Thursday, March 14, 2013
Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
What was the first book written by an American author to be widely read overseas? Dana's Two Years Before the Mast (1840). There is also little doubt that it served as an inspiration for Melville's Moby-Dick (1851). The character Sam Sparks (p. 81) had a speech impediment that may have been an inspiration for Billy Budd. When "California 'broke out'...in 1848, and so large a portion of the Anglo-Saxon race flocked to it, there was no book upon California but mine" (p. 315). I had been meaning to read this book since 1989, when I moved into a 1916 Colonial Revival house designed by Dana's eponymous great grandson, an Ecole des Beaux Arts architect of the Madison Ave. firm Murphy & Dana.
Dana was a student at Harvard in 1831, but measles left his eyesight weakened. He joined the crew of the ship Pilgrim for a 2-year trip to California (actually Alto California, Mexico's northernmost state) around Cape Horn and documented the voyage in this seafaring adventure narrative. Upon his return, he completed Harvard in 1837 and became a lawyer well known for defending the rights of the common man. His chronicles of sailor life and the brutal floggings meted out by the Captain are the more memorable sections of the book. He returned to California (now one of the United States) 24 years later in 1859 by steamboat and also chronicled that trip in a coda. He died in Rome in 1882 and was buried in the Protestant Cemetery near the graves of Keats and Shelly.
The sea terminology is unparalleled. I was well into the book before I realized that there was an illustration (fig. opposite p. 269) of the brig and ship sails with the names of each sail in the Great Illustrated Classics edition of the book. The book gets it's name from the fact that the crew made their quarters in the forecastle (fig. opposite p. 10), before the mast. Dana chose to live with the crew despite his elevated social status. "There is not so hopeless and pitiable an object as a landsman beginning a sailor's life" (p. 2). Many of the nautical terms are simple, like "hove," (p. 2) the past tense of "heave," to haul with a rope. To "reef" (p. 5) a topsail is to fold and tie it down. A "brig" (p. 14) is a two-mast ship with square sails. A "hermaphrodite brig" (p. 15) is two-mast with only forward sales square. The word "hazing" (p. 77) seems to be an old sailor term. I even see the word "Yahoos" (p. 112). "Doubling" (p. 266) is to sail around a projection of land as in doubling Cape Horn.
The geography from 1834 is fascinating. The "Pacific well deserves its name, for...it has few storms" (p. 43). At that time, Hawaii was known as the Sandwich Islands (p. 45). Much of the book describes the natives - "The Californians are an idle, thriftless people, and can make nothing for themselves" (p. 62), yet "the climate as good as any in the world" (p. 68). Boats from Sitka are coming down from Russian America (p. 188), under Russian control until 1899. We learn that ships could take an inland route above Tierra del Fuego through the Straits of Magellan (p. 264). It is interesting to note that the California Gold Rush broke out in 1848 in Alto California, statehood two years later (1850) was inevitable.
If you loved the book, the 1946 film (not yet on DVD) awaits, yet has little to do with Dana's story line. Alan Ladd plays Charles Stewart (not in the book), son of the ship's owner and Brian Donlevy plays Dana (no mention of Harvard). Mexican 1930s film diva Esther Fernández plays passenger and Ladd's love interest Maria Dominguez (most certainly not in the book !). It's your basic swashbuckler and worth watching.