Dana Before the Mast

On this day in 1834, Richard Dana boarded the merchant brig Pilgrim for the Boston–California return voyage that would become Two Years Before the Mast. Dana had just turned nineteen and finished his second, reluctant year at Harvard; these two facts, along with a belief that the trip would be good for his health, were behind Dana’s decision to escape his comfortable, upper-class life for the high seas, in search of hides and tallow. The 1840 book was based on his letters, notes, and recollections — the diary he kept was lost as soon as he disembarked in Boston — and was meant to tell of the ordinary seaman’s life at sea, in “a voice from the forecastle.” It was immediately and internationally popular, praised for both veracity and for having “the romantic charm of Robinson Crusoe.”

In Chapter I, Dana is bookishly quoting Hamlet, all too aware that “There is not so helpless and pitiable an object in the world as a landsman beginning a sailor’s life.” By Chapter VI, one man has been lost overboard; soon Dana would witness others flogged for pleasure: ” ‘If you want to know what I flog you for, I’ll tell you,’ shouted the Captain. ‘It’s because I like to do it! — because I like to do it! — It suits me! That’s what I do it for!’ ” By the West Coast, Dana has got his legs and is starting to look around:

The Californians are an idle, thriftless people, and can make nothing for themselves. The country abounds in grapes, yet they buy bad wines made in Boston and brought round by us, at an immense price, and retail it among themselves at a real (12 1/2 cents) by the small wine-glass.

At almost two years out, and facing the terrors of Cape Horn for the second time, Dana’s attentions are on trying to spot mammoth icebergs during a forty-eight-hour shift on deck, in “a gale dead ahead, with hail and sleet, and a thick fog, so that we could not see half the length of the ship.” Whether because or in spite of such adventures, Dana returned to Harvard and went on to become a prominent attorney. He returned to the West Coast a quarter century later, his journal this time commenting on the industry and bustle that greeted him in San Francisco Harbor, instead of the herd of deer.

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.