In 2015, the “Smithonian” Magazine introduced the American Classic Novel “Two Years before the Mast” of Richard Henry Dana Jr.1
The journey of Richard Henry Dana Jr aboard the Pilgrim, which he wrote in his memoir Two Years Before the Mast, is a story of self-discovery, adventure, and life at sea. Dana was born into a well-educated family and began to study at Harvard, but he became sick on measles. Determined to find a cure, Dana embarked on a life-changing voyage as a sailor, trading his scholarly robes for the rugged garb of a seaman.
Dana’s memoir is a vivid and authentic account of his experiences ‘before the mast’, a term referring to the common sailor’s quarters below the main deck of a ship. His narrative takes readers on a journey through the treacherous waters of the South Atlantic, around Cape Horn and into Alta California, then part of Mexico. The primary purpose of the Pilgrim’s voyage was to obtain cattle hides from ranchers along the Californian coast, giving readers an insight into the maritime trade of the time.
Throughout his journey, Dana immerses readers in the daily realities of life on board, from the gruelling physical labour to the camaraderie of the crew. He masterfully describes the awe-inspiring beauty of the sea, the terrifying power of storms and the harsh discipline enforced by the ship’s captain. Dana’s keen powers of observation and evocative prose bring to life the sights, sounds and emotions of life at sea, captivating readers with his raw authenticity.
In California, Dana embraced the challenges of his environment, mastering the art of handling heavy skins and immersing himself in the local culture. He vividly recounts his experiences, from attending cockfights to tasting traditional dishes such as frijoles. Dana’s observations provide valuable insights into the social and cultural landscape of Alta California, offering readers a glimpse into a bygone era.
Upon his return to Boston, Dana was transformed both physically and emotionally by his experiences. He became an advocate for the rights of sailors and marginalised communities, using his legal expertise to defend fugitive slaves and promote social justice. His memoir, Two Years Before the Mast, became a literary sensation, influencing generations of readers and writers with its candid portrayal of life at sea and its enduring themes of resilience and self-discovery.
Dana’s influence extended far beyond the pages of his memoir, shaping the works of renowned authors such as Herman Melville. Melville, inspired by Dana’s authentic portrayal of maritime life, sought to infuse his own masterpiece, Moby-Dick, with a similar sense of realism. Dana’s influence can also be seen in the characters of later American literature, from Mark Twain’s Huck Finn to J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, who embark on journeys of self-discovery reminiscent of Dana’s own odyssey.
In conclusion, Richard Henry Dana Jr’s Two Years Before the Mast is a timeless classic that continues to resonate with readers today. Through his gripping narrative and keen observations, Dana offers a compelling glimpse into the world of 19th-century seafaring and the transformative power of life at sea. A testament to the enduring spirit of adventure and the pursuit of truth, his memoir has inspired generations of readers with its timeless themes of resilience, self-discovery and social justice.
- Malanowksi, Jamie (2015): Before Moby-Dick, There Was “Two Years Before the Mast”, in: Smithonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/before-moby-dick-there-was-two-years-before-the-mast-180955766/ [Last Access: 25.1.2024]