Of all of the volumes of the Harvard Classics I have read thusfar, Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana, Jr is probably the most obscure, but also one of the most entertaining reads in the collection. Being written by an American for a general audience less than two hundred years ago certainly helps to make Two Years Before the Mast very readable today.
The book is a memoir of the author’s two year voyage from Boston to California and back in the early 1830s. The author was a student at Harvard and had an eye condition which made him decide to take a leave of absence from college to do something completely different. The author, after his return, went on to become a prominent lawyer of his era, serving as an US Attorney, among other things.
While the book is generally very easy to read, one word of caution is that it does not pull any punches when it comes to sailing lingo. This wasn’t an issue for me because I grew up sailing a few days a week, but the use of terms could be difficult to someone who doesn’t immediately know what a halyard is.
The main action of the book takes the author aboard a brig called the Pilgrim from Boston, around Cape Horn and to California. The Pilgrim then goes up and down the coast collecting cow hides and depositing them back in San Diego. Eventually, the author is placed in a land job, curing the hides for the journey to Boston. He then trades places with a crewman on another boat, the Alert, as they engage in the same collection of hides. Lucky for the author, the Pilgrim’s voyage had been extended a year, and so by traveling on the Alert, he returned to Boston on schedule. Both ships and the hide-curing house were owned by the same company, which enabled his transfer between these jobs, although not without some drama.
The author’s description of life aboard a humble merchant vessel is a very good primary source for the era, just on the cusp of steam-driven ships becoming popular. His depictions of the arbitrary abuse of power by captains, and the way merchant houses, thousands of miles from legal recourse, took advantage of seamen wound up in major reforms.
The other aspect to the text, the descriptions of California in the 1830s make it a critical primary historical source for the region as well as the best account of the region when the gold rush got underway a little over a decade after his return.
In addition to the historical value, the book is a worthwhile read for its depictions of the human condition in many small ways throughout the journey. Whether isolated on a ship or at a wedding reception, or with people from numerous countries, Two Years Before the Mast gives an account of the common human element.
An interesting thing about the text is the narrator is that while he is from classical Pilgrim stock, an educated reform Christian constantly concerned with the justice given to others and a desire to reform and improve the existing order, he is also someone extremely proud and confident in his people and their culture. On more than one occasion, Dana remarks at how amazingly California would be transformed with American or English colonialism rather than the Criollioes, Castizos and Mestizos that made up the population at the time.
Dana was certainly proven right on this point when he writes about his return to California twenty-four years later. Following the gold rush and much development, California was growing and thriving, with new industry and development.
This book was very popular in its day and the people described in it took a sense of pride at having been a part of it, but it’s relevance has faded with time. For those of you interested in sailing and historical America, it is a first rate book. However, it is not a book of particular artistic merit, nor does is it depict anything of particular historical importance. Two Years Before the Mast is ultimately the story of a sometimes dangerous, often monotonous, and always laborious voyage to a backwater at the far end of the Earth. What makes the memoir stand out is the drama to be found in what was starting to become mundane.
With the end of Two Years Before the Mast, is the end to a long string of volumes dedicated to narrative works. The next two volumes focus on Burke, Carlyle and Mill will finish up the first half of the Harvard Classics and begin marked shift towards compilations of shorter works (The Voyage of the Beagle and The Autobiography of Beneventuo Cellini being the exceptions).