Two Years Before the Mast/Introductory Note
Richard Henry Dana, the second of that name, was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, August 1, 1815. He came of a stock that had resided there since the days of the early settlements; his grandfather, Francis Dana, had been the first American minister to Russia and later became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts; his father was distinguished as a man of letters. He entered Harvard College in 1831; but near the beginning of his third year an attack of measles left his eyesight so weak that study was impossible. Tired of the tedium of a slow convalescence, he decided on a sea voyage; and choosing to go as a sailor rather than a passenger, he shipped from Boston on August 14, 1834, on the brig “Pilgrim,” bound for the coast of California. His experiences for the next two years form the subject of the present volume.
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 practise 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.