Read an Excerpt
From Anne Spencer’s Introduction to Two Years Before the Mast
In 1840 prominent Bostonians were eager to pose for a new type of portraiture. The daguerreotype camera, invented the previous year in France, was causing a sensation in America with its realistic images captured in startling detail. One of the New Englanders who sat for the city’s first daguerreotypists was Richard Henry Dana Jr. The Harvard University graduate did not dress formally for the occasion. Rather, the broad-shouldered twenty-five-year-old sported an open-collared, white shirt with a large, bowed, sailor-style tie. His curly hair hung at a length much longer than was customary for men of the time. This unconventional image captured a significant and pivotal moment in Dana’s life. In 1840 he was not only embarking on a career as a lawyerRichard Henry Dana Jr. was also on the verge of literary success for the book he had just written. He called his true sea-faring adventure Two Years Before the Mast.
The enigmatic-looking young man staring out from the silvered copper-plate was a curious mix of contradictory elements; his portrait was very much a mirror of his dualistic naturethe Ivy League scholar who had sailed as a common seaman. This sailor was from an established Massachusetts Bay Colony family. Dana was a Brahmin, a term Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. brought to the public’s attention in the 1860 Atlantic Monthly article “The Brahmin Caste of New England.” According to Holmes, this “harmless, inoffensive, untitled aristocracy” had flourished over the centuries, growing “to be a caste, not in any odious sense; but, by the repetition of the same influences, generation after generation, it [had] acquired a distinct organization and physiognomy, which not to recognize is mere stupidity.”
The Dana family was a perfect example of this solid, old Massachusetts family stock. The first Dana who came to America arrived in Boston in 1640. The family tree took firm root and grew strong in Yankee ground, producing successive generations of Harvard College graduates, judges, and politicians. Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s great-grandfather had been a “Son of Liberty,” a group established in 1765 in Boston and later residing in every colony who agitated, sometimes violently, against the oppressive Stamp Act. His grandfather, Francis Dana, was a pillar of New England society who had a long and distinguished career of public service; he was chief justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts and first minister to the Russian Court at St. Petersburg under President George Washington. This Dana had married into another family of New England “aristocracy,” a daughter of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Dana’s father, Richard Henry Dana Sr., also attended Harvard and studied law, although he gave up his practice to live as a man of letters, as a poet, an essayist, and literary critic who helped found the prestigious North America Review. The Dana family’s academic and professional successes were evidence of its Brahmin caste, according to Oliver Wendell Holmes’s definition. Brahmins, he wrote, “are races of scholars among us, in which aptitude for learning, and all these marks of it I have spoken of, are congenital and hereditary. Their names are always on some college catalogue or other.”
Richard Henry Dana Jr. was born into the accomplished family on August 1, 1815, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His mother died when he was six. Dana was brought up by a literary father who suffered from regular bouts of melancholia, with much of his fretful moroseness focused on his namesake. In a letter to a friend, Dana Sr. shared some of his impressions of his young son. “If I understand Richard, he is a boy of excellent principles even now. I’m afraid he is too sensitive for his own happiness. . . . I never think of him without some touch of melancholy.” Despite his many worries, Dana’s father sent his son off for the first day of school with a formidable bit of Brahmin advice, “Put your bones to it, my boy!”
The young Richard Henry began his elementary education at the grammar school in Cambridgeport. Dana later recalled the anguish of those early school years in the “Autobiographical Sketch” he wrote as an introduction to his private journal. Here, he held in vivid memory the “very austere look” of his first Cambridgeport schoolmaster, Reverend Samuel Barrett, and the punishments he administered with the “long pine ferrule” kept in a chest by the classroom door. It was a sight that, as Dana remembered, made “our hearts sicken.” He was punished by the schoolmaster only once. Caught laughing during a recitation, Dana was pulled by the ear and dragged across the classroom. When he left school that day, his ear was torn and bloody from the yanking.
This school incident, its aftermath, and its resolution would become a theme played out time and again during Dana’s academic life. It was also a motif that would resurface with a strong and disturbing resonance years later on his sea voyage. As for the ear-pulling incident, Dana’s father called for a meeting of school proprietors at which he registered his grievances, and “ear pulling” was banned as a classroom punishment. According to Dana, in his journal account, his early learning remained in the hands of masters who believed in daily floggings in schoolrooms “governed by force & fear.”
The punishment that most affected Dana came several years later when a teacher accused him of feigning illness for the express purpose of being sent home. He gave the boy six blows on each hand with the ferrule, and Dana was “in such a frenzy of indignation at his injustice and his insulting insinuation, that I could not have uttered a word for my life.” He headed home to his father with swollen hands as evidence of his mistreatment. Again the senior Dana complained, and on the next day “the career of Mr. W. ended.”1 Dana’s first biographer, Charles Francis Adams, wrote of the effect these early run-ins with corporal punishment had on Dana. They developed in him a “premature and exaggerated punctiliousness on all points of so-called ‘honor.’”
Two more of Dana’s lifelong themes emerged and took shape in these formative years. As a young boy, he was subject to emotional upsets and spells of illness. In childhood, these episodes happened during the summer months. His father’s solution for both stressors was rustication. After one such sickly spell, the young Dana was sent to board at a school in the country, in a quiet place his worried father believed would serve as the best remedy for his son’s health and well-being. Young Dana returned the next year to attend several schools, one of them, a private academy under the tutelage of Ralph Waldo Emerson. There was no flogging in Emerson’s classroom, but the boy still found fault with his teacher’s manner. “A very pleasant instructor we had in Mr. E., although he had not system or discipline enough to insure regular and vigorous study. I have always considered it fortunate for us that we fell into the hands of more systematic and strict teachers, though not so popular with us, not perhaps so elevated in their habits of thought as Mr. E.” Years later “Mr. E.” would write a favorable review of his student’s sea book and confess in a letter, “He was my scholar once, but he never learned this of me: more’s the pity.”