Two Years Before the Mast (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

Two Years Before the Mast (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781593082703
Publisher: Barnes & Noble
Publication date: 03/01/2007
Series: Barnes & Noble Classics Series
Pages: 528
Sales rank: 87,965
Product dimensions: 5.18(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.32(d)

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 lawyer—Richard 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 nature—the 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.”

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Two Years Before The Mast 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 167 reviews.
oldsmores More than 1 year ago
Dana writes an eminently readable first-person account of his experiences as a common sailor on a couple of commercial sailing vessels in the mid 19th century. The title references the convention that common sailors were housed in the forecastle of the ship (before the mast), while officers stayed aft. His account of the day-to-day life of a sailor, two crossings of Cape Horn, and the coast of pre-Gold Rush California are fascinating. If you want to gain a sense of the reality behind the romance of large sailing vessels, this is a must-read. His observations of his fellow sailors, officers, and the culture of California give real insight into life in the 1800's. Dana's final chapter is a thoughtful essay on the hardships of the sailor's life, with some surprising conclusions on what should and should not be done to improve their lot.
Winterlight00 More than 1 year ago
Forget Moby Dick, this is a real story of the sea! It has a remarkably contemparary feel to it and is told in a candid first person that never lags. Melvilles awful fantasy we all were forced to read blatantly rips off this fun, intimate and detailed American masterpiece. Anyone fascinated by the days of tall ships will love this intimate look behind the veil of life at sea.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best books I've ever read. It is well written and it's history is amazing. If you're interested in the old "square rigger" sailing days and what it was like on one of these as crew this book will not let you down. It is also a great history book of California. Couldn't put it down.
seniorchief More than 1 year ago
This explains the old way to sail ships at sea. Having been in the U S Navy 22 years, I loved it and all the nautical terms being used. A sailors life was much different in the 1800's than it is today because of this book. If your not inerested in being at sea, then you'll find this book very boring. If you love the sea as I do, you'll enjoy it very much> I know I did.
LynnLD More than 1 year ago
A Vicarious Journey! This is an excellent account of a Harvard student's life on a merchant ship for two years. He clearly describes their voyage as they leave Boston in 1839, make their way southward around the Cape of South America and spend the majority of their time going up and down the California coast trading hides. What a remarkable journey!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Two Years Before the Mast is an engaging non-fiction novel published in 1840 about the experiences of a nineteen-year-old university student, who after being sick with measles, is recommended by his doctor to take time at sea to recover his health. Unlike many such cases of men going to sea to recover their health, Richard Henry Dana Jr. enlists himself as a sailor on the merchant ship Pilgrim, rather than as a passenger on a cruise. From this decision, Richard learns firsthand the rigors of sea faring travel. At a time before America was split in two, Richard provides detailed accounts of life at sea, with its glories and hardships. From cruel ship captains to breathtaking sights; Richard’s experiences led him to become a lawyer after returning from his travels; a profession which he used to fight for the rights of sailors and slaves alike. Having read Two Years Before the Mast twice now, there are some things that might benefit an interested reader to know before cracking open the book. Richard provides detailed accounts of his travels, and provides an interesting glimpse into the realities of sea trade during the 1800’s. His experiences teach a great deal about the lost art of sailing, and his descriptions of well-known locations in California, now bustling metropolises, describe California when it was a territory of Mexico. Some of his descriptions contrasted starkly with how those places look today, but the weather apparently has not changed all that much in the last 180 years. As for authenticity and information, this novel is rich in truths and is as good a novel as it is a historical document. The story follows the ebbs and flows of Richard’s travels and experiences. Often the sea is exciting and treacherous, with pirate chases and rounding the Cape Horn of South America, but not every account is that of adventure. As such, there are times the book becomes as monotonous as the daily work it describes. Richard does get stuck managing some trade of hides, and gets stuck on land for some time. In those underwhelming segments of text, it may take a bit of plowing to get through, but a nice hot beverage will ease the effort. Well written descriptions of landscapes no longer in existence can be seen more as paintings than blocks of text, and in doing so, they become serene moments. Outside of such moments however, is a rich and visceral experience of navigating the coast of the Americas as told by a person as real as you or I. Richard writes in combination of conversations and descriptions, and uses emotions that can be felt; some funny, some critical and sad. The human element is hugely important to the novel; without it no amount warm beverages would make reading enjoyable. If you consider yourself a fan of traditional sailing, put aside those fictional novels of the open seas. Instead, sail alongside Richard as he conscripts himself to a lifestyle of arduous work, salty air, and new experiences. Let him walk you through a less well-known part of pre-Civil war America; and the greater coasts of the American continents. Two Years Before the Mast is not just for people who like tales of the sea though, it is a rich example of peoples, customs, and cultures along the coasts of the Americas during the 1800’s. Richard Henry Dana Jr. has given us a text valuable for its readability, and for its influence on history.
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