Two Years Before the Mast
Richard Henry Dana, Jr. - 1869
In the December following his return to Boston in 1836, Dana re-entered Harvard, the hero of his fellow students, graduating in the following June. He next took up the study of law, at the same time teaching elocution in the College, and in 1840 he opened an office in Boston. While in the law school he had written out the narrative of his voyage, which he now published; and in the following year, 1841, issued "The Seaman's Friend." Both books were republished in England, and brought him an immediate reputation.
After several years of the practice of law, during which he dealt largely with cases involving the rights of seamen, he began to take part in politics as an active member of the Free-Soil Party. During the operation of the Fugitive-Slave Law he acted as counsel in behalf of the fugitives Shadrach, Sims, and Burns, and on one occasion suffered serious assault as a consequence of his zeal. His prominence in these cases, along with his fame as a writer, brought him much social recognition on his visit to England in 1856. Three years later, his health gave way from overwork, and he set out on a voyage round the world, revisiting California, where he made the observations which appear in the postscript to this book.
On his return, Dana was appointed by Lincoln United States District Attorney for Massachusetts; and in his arguments before the Supreme Court in Washington in connection with the "Prize causes," dealing with the capture of private property at sea in time of war, he greatly increased an already brilliant legal reputation.
After the close of the War he resigned his office of District Attorney, as he could not approve of President Johnson's policy of Reconstruction, and returned to private practice. This he relinquished in 1878, in order to go to Europe to devote himself to the preparation of a treatise on international law; but the actual composition of this work was little more than begun when he died in Rome, January 6, 1882, and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery, where lie the ashes of Keats and Shelley.
The record of Dana's life agrees with the picture of his temperament which he unconsciously painted in his first and greatest book. The ready sympathy for the suffering and the oppressed, the courage, unselfishness, and fair-mindedness which he exhibited on the merchant vessel when a boy of twenty, continued to characterize him throughout his long and distinguished career as lawyer and citizen.
The merit of "Two Years Before the Mast" was recognized in both America
and England immediately after its appearance, and it at once took rank
as the most vivid and accurate picture in literature of the side of life
it sought to portray. W. Clark Russell, himself one of the best writers
of sea-stories in English, called it "the greatest sea-book that was ever
written in any language," and the convincing detail of its narrative led
to comparisons with the masterpiece of Defoe. Its value and interest today
are even greater than they were when it was written; for, while the purely
human element remains the same, the account of the routine on board the
old sailing ships, the picture of the trading on the coast of California,
and the description of the country in the days before the discovery of
gold had transformed its civilization, have all acquired an historical
importance. Much is added, also, by the unaffected literary skill of the
narrator. Such episodes as the flogging of Sam and John the Swede, the
dry gale off Point Conception, the wedding fandango at Santa Barbara, the
Kanakas in the oven, the funeral in San Pedro, the rounding of Cape Horn
in the "Alert," have passed into the list of the memorable things in literature.