were they distended by the breeze. I was so lost in the sight that I forgot the presence of the man who came out with me, until he said, 'How quietly they do their work!'"
Dana so perfectly described sea life you will be a part of the crew, you will feel his fear, his wonder, his joy and his awe.
You will not regret reading this, philosophy disguised as a travelogue, a must-read!
I found the personal stories , the information of the early days at the ports of call and the historical description to be exciting and deep in it's descriptive painting of a life long gone but important to the future of the state.
I recommend this book.
Aside from its other merits, it's great background reading for fans of the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian, even though it takes place about 20 years after their last published exploits.
Faults? Well, for my taste, there was perhaps a little more sailor jargon than I could take in (the version of the book I read, not this edition, had no diagrams). When he was going into great detail on sails and ropes, I skimmed past some material, but not too much, and was able to pick up the sense of what he was writing about, without necessarily being able to determine the precise difference between two types of sails on the same mast (call me Maturin). Overall, you get the sense that he spent two years in almost unceasing toil, and that life as a sailor in those days was not one that anyone today would envy.
Also, since this was a recount of an actual two year voyage, there was perhaps one or two too many recounts of cruises up and down the coast for those seeking "adventure" reading, but this is an actual historical account, and can't be faulted for some slow pacing - I have no doubt it WAS awfully tedious at times (which the book is not).
However, it has SO many other merits that any patient reader will gain much from it, particularly an authentic, well documented perspective from another time.
So, read the book, but don't think you'll knock it off in one night, or that it'll read like Tom Clancy, or even Mark Twain. Nevertheless, read it anyway, it's well worth it.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This is a great book and a great edition of the book. It came quick and was as described.Published 1 day ago by Dr. William
Great adventure book about a time not so long ago. It is helpful to be a sailor to understand the terminology. Read morePublished 1 day ago by S. Busch
A fantastic telling of the two years in a young person's life that turns him from a book-bound softy to a man's man. Read morePublished 13 days ago by jackson
Fascinating details on early California and beautiful writing.Published 13 days ago by Amazon Customer
Told in the form of a seaman' journal, the story of a two year-
plus journey aboard a sailing merchant vessel. Read more