Dana & Melville

Richard Henry Dana was born on this day in 1815, and Herman Melville was born on this day in 1819. Their sea voyages—the nineteen-year-old Dana hauling goods to California and back, twenty-one-year-old Melville whaling in the South Seas—were formative for them, and inspiration for two of the most influential sea books in American literature. At the beginning of the documentary-style Two Years Before the Mast, Dana acknowledges that his exchange of “the tight dress coat, silk cap, and kid gloves of an undergraduate at Cambridge” for the outfit of a common seaman was unconvincing, though “I supposed myself to be looking as salt as Neptune himself.” At journey’s end, his three-master safely anchored back in Boston Harbor, Dana climbs down from the mizzen topsail to present himself to a representative of the ship’s owners:

The last time I had seen him, I was in the uniform of an undergraduate of Harvard College, and now, to his astonishment, there came down from aloft a “rough alley” looking fellow, with duck trowsers and red shirt, long hair, and face burnt as black as an Indian’s. He shook me by the hand, congratulated me upon my return and my appearance of health and strength….

Dana’s experiences might very well have led in another direction. In Chapter XV he says that his first reaction to a sailor about to be flogged for trumped-up reasons was resistance, but not wishing to be charged as a mutineer, he feels forced to watch as the man is spread-eagled, tied, and whipped, and then watch again as his captain, mad as any Ahab, flogs a second sailor because he did choose to protest:

 “Can’t a man ask a question here without being flogged?”

  “No,” shouted the captain; “nobody shall open his mouth aboard this vessel, but myself;” and began laying the blows upon his back, swinging half round between each blow, to give it full effect. As he went on, his passion increased, and he danced about the deck, calling out as he swung the rope;—”If you want to know what I flog you for, I’ll tell you. It’s because I like to do it!—because I like to do it!—It suits me! That’s what I do it for!” 

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.