Tracing an awe-inspiring oceanic route from Boston, around Cape Horn, to the California coast, Two Years Before the Mast is both a riveting story of adventure and the most eloquent, insightful account we have of life at sea in the early nineteenth century. Richard Henry Dana is only nineteen when he abandons the patrician world of Boston and Harvard for an arduous voyage among real sailors, amid genuine danger. The result is an astonishing read, replete with vivid descriptions of storms, whales, and the ship's mad captain, terrible hardship and magical beauty, and fascinating historical detail, including an intriguing portrait of California before the gold rush. As D. H. Lawrence proclaimed, "Dana's small book is a very great book."
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October 07, 2001
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Excerpt from Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana
Chapter I I am unwilling to present this narrative to the public without a few words in explanation of my reasons for publishing it. Since Mr. Cooper’s Pilot and Red Rover, there have been so many stories of sea-life written, that I should really think it unjustifiable in me to add one to the number without being able to give reasons in some measure warranting me in so doing. With the single exception, as I am quite confident, of Mr. Ames entertaining, but hasty and desultory work, called “Mariner’s Sketches,” all the books professing to give life at sea have been written by persons who have gained their experience as naval officers, or passengers, and of these, there are very few which are intended to be taken as narratives of facts. Now, in the first place, the whole course of life, and daily duties, the discipline, habits and customs of a man-of-war are very different from those of the merchant service; and in the next place, however entertaining and well written these books may be, and however accurately they may give sea-life as it appears to their authors, it must still be plain to every one that a naval officer, who goes to sea as a gentleman, “with his gloves on,” (as the phrase is,) and who associates only with his fellow-officers, and hardly speaks to a sailor except through a boatswain’s mate, must take a very different view of the whole matter from that which would be taken by a common sailor. Besides the interest which every one must feel in exhibitions of life in those forms in which he himself has never experienced it; there has been, of late years, a great deal of attention directed toward common seamen, and a strong sympathy awakened in their behalf. Yet I believe that, with the single exception which I have mentioned, there has not been a book written, professing to give their life and experiences, by one who has been of them, and can know what their life really is. A voice from the forecastle has hardly yet been heard. In the following pages I design to give an accurate and authentic narrative of a little more than two years spent as a common sailor, before the mast, in the American merchant service. It is written out from a journal which I kept at the time, and from notes which I made of most of the events as they happened; and in it I have adhered closely to fact in every particular, and endeavored to give each thing its true character. In so doing, I have been obliged occasionally to use strong and coarse expressions, and in some instances to give scenes which may be painful to nice feelings; but I have very carefully avoided doing so, whenever I have not felt them essential to giving the true character of a scene. My design is, and it is this which has induced me to publish the book, to present the life of a common sailor at sea as it really is,—the light and the dark together. There may be in some parts a good deal that is unintelligible to the general reader; but I have found from my own experience, and from what I have heard from others, that plain matters of fact in relation to customs and habits of life new to us, and descriptions of life under new aspects, act upon the inexperienced through the imagination, so that we are hardly aware of our want of technical knowledge. Thousands read the escape of the American frigate through the British Channel, and the chase and wreck of the Bristol trader in the Red Rover, and follow the minute nautical manœuvres with breathless interest, who do not know the name of a rope in the ship; and perhaps with none the less admiration and enthusiasm for their want of acquaintance with the professional detail. In preparing this narrative I have carefully avoided incorporating into it any impressions but those made upon me by the events as they occurred, leaving to my concluding chapter, to which I shall respectfully call the re