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Monday, March 14, 2011

Why Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast still appeals to sailors—and young readers

Angus Phillips’s celebration of Richard Henry Dana, Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast in the Wall Street Journal prompted a thread of a dozen appreciative comments. Carol Noble’s was typical “Wow, I thought I was about the only person who read this book in the past 25 years.” Picking up the book on the recommendation of his landlubber brother, Phillips, who describes himself as a “keen sailor,” found it “among the finest books ever written about the immensely popular subject of adventure at sea, and is as relevant and readable today as it was [when it was first published in 1840].”

As Phillips relates, Dana enlisted as a merchant seamen in August 1834 while still an undergraduate at Harvard. A bout of measles had impaired his vision and a sea voyage was the proposed cure. He remained away until September 1836. “If he left home unfinished,” Phillips writes, “he was a man in full by the time he came back, with sight restored and a keen eye for the merits of men.”
Two Years Before the Mast is not just an adventure. Dana takes us to sea, four times across the equator and twice 'round Cape Horn in weather fair and foul, yet more than half the book chronicles meticulously the year-plus he and his mates spent coasting along the California shore, gathering cowhides and horns from the handful of lost souls there before the Gold Rush brought in American hordes.
Dana’s memoir has a history of holding a special place in readers’ lives. In a 2002 interview historian David McCullough recalled that, when he was eleven years old, Dana’s was the first book he bought with his own money. Writing in American Heritage in 1960 Samuel Shapiro described why Two Years is especially appealing to young readers:
Like Wellington Redburn, Huck Finn, Nick Adams, and a hundred other heroes, Dana is a young, inexperienced boy at the beginning of his book, and a grown man, with knowledge of the world and of good and evil, at the end of it. The adolescent reader quite naturally identifies himself with the young man who comes aboard the Pilgrim green and ignorant, and gradually, by willingness and hard work, earns his place among the other members of the crew. Such a reader triumphs vicariously with Dana over seasickness, injustice, ice and storms, and comes to understand what it is to make one’s way in the world. Success in real life replaces the narrow and artificial successes of the schoolroom: “I got through [sending down a royal-yard] without any word from the officer, and heard the ‘well done’ of the mate, when the yard reached the deck, with as much satisfaction as I ever felt at Cambridge on seeing a ‘bene’ at the foot of a Latin exercise.” Two Years has doubtless meant much to thousands of boys who never went on to appreciate more complex and more demanding literary forms.
By extraordinary coincidence, The Library of America began offering Two Years Before the Mast and Other Voyages last week as part of an introductory offer for new subscribers. You can get the Dana volume free as part of the James Fenimore Cooper Leatherstocking Tales introductory offer or you can purchase the Dana volume separately through the LOA Web store.


  1. That book is full of surprises. For example, they ship barrels of wine and brandy _to_ California. And the brute of a captain runs a temperance ship.

  2. It is purely coincidence, but we published a new eNotated version of "Two Years Before the Mast" on the date this article was written, March 14th, 2011. We are excited about this publication and hope that the additional content provided by Chris Thomerson will further enhance the reading of this amazing book.


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