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Two Years Before the Mast
by Richard Henry Dana


From the Publisher
Book Description 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."

From: Dean Denis dddenis@telus.net Date: Tuesday, April 01, 2003 11:15 AM Richard Henry Dana's account of two years spent as a seaman in the Amercian merchant marine makes no illusions about the romance of life on board ship. Indeed, this book brought to light the plight of "Jack" and influenced social reform. Although, years later Joseph Conrad was to write that the American merchant fleet still retained its reputation for cruelty. The introduction to Everyman's edition by Richard Armstrong says that Dana fulfilled a desire to go to sea when he had to leave his Harvard law studies because of weakened eye-sight as a result of measles. He returned from his trip with a stronger physique and restored vision. The Introduction also says that the book tells us of "a way of life that knew nothing of technology." How terribly incorrect this statement is! Although this book does not spare the reader's romantic notions about life at sea, it is not a litany of complaints about the drudgery of working on a ship. Dana is never self-pitying. The strength of character which he shows in accepting hardships shines through no less than his sense of fairness in describing them. I could say about this book what Dana himself said in describing what he felt upon reading "Paul Clifford" by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton: "I shall never forget the enjoyment I drived from it. ... The brilliancy of the book, the succession of hits, and the lively characteristic sketches, kept me in a constant state of pleasing sensations." Dean All roads lead to roam.
Topic: Two Years Before the Mast by R.H. Dana (2 of 14), Read 22 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Janet Poppema Date: Tuesday, April 01, 2003 10:04 PM It was refreshing to read a book that did not try to "glamorize" a sea man's life. As you mentioned before, Dana took great pains to give us an accurate account of the daily workings of a ship. He did not gloss over the drudgery and hardships found on board but neither did he wallow in pity. I admire Dana for that! Janet Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers. Charles W. Eliot
Topic: Two Years Before the Mast by R.H. Dana (3 of 14), Read 17 times Conf: Classics Corner From: R Bavetta Date: Wednesday, April 02, 2003 12:12 AM I adored this book as a kid, and if I hadn't been distracted by this damn jury duty, I would have reread it for here. I still may play catchup. Ruth
Topic: Two Years Before the Mast by R.H. Dana (4 of 14), Read 21 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Dean Denis dddenis@telus.net Date: Wednesday, April 02, 2003 12:25 AM It was also interesting to read about life in coastal towns of California in the 1830's as well as his descriptions of the natives of that other state to be, Hawaii. Also to Dana's credit is his recognition of talents and abilities in his shipmates whom he respects and from whom he is eager to learn. The strength of his character is shown in his willingness to accept the courseness of his shipmates, the roughness of the officers and the risks to personal safety even though much, if not all of it, must have been completely unexpected. Attitude is certainly everything. Dean All roads lead to roam.
Topic: Two Years Before the Mast by R.H. Dana (5 of 14), Read 26 times Conf: Classics Corner From: R Bavetta Date: Wednesday, April 02, 2003 01:24 AM The bible of mineralogy manuals, at least when I was getting my geology degree, was Dana's Manual of Mineralogy. I always heard that the two authors were related, but I haven't been able to run that one down on the internet. But then, of course we have Dana Point. Ruth
Topic: Two Years Before the Mast by R.H. Dana (6 of 14), Read 27 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Dottie Randall randallj@ix.netcom.com Date: Wednesday, April 02, 2003 02:01 AM Ruth -- I'm going to see if I can't play catch up with you -- I've never read this completely -- read bits here and there when the girls read it in fifth grade before their stay on the Pilgrim at Dana Point where the class was divided into crews and sat watches through the entire night just as did the real sailors. There were crews for the galley, knots, sails and swabbing the decks and they rotated through these -- including a crew who were on the duty of hide gathering and rowed out from the ship and back -- and the dog watch when they were required to enter log reports to prove they'd been on watch not asleep. They came home so tired that when Cara threw her duffel into the rear of the station wagon the action took so much of her strength that she tumbled right in on top of it -- the drunken sailor without the drink. But that field trip was never forgotten nor the book -- one of the best learning experiences ever. Years later -- when they were both in college, I think -- they each took us to visit The Pilgrim and we were regaled with minute details from the experience. Dottie -- thinking it's time she read the WHOLE thing Solitude is fine, but you need someone to tell you that solitude is fine. Honore de Balzac
Topic: Two Years Before the Mast by R.H. Dana (7 of 14), Read 18 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Mary Ellen Burns smeburns@yahoo.com Date: Wednesday, April 02, 2003 01:52 PM I still have to read the 2 alternate concluding chapters--Dana & co. just reached port at the end of my morning commute today. I found the 2 most compelling aspects of the book were the character of Dana himself and, as noted, the glimpses of life in 1830's California. I confess that I found the book to be slow going otherwise. This may be attributable to my own laziness, and middle-aged eyesight: I couldn't/wouldn't study the diagrams and glossary at the end of the book (the numbers keying the different sails, masts, etc, were SO small!) and so the long descriptions of furling, reefing, blocking, etc., were lost on me. I had picked this book up thinking it would be a good complement to Patrick O'Brian's novels, but as I read TYBTM, I realized that one of the primary joys of the Aubrey-Maturin novels is getting to know the characters. In this book, Dana tells us very little about the others on ship and shore with whom he worked. But I was amazed by Dana: a young man who probably had little acquaintance with manual labor plunging into the arduous life of the sailor! He had a touching humility and maturity; I felt it a privilege to "know" him through his book. Mary Ellen
Topic: Two Years Before the Mast by R.H. Dana (8 of 14), Read 17 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Pres Lancaster plancast@neteze.com Date: Wednesday, April 02, 2003 02:34 PM About a year and one half ago, I attended a dramatization of Two Years Before the Mast. It was given as a monologue by the author who is from the West Coast and who has written and appeared in other like pieces. But the frosting on this cake is that the performance was presented in the hold (? -well, not the deck) of the sailing ship, The Balclutha (sp?), the gem of the Maritime Museum's collection of vessels. I thought we got an excellent sense of Dana and his world from the actor. Well done, not overdone.
Topic: Two Years Before the Mast by R.H. Dana (9 of 14), Read 19 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Dean Denis dddenis@telus.net Date: Wednesday, April 02, 2003 03:39 PM Pres, is this it? http://www.nps.gov/safr/local/balc.html Dean All roads lead to roam.
Topic: Two Years Before the Mast by R.H. Dana (10 of 14), Read 19 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Jody Richael jodyrichael@cs.com Date: Wednesday, April 02, 2003 03:51 PM I also found this book slow reading and weighed down by too much sailing terminology. There were entire paragraphs I didn't comprehend at all! I did enjoy his descriptions of life in California (having moved from there not too long ago) and the different people that he met on board and on land. His account of the sick native (I forget the name) on the beach was very compelling. Jody
Topic: Two Years Before the Mast by R.H. Dana (11 of 14), Read 22 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Dottie Randall randallj@ix.netcom.com Date: Wednesday, April 02, 2003 03:59 PM Hope I'm remembering correctly how to do this. Image of the replica of The Pilgrim. http://www.cateweb.org/CA_Authors/Dana.htm Dottie Solitude is fine, but you need someone to tell you that solitude is fine. Honore de Balzac
Topic: Two Years Before the Mast by R.H. Dana (12 of 14), Read 20 times Conf: Classics Corner From: R Bavetta Date: Wednesday, April 02, 2003 04:29 PM So much for my rereading of Two Years plan. It's checked out at the library, and not due in for over a week. R
Topic: Two Years Before the Mast by R.H. Dana (13 of 14), Read 16 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Pres Lancaster plancast@neteze.com Date: Wednesday, April 02, 2003 07:58 PM DEAN: I Dana deny that that is the very Balclutha on which I spent two years before the mast (performance). Quite a ship, as those ships go, but give me something else at sea. Now if somebody will tell me which glen in Scotland the name comes from.
From: Janet Poppema Date: Wednesday, April 02, 2003 10:51 PM Hi, all! Dottie: It was such a thrill to hear about your girls' experiences with The Pilgrim! I adore history and my life-long ambition has been to retrace Lewis and Clark's footsteps. Now, after reading this book, I think I would have to admit Dana's experiences as very compelling, as well. I can't say that I would ENJOY the experience, but I would still like to attempt it! Several times during my reading, I thought "Now this is the ultimate Survivor...to heck with the Amazon (like on TV)...send some millionaire wannabes out on a sailing ship! :) Mary Ellen: "...a young man who probably had little acquaintance with manual labor plunging into the arduous life of the sailor!" Do you think that Dana was probably caught up in the romantic ideals of sailing life and had absolutely no idea what he was getting himself into? I thought that might have been so! :) janet Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers. Charles W. Eliot
From: Dean Denis dddenis@telus.net Date: Thursday, April 03, 2003 09:49 AM I didn't spend too much time trying to figure exactly what all the nautical terms were. The glossary at the end of my book was small. I think that, at times, he was showing off how much he had learned. He also wanted to show how much they had to work and that impression was not lost on me. Pres, I found this about the origin of the Balclutha: The Balclutha was built in 1886 in Glasgow, Scotland by Charles Cornell & Company for Robert McMillan of Dumbarton on the Clyde. Her name, so derived from the Gaelic for Dumbarton ( Bal: town; Clutha: Clyde ). During the play did they sing any sailor songs? Dana mentions so many of them and how important they were to coordinating everyone's efforts and thus making the work easier. Working on board ship was one thing but moving, processing and steeving the hides would have had me wishing to be elsewhere. Dean All roads lead to roam.
Topic: Two Years Before the Mast by R.H. Dana (16 of 22), Read 39 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Mary Ellen Burns smeburns@yahoo.com Date: Thursday, April 03, 2003 12:53 PM Dean, I agree with you: that work with the hides sounded like torture. And to think some poor crews did this for YEARS at a time! But I think Dana's description of their work during a storm in the extreme southern latitudes, struggling to gather in the sails and make them fast, with their bare hands, stretched out along ice-covered yards, left the strongest impression on me. What misery! I just finished the book, and was surprised that the revised ending, kind of a "Where Are They Now?" piece, wholly omitted any discussion of ameliorating the lives of the seamen. And the criticism of slavery in the final log of the Alert seemed ironic indeed, given the treatment meted out to seamen on board! As to the original conlcuding chapter, I was fascinated that Dana's prescription for the seamen's woes was largely to give them religious training. I would not have thought him a religious person from the rest of the book. Perhaps, like the folks in "The Mill on the Floss," religion was to him a respect for tradition and commonly held moral principles. Mary Ellen
Topic: Two Years Before the Mast by R.H. Dana (17 of 22), Read 39 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Pres Lancaster plancast@neteze.com Date: Thursday, April 03, 2003 05:38 PM DEAN Thanks muchly for the etymology of Balclutha; I must have Gaelic blood because the parsing all seems so right. And who would have thought that "etymology" goes all the way back to the Greek even if it is an assemblage of Greek parts? As far as I can remember, there were no songs in the performance, though I agree that it seems there should have been. About handling hides: I remember that the telling of that part of the narrative clearly conveyed the awfulness of the work. But I also remember that when I became associated with the West Coast maritime industry in 1952, before the advent of containerization, the work was still essentially the same and so disagreeable (awful) that hides were "penalty cargo" - extra hourly pay if the job was hides.
Topic: Two Years Before the Mast by R.H. Dana (18 of 22), Read 40 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Dean Denis dddenis@telus.net Date: Thursday, April 03, 2003 07:43 PM You're very welcome, Pres. I was interested to hear about hides as "penalty cargo." Mary, during that whole freezing, wet voyage around the Horn, I kept asking why they couldn't have waited until austral summer but if they had waited they probably would have had to have processed more hides. I would have been scuppered either way. Incidentally, the Panama Canal obviating that nasty bit of the journey was opened on August 14, 1914. I was curious about current safety conditions for merchant mariners and found this: http://www.eagle.org/news/press/jan17-2003.html Here is an excerpt: "Actual loss rates for vessels of all types of 100 gross tons or more have been halved in the past ten years to about two vessels per thousand per year. In the last ten years, total losses of all vessels over 500 gross tons has declined from more than 180 vessels to less than 80 per year, he stressed. In tonnage terms this represents a decline from 1.75 million gross tons to less than 750,000 gross tons or 0.1 percent of the world fleet. ... in the past ten years marine fatalities have declined dramatically from over 500 per year to less than 200, while oil spilled from ships has declined by over 70 percent." These improvements are nice to hear. There are, however, disreputatble shipping companies who avoid safety standards by registering their vessels in countries where inspections non-existent or infrequent. If caught at more stringent ports they pay the fines but the mariners sometimes pay with their lives. Dean All roads lead to roam.
Topic: Two Years Before the Mast by R.H. Dana (19 of 22), Read 35 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Dean Denis dddenis@telus.net Date: Friday, April 04, 2003 09:36 AM Mary wrote "...I would not have thought him a religious person from the rest of the book." Dana gives a hint of his religious convictions by mentioning that one of his favourite authors is William Cowper who wrote Christian poems http://www.puritansermons.com/poetry/cowpindx.htm and hymns http://www.cyberhymnal.org/bio/c/o/cowper_w.htm Dean All roads lead to roam.
Topic: Two Years Before the Mast by R.H. Dana (20 of 22), Read 28 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Janet Poppema Date: Friday, April 04, 2003 09:33 PM As I was thumbing through the novel today, I tried to "walk in Dana's shoes" and think about when his lowest point might have been. To me, I would have thought standing on the California beach watching "my" ship sail off without me would have been the most difficult. Imagine! Although the ship was a far cry from a pleasure vessel, it WAS the only link with Boston. To see it sail away would have brought home to me just how many miles there were between the California Coast and Boston... Any thoughts on this? Janet Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers. Charles W. Eliot
Topic: Two Years Before the Mast by R.H. Dana (21 of 22), Read 28 times Conf: Classics Corner From: Dean Denis dddenis@telus.net Date: Saturday, April 05, 2003 12:00 AM Yes, Janet, that was when he was at his lowest. I think that the uncertainty of his return was especially troubling. It was out of anyone's control as it depended on irregular shipments of hides from the missions. That was a mental cruelty on top of all the physical hardships. Dean All roads lead to roam.
From: Mary Ellen Burns smeburns@yahoo.com Date: Wednesday, April 09, 2003 06:29 PM One of the most memorable -- horribly so -- scenes in the book was the flogging of the 2 seamen. The captain, Thompson, worked himself into quite a frenzy. The image of him whipping a sailor while shouting that he is doing it "because I like to do it!" was just awful. What a sadist! And for the others to witness this cruelty and injustice and realize they can do nothing: what it must have done to their self-esteem! And this is the same Captain with whom Dana sails back to Boston. I found it extraordinary that he only had one such outburst and a testament to how desperately Dana wanted to get back to Boston that he was willing to sail under this man for the long voyage home. Mary Ellen
From: Ernest Belden drernest@pacbell.net Date: Wednesday, April 23, 2003 12:57 AM I just finished my second reading of the Two Years Before the Mast. I enjoyed it a lot more than the first reading several years ago. But for once, I started reading the postings to get an impression how other readers viewed this book. I can not agree more of how you readers see Dana. Your comments and observation are to the point. May I repeat some things that strike the reader. There is Dana's strong, admirable personality. He started out fresh from college and faced incredible hardships (and illness) without complaints. He finds nice things to say about most of his shipmates and showed his admiration for some of them. He is somewhat critical of the captains because of their insensitivity or lack of caring for the crew. The horrible sadistic episode of punishing crew seems unbelievable but I am sure it happened. Dana recognized the importance of a sailor giving his all to the ship. Rounding the Horn struck me as gruesome, absolutely horrible. I don't know how the people and the ship survived. Sailing today on one of the great liners is more than a bit different. On these luxury ships you have comfort that these early sailors could not dream about. There are no sails to set, but there are cocktails, swimming pool, dancing and nightly entertainments. Yet, the modern passenger may be missing a bit as well. He is not close to the sea or close to the ship. Storms rarely make life as unpleasant as the ancient mariners experienced. I like to pass on an experience while cruising on one of these luxury boats perhaps 10 or 12 years ago. We came from England and our destination was St. Petersburg. Once late at night I stood at the bow of the ship and just watched the ocean when a relatively small sail boat crossed our bow. Their sails were reefed and I could see that they struggled with a strong wind and rough seas. I experienced none of this standing on the deck of our ship. Incidentally this was the best and most interesting cruise I ever took since it also included visits to the Scandinavian capitals. Ernie
From: Barbara Moors bar647@aol.com Date: Wednesday, April 23, 2003 02:46 PM Ernie, I love the thought of you, a sailor, reading this book. Did you understand most of the terminology? I'm moving slow on it (on about page 300), due to life demands, but enjoying it enormously despite the sailing terms. I like history and this is the up-close and personal kind. Barb
From: Janet Poppema Date: Wednesday, April 23, 2003 02:56 PM On a related note, Ernie.... Not only was your cruise ship a larger vessel, but your ship also had the latest navigational equipment on board. Dana and his vessel, on the other hand, had only the most rudimentary of navigational equipment and relied heavily on the stars. quite a feat of strength....both emotionally and physically! Janet Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers. Charles W. Eliot
From: Ernest Belden drernest@pacbell.net Date: Wednesday, April 23, 2003 03:57 PM Barb, I have heard the names and terms Dana mentioned in his book, but that is about all. Yes, I have once been on board of one of these ancient vessels just to look around. It was not in service any more and is still kept at the San Francisco Maritime Museum. I believe the name is the Balclutha. As for my boat, its a Catalina one mast sloop which carries ordinarily two sails, the Main and the Jib (or foresail). It also can be sailed with a spinacker (sp?) which I don't use. A boat like mine give you the feel of the sea, of the wind and of some of the dangers associated with it. It can be very rough in the S.F. bay and one can suddenly find oneself completely surrounded by fog. This is dangerous and there are instruments which may help you find your way. Dana's ship did not have radar, GPS (global positioning system) or even a chronometer to figure the position on the chart. I have read Slocum's account of his single handed sail around he world at the time of Teddy Roosevelt presidency. Slocum subsequently gave sailing lessons to Ted's children. Ernie (Whose sailing has become more cautious with age).
From: Edward Houghton eddh@pacbell.net Date: Sunday, May 04, 2003 04:09 AM There were a lot of things I liked about this book. It starts off with short chapters, which are good for people like me who stop and start a lot. The sails work on these ships seemed very complicated, and well engineered for the time. Of course, this was near the end of the great sailing ships and many problems had already been worked out. The fact that Dana could function with apparently no experience and be an accomplished seaman by the time they reached California is a testament to his abilities and to the system employed in manipulating the sails. California descriptions are especially interesting to me. The Mission San Juan Capistrano is just a few miles down the road. And the area where the crew threw hides from the bluffs is a little city now called Dana Point. There is even a replicated version of the Pilgrim anchored there. During the summer months there is a man there who quotes from TWO YEARS BEFORE THE MAST, and answers questions pertaining to the ship and Richard H Dana Jr. The Dana Point, town legend is that in those old days, the Mission used a system of colored lanterns to apprise the mission personnel what kind of ships were off the horizon. One for pirates, one for warship, another for trader. Don't know them all. Now a lot of the roads are named for various lanterns; Golden Lantern Road is the main road that leads to the marina. There is even a Green Lantern Road. Shades of DC comics. One of Dana's comments stands out in my mind. He mentions that Californians won't walk and they take a horse every where, even if it's next door. Times haven't changed. Nobody walks to a destination; we drive. Of course, we have people who walk for exercise, but even they wouldn't walk to visit, not when they could drive. I thought Dana's Plan B was interesting. If he couldn't get back to school within a certain time, he was going to stick to the sea and become the Captain of a ship. Seemed to be no doubt in his mind that he could succeed. The trip around the tip of South America was one that made me worry, even though I knew they had to make it so the book could be published. EDD currently reading HANGING CURVE by Troy Soos and WHAT IF?, a collection of alternate histories by historians; not SciFi.
From: Ann Davey davey@tconl.com Date: Sunday, May 04, 2003 10:49 AM Edd, I really had to chuckle at the observation that Californians didn't walk even in Dana's time Ann
From: R Bavetta Date: Sunday, May 04, 2003 12:45 PM Edd, remember when Dana Point was a wide spot in the road with a sleepy little harbor? R
From: Edward Houghton eddh@pacbell.net Date: Monday, May 05, 2003 03:06 AM RUTH Certainly do remember those days. There used to be a restaurant in that area called The Silent Woman. It had a bow sprite without a head over the front door. I don't know when they developed the marina in Dana Point, but that seemed to give it impetus. My son-in-law went to school in Dana Point, and his parents still live there. There a couple of good fish restaurants in the marina, and that keeps us coming back. In the off season of course. EDD
From: R Bavetta Date: Monday, May 05, 2003 11:22 AM I remember a restaurant right at the foot of the hill as you come into town, where we used to go to eat fried chicken. I wonder if Dana got fried chicken on that ship. Ruth, segueing back to the discussion
From: Edward Houghton eddh@pacbell.net Date: Tuesday, May 06, 2003 03:38 AM RUTH It sounded to me like everything was boiled. If he had been on a whaler, they had lots of oil for frying. I think the pot of boiling whale oil was called a gamming pot. At least that's what they told me at a restaurant in Oxnard called the Whale's Tail. EDD "And so it has been, since time began, the witless ape outstrips the learned man...." Saad
From: Barbara Moors bar647@aol.com Date: Wednesday, May 28, 2003 07:40 PM I finished this book during my siege with paperwork and meetings at my job so I didn't have time to write a note before this. It qualifies as one of a long list of books that I would never have read without the motivation of folks here reading it with me. And, I enjoyed it thoroughly. I've always been a fan of interesting travel writing and history. This one matched up with both of those loves. The writing wasn't that of great literature, but it was clear and entertaining. I didn't worry about the lingo that I didn't understand. When I tried to read all of the definitions, it took away from the experience. Here is one of the bits of the book that I loved, talking about the iceberg they saw when going around the Horn: No pencil has ever yet given anything like the true effect of an iceberg. In a picture, they are huge, uncouth masses, stuck in the sea, while their chief beauty and grandeur,--their slow, stately motion; the whirling of the snow about their summits, and the fearful groaning of their parts--the picture cannot give. This is the large iceberg; while the small and distant islands, floating on the smooth sea, in the light of a clear day, look like little floating fairy isles of sapphire.. How else am I ever going to get that experience? I don't expect to see an iceberg any day soon. I was also fascinated with how superior these sailors felt to whaling ships and those who worked them. My son just finished reading Moby Dick at school this year and remembered that the whalers felt the same way about these cargo ships. Barb

 
Richard Henry Dana
Richard Henry Dana

 
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