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Two Years Before the Mast Paperback – February 28, 2013
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About the Author
Richard Henry Dana Jr. (August 1, 1815 – January 6, 1882) was an American lawyer and politician from Massachusetts, a descendant of an eminent colonial family who gained renown as the author of the American classic, the memoir Two Years Before the Mast. Both as a writer and as a lawyer, he was a champion of the downtrodden, from seamen to fugitive slaves.
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I could hardly put it down. It's amazing to realize that people survived such hardships, and it's also a revealing and endearing story about men living in close quarters with men, either on a ship or in times or war, where no women were normally to be found at all. So interesting on several levels. Well written, and a great read. Highly recommended. (P S - I'm biting my nails to prevent revealing any spoilers about this true-life story).
Well-educated and from a family of means, the young Dana decides to take to sea as an able-bodied seaman (not an officer) at a time when life on board a merchant brig could be nasty, brutish and short. He takes us out of the Boston Harbor of 1834, around Cape Horn, and up the coast of California in the trader brig Pilgrim before changing ships to the Alert and returning via the same route.
Here’s a passage that tells a modern reader how a ship of those days actually looks and sounds as she hits the murderous waves:
“Two men at the wheel had as much as they could do to keep her within three points of her course, for she steered as wild as a young colt. The mate walked the deck, looking at the sails, and then over the side to see the foam fly by her, slapping his hands upon his thighs and talking to the ship… And when she leaped over the seas, and almost out of the water, and trembled to her very keel, the spars and masts snapping and creaking,—‘There she goes!—There she goes…as long as she cracks she holds!’”
As much as being the story of life at sea in the mid-nineteenth century, TWO YEARS BEFORE THE MAST is also a rare glimpse into the Mexican state of California before it gained statehood a few years later—the people, the harbor towns and presidios, the thriving cattle-hide trade.
The hardy mariners return with their cargo through the bitter-cold and dangerous seas of the southern hemisphere which threatens to kill them all. Herman Melville, after reading Dana’s account, remarked that it seemed to have been “written with an icicle.”
When Dana published his memoir in 1840 it was with the hope that contemporaries and future generations would better understand the maritime life and even work toward righting the injustices of that life. He could not know that, when gold was discovered in California a few years later, his book would become almost a travelogue for “forty-niners” who flocked to our largest and richest state. Indeed, Dana Point, California, was named after him.