“The round masts,” cries Walt Whitman in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," “the swinging motion of the hulls, the slender serpentine pennants” — they were words in mid-19th century America that could have described any substantial port in this comparatively young country. Boston, Massachusetts, was such a one, its commodious harbor the site of much commerce and many historical events, not the least of which was the “Boston Tea Party.”
A student at Harvard College in 1833, young Richard Henry Dana would have been familiar with Boston’s dock area, no doubt would have walked its wharves, and so in that year when an attack of measles weakened his eyes, forcing him to break off his studies, it was not surprising that an enterprising young fellow, impatient with his indisposition and restless, might decide to ship out — anywhere! One of Ralph W. Emerson’s students, son of a poet who was also a founder of the literary journal North American Review, Dana would have tapped into a resilience of self-reliance already and, long before sailing, would have been imbued with an understanding of what was involved in a two-year voyage.
Having signed on as a common sailor aboard the brig Pilgrim — a full-scale replica of the vessel lies at Old Dana Point, at the west end of the Plaza — Richard Henry Dana set off for California in 1834, spent two years at sea (the exact length of time that Thoreau spent in his cabin at Walden Pond), and shipped back to Boston aboard the Alert. His health having been restored, he returned to Harvard after his voyage and, after graduation, went on to study law. In 1840, he was admitted to the bar, just prior to the publication of his account of his travels, Two Years Before the Mast (1840), which became an enormous success. Dana actually ran for Congress in 1862 and lost, and although appointed by President Grant as ambassador to England in 1876, he was denied confirmation by the Senate, the chairman of whose Foreign Relations Committee, a dissenter on the vote no doubt, scornfully dismissed him as “one of those damn literary fellers.” Active in law and public affairs, Dana was not only a delegate to the Free Soil Convention of 1848 but appeared in several important cases defending fugitive slaves as well, and he even acted as one of the counsel for the United States in the trial of Jefferson Davis. Travel remained a passion, and he was in Rome in the midst of writing a work on law when he caught pneumonia in 1882. He is buried in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a tiny graveyard right across from Harvard’s Massachusetts Hall.
Common report has always had it that Two Years was a manual for seafarers first, and no less importantly, an animadversion, high-mindedly composed, against the harsh and difficult life and lot of the common seaman, the rectification of which was one of Dana’s motives for writing the book. The fact of the matter is, he wrote the book in the hope that it would bring clients to his law practice. According to Dana, it was published “not because I supposed the book could be of much benefit to me in a literary or pecuniary point of view, but because I thought it would be of some use to me in Boston in securing to me a share of maritime business.”
Which it did.
So much for altruism.
Curiously one of the first books of its kind, a work of sea poetry, Two Years Before the Mast opened up the lore and language of sea life to the landlocked “seafaring mind” and gave such armchair adventurers the chance to look in on an exotic world of shipboard life and the opportunity to travel especially round the Horn and to far California. Van Wyck Brooks reminds us that no Massachusetts mind was ever far from the sea. In 1839, Herman Melville, 20 years old, sailed for Liverpool but was home in time, Wright Morris once observed, for the publication of a book that can’t have affected him any way but forcefully, just at a time when America was expanding. Interestingly enough, this book was Dana’s sole literary work, although his legal manual, The Seaman's Friend, enjoyed wide popularity among sailors. Dana’s father sold the book to Harper's in New York “for $250, plus 24 copies.” According to J. North Conway in American Literacy, “Within the first two years of publication, it made close to $10,000 for Harper's, became a bestseller, and went on to earn the publisher close to $50,000 over the course of its original copyright, which ended in 1869.” Having sold the copyright to the publisher, Dana never saw a penny of the profits, which is perhaps a comment on, as well as a lesson in, Yankee ingenuity.
What he did manage to do was return, like Melville’s Ishmael, with an observant and well-documented adventure story — with not only the facts but the strong fictional, figurative power of a mind able to find the poetry inherent in commonplace things. It was a passion shared by Thoreau at Walden, Melville at Pittsfield, and Emily Dickinson, his contemporary, at Amherst. Sea life 150 years ago remained as much a mysterious and inexact frontier as Nebraska Territory and far California were to the Eastern reader. How long ago was it? Abner Doubleday had just invented the game of baseball at Cooperstown, New York. William Henry Harrison had just been elected president. At 40, Edgar Allen Poe published his first book of short stories, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, which included “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The first dental school opened in Baltimore, Maryland. And in 1840, James Fenimore Cooper published The Deerslayer, more than adequate proof that savagery and danger was just as close in upper New York state as it was in gun-toting Sierra Nevada or Laredo.
California, momentous in fact and metaphor, looms large in Two Years Before the Mast, a place where Dana landed after seven months at sea. He touched land at San Diego on Saturday, March 14, 1835. It was not only a strangely new place, California was a new word. In a decade, thanks to a gold strike, it would leap into prominence as a new El Dorado and infect the dreams of every restless, acquisitive American, many of whom, preferring death by water than by Indian arrows or covered wagons, sailed precariously around the Horn.