Two Years Before the Mast
By Richard Henry Dana
Public Domain Books
––Crowded in the rank and narrow ship,– Housed on the wild sea with wild usages,– Whate’er in the inland dales the land conceals Of fair and exquisite, O! nothing, nothing, Do we behold of that in our rude voyage. Coleridge’s Wallenstein.
Two years before the mast were but an episode in the life of Richard Henry Dana, Jr.; yet the narrative in which he details the experiences of that period is, perhaps, his chief claim to a wide remembrance. His services in other than literary fields occupied the greater part of his life, but they brought him comparatively small recognition and many disappointments. His happiest associations were literary, his pleasantest acquaintanceships those which arose through his fame as the author of one book. The story of his life is one of honest and competent effort, of sincere purpose, of many thwarted hopes. The traditions of his family forced him into a profession for which he was intellectually but not temperamentally fitted: he should have been a scholar, teacher, and author; instead he became a lawyer.
Born in Cambridge, Mass., August 1, 1815, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., came of a line of Colonial ancestors whose legal understanding and patriotic zeal had won them distinction. His father, if possessed of less vigor than his predecessors, was yet a man of culture and ability. He was widely known as poet, critic, and lecturer; and endowed his son with native qualities of intelligence, good breeding, and honesty.
After somewhat varied and troublous school days, young Dana entered Harvard University, where he took high rank in his classes and bid fair to make a reputation as a scholar. But at the beginning of his third year of college a severe attack of measles interrupted his course, and so affected his eyes as to preclude, for a time at least, all idea of study. The state of the family finances was not such as to permit of foreign travel in search of health. Accordingly, prompted by necessity and by a youthful love of adventure, he shipped as a common sailor in the brig, Pilgrim, bound for the California coast. His term of service lasted a trifle over two years–from August, 1834, to September, 1836. The undertaking was one calculated to kill or cure. Fortunately it had the latter effect; and, upon returning to his native place, physically vigorous but intellectually starved, he reentered Harvard and worked with such enthusiasm as to graduate in six months with honor.
Then came the question of his life work. Though intensely religious, he did not feel called to the ministry; business made no appeal; his ancestors had been lawyers; it seemed best that he should follow where they had led. Had conditions been those of to-day, he would naturally have drifted into some field of scholarly research, –political science or history. As it was, he entered law school, which, in 1840, he left to take up the practice of his profession. But Dana had not the tact, the personal magnetism, or the business sagacity to make a brilliant success before the bar. Despite the fact that he had become a master of legal theory, an authority upon international questions, and a counsellor of unimpeachable integrity, his progress was painfully slow and toilsome. Involved with his lack of tact and magnetism there was, too, an admirable quality of sturdy obstinacy that often worked him injury. Though far from sharing the radical ideas of the Abolitionists, he was ardent in his anti-slavery ideas and did not hesitate to espouse the unpopular doctrines of the Free-Soil party of 1848, or to labor for the freedom of those Boston negroes, who, under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, were in danger of deportation to the South.
His activity in the latter direction resulted in pecuniary loss, social ostracism and worse; for upon one occasion he was set upon and nearly killed by a pair of thugs. But Dana was not a man to be swerved from his purpose by considerations of policy or of personal safety. He met his problems as they came to him, took the course which he believed to be right and then stuck to it with indomitable tenacity. Yet, curiously enough, with none of the characteristics of the politician, he longed for political preferment. At the hands of the people this came to him in smallest measure only. Though at one time a member of the Massachusetts Legislature, he was defeated as candidate for the lower house of Congress, and in 1876 suffered the bitterest disappointment of his life, when the libellous attacks of enemies prevented the ratification of his nomination as Minister to England.
Previous to this he had served his country as United States District Attorney during the Civil War, a time when the office demanded the highest type of ability and uprightness. That the government appreciated this was shown in 1867 by its choice of Dana as one of its counsel in the prosecution of Jefferson Davis for treason. The position of legal representative before the Halifax tribunal of 1877, which met to discuss fishery questions at issue between the United States and Canada, was given him no doubt in part because of his eminent fitness, in part as balm for the wound of the preceding year.
But whatever satisfaction he may have found in such honors as time and ripening years brought to him, his chief joy and relaxation lay in travel. When worry and overwork began to tell upon him, he would betake himself to shore or mountains. Upon several occasions he visited Europe, and in 1859 made a tour of the world. At length, in 1876, he gave up active life and took residence abroad, with the idea of finding leisure for the preparation of a treatise on international law. He was still engaged in collecting his material when, on January 6, 1882, death overtook him. He was buried in Rome in the Protestant Cemetery, whose cypresses cast their long shadows over the graves of many distinguished foreigners who have sought a last refuge of health and peace under the skies of Italy.
Such a career as his would seem far enough from being a failure. Yet, in retirement, Dana looked back upon it not without regret. As a lawyer, he had felt a justifiable desire to see his labors crowned by his elevation to the bench; as an active participant in public affairs, he had felt that his services and talents rendered him deserving of a seat in Congress. Lacking these things, he might have hoped that the practice of his profession would yield him a fortune. Here again he was disappointed. In seeking the fulfillment of his ambitions, he was always on the high road to success; he never quite arrived.
It is remarkable that, having written one successful book, Dana did not seek further reward as a man of letters. Two Years before the Mast appeared in 1840, while its author was still a law student. Though at the time it created no great stir in the United States, it was most favorably received in England, where it paved the way for many pleasant and valuable acquaintanceships. The following year, Dana produced a small volume on seamanship, entitled The Seaman’s Friend. This, and a short account of a trip to Cuba in 1859, constitute the sole additions to his early venture. He was a copious letter-writer and kept full journals of his various travels; but he never elaborated them for publication. Yet, long before his death, he had seen the narrative of his sailor days recognized as an American classic. Time has not diminished its reputation. We read it to-day not merely for its simple, unpretentious style; but for its clear picture of sea life previous to the era of steam navigation, and for its graphic description of conditions in California before visions of gold sent the long lines of “prairie schooners” drifting across the plains to unfold the hidden destiny of the West.