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Two Years Before the Mast: A Sailor's Life at Sea

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Two Years Before the Mast is a book by the American author Richard Henry Dana, Jr. written after a two-year sea voyage starting in 1834.

While at Harvard College, Dana had an attack of the measles, which affected his vision. Thinking it might help his sight, Dana, rather than going on a Grand Tour as most of his fellow classmates traditionally did (and unable to afford it anyway) and being something of a non-conformist, left Harvard to enlist as a common sailor on a voyage around Cape Horn on the brig Pilgrim. He returned to Massachusetts two years later aboard the Alert (which left California sooner than the Pilgrim).

He kept a diary throughout the voyage, and after returning he wrote a recognized American classic, Two Years Before the Mast, published in 1840, the same year of his admission to the bar.

292 pages, Paperback

First published September 1, 1840

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About the author

Richard Henry Dana Jr.

98 books53 followers
Dana was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on August 1, 1815, into a family that first settled in colonial America in 1640. As a boy, Dana studied in Cambridgeport under a strict schoolmaster named Samuel Barrett, alongside fellow Cambridge native and future writer James Russell Lowell. Barrett was infamous as a disciplinarian, punishing his students for any infraction by flogging. He also often pulled students by their ears and, on one such occasion, nearly pulled Dana's ear off, causing his father to protest enough that the practice was abolished.

In 1825, Dana enrolled in a private school overseen by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who Dana later mildly praised as "a very pleasant instructor", though he lacked a "system or discipline enough to insure regular and vigorous study". In July 1831, Dana began his studies at Harvard College, though he was suspended for six months before the end of his first year for supporting a student protest. In his junior year, he had a case of measles which also caused ophthalmia and his weakening vision inspired him to take a sea voyage.

Rather than going on a Grand Tour of Europe, he decided to enlist as a common sailor, despite his high-class birth. He left Boston on the brig Pilgrim on August 14, 1834, on a voyage around Cape Horn to the then-remote California, at that time still a part of Mexico. On the 180-ton, 86.5 foot-long Pilgrim, Dana visited a number of settlements in California (including Monterey, San Pedro, San Juan Capistrano, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Santa Clara and San Francisco). He returned to Massachusetts aboard the ship Alert on September 22, 1836, after two years away from home.

He kept a diary, and after the trip wrote Two Years Before the Mast based on his experiences. The term "before the mast" refers to sailor's quarters -- in the forecastle, in the bow of the ship, the officers dwelling near the stern. His writing evidences his later social feeling for the oppressed. After witnessing a flogging on board the Pilgrim, he vowed that he would try to help improve the lot of the common seaman.

After his sea voyage, he returned to Harvard to take up study at its law school, completing his education in 1837. He subsequently became a lawyer, and an expert on maritime law, many times defending common seamen, and wrote The Seaman's Friend, which became a standard reference text on the legal rights and responsibilities of sailors.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 827 reviews
Profile Image for Brian.
688 reviews334 followers
September 11, 2018
“The utmost was required of every man in the way of his duty.”

“Two Years Before The Mast” was not always an enjoyable read for me, but overall it was a good one, and maybe even a necessary one. Published in 1840, this book is the account of Richard Henry Dana, a Harvard graduate, who spent two years as a regular sailor on a merchant ship in the mid-1830s.
This text is a slow read at times and often, especially early on, very repetitive. Thus it took me a while to really get into it. However, it is an interesting anthropological study of the life of an American merchant vessel in the 1830s. Mr. Dana was not really a writer, so I can forgive some of the elements of his style that I found grating to read. For example, for most readers Mr. Dana gives too much specific and very detailed information on the smallest details of sailing, pulling in sails, (especially during storms) minute details of ship life, etc. I could not begin to understand a lot of it. Historically valuable, Yes. Interesting to me, No.
Some praises for the book- I really enjoyed the chapter “California and its Inhabitants. This chapter focuses on the people of what was at that time a foreign country. It reveals a lot about the attitudes of the period, and was fascinating. I also liked how much the text kept reinforcing the Yankee work ethic. Hard work and hardship did not bug these men. The only thing that seems to really upset them is treatment that denies them dignity. I love that!
I believe the book really hits its stride in the last quarter. Dana’s descriptions of icebergs is simply beautiful writing. No way around it. In chapter 32, “Doubling Cape Horn” we read one of the most exciting and interesting aspects in the entire piece. Dana is concise and to the point in this chapter, and it works well.
The original last chapter of the text also offers some interesting thoughts on religion and its ability to aid the life of a sailor and it also cautions the reader against judging the economic value of sailing or overregulating it when they don’t know much about it. It is fascinating.
“Two Years Before The Mast” was an intriguing read. I feel my understanding of the world, and early America, is a little broader. For that, I am glad I read it.
Profile Image for Rick Skwiot.
Author 9 books29 followers
November 20, 2012

In a way, the best thing for a writer is misfortune. In that regard, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. got lucky.

A young Harvard man, he signed on as a common seaman aboard the brig Pilgrim, bound for California from Boston, to help improve his health. Had it been smooth sailing over benign seas under a wise and beneficent captain, with good food and a leisurely stay on California beaches, we likely would never have heard of Dana.

But, thanks to the treacherous and icy waters of Cape Horn, a power hungry captain keen on flogging his men on slight pretence, a year of hard labor hauling hides in anarchic California (still part of Mexico in 1834, the year Dana sailed), and shipboard living conditions that today's Supreme Court would find cruel and unusual, Dana and his work have remained icons in American literature and history. (To wit, re living conditions: When he and his shipmates mistakenly believe war has broken out with France and they might be captured and spend time in a French prison, they view the prospect as a pleasant break from their hard routines and shipboard incarceration.)

Part of the lasting success of this book lies in its rich complexity: part memoir of a privileged youth's right of passage into full manhood; part sociological treatise on the people and politics of Mexico; part polemic and muckraking journalism exposing the indignities, injustices and virtual slavery suffered by merchant sailors; part technical manual on sailing; part travel narrative; and part detailed history of commerce on the high seas circa 1835.

For example:

-We learn much about mizenmasts, marlinespikes, and the how-to of sailing a brig (more, perhaps, than a landlubber cares to know).

-We see a California without streets or, for that matter, firm laws, but with a rigid Mexican social hierarchy of criollos, mestizos, and Indians--the last often literal slaves--as well as a smattering of Yankees, Hawaiian sailors, drunks, deadbeats, murderers, and rogues.

-We are given the particulars of a booming hide trade--the tanning, hauling, and loading in which Dana is forced to participate.

-We glimpse the endless work of the common seaman and the absolute power of ship captains, which, in the case of the Pilgrim's skipper, culminates in a mean-spirited tyranny.

-We share a perilous winter passage around Cape Horn and the Straits of Magellan, through great, iceberg-littered fog banks, driving rain and snow, and mean seas, where the perpetually sodden and frigid seamen must negotiate pitching iced decks and rigging to perform their never-ending, life-threatening tasks.

-We view avarice, duplicity, ignorance, and cruelty, albeit leavened by loyalty, generosity, friendship, and perseverance. In that way, and more, Dana's tale is a microcosm of the human condition: a seemingly endless and at times pointless journey on a small ark afloat in perilous seas, filled with ceaseless toil yet anointed with sublime natural beauty.

Dana's descriptions of the seas, skies, and landscapes often turn poetic. In fact, most all the language of Two Years Before the Mast tends toward the formal and writerly. For despite it being a journal of a common seaman, Dana is an uncommon jack-tar, with a Harvard education, bourgeois manners, and Boston connections that keep him, just barely, from spending another two years in California hauling hides. (Some of his not-so-well-connected mates, from whom he always keeps a distance, at least in his mind and in his journal, were not so lucky.)

The reader never forgets Dana's Boston background, as he spouts Latin and quotes English poets. Although this book was the first to give us a seaman's, not the captain's, point of view, the language is not that of a seaman, and it will be another 45 years before Huck Finn comes to free us all from formal Boston English.

Though nominally an American, Dana exhibits a tone, demeanor and delicacy more English than Yank. (A possible influence: his lawyer father, who argued for an American monarchy and a House of Lords.) This delicacy also leads Dana to omit from his narrative most anything that might cast him in a common light--such as his consorting with Indian prostitutes in California.

But Dana's great fortune as a writer was, seemingly, his misfortune as a gentleman. Upon returning to Boston, he graduated first in his class at Harvard, became a celebrity with the publication of Two Years Before the Mast in 1840, married, and became a prosperous Boston lawyer. However, he never seemed to settle into a life of propriety, as if inoculated against it on his rough and formative two-year voyage. This unresolved inner conflict apparently resulted in a series of nervous breakdowns, which he cured with long sea voyages.

Yet we sense this conflict between his upper-crust snobbery and his genuine affection for the rigorous life and his vigorous shipmates seething beneath the surface throughout his journal. We see a young man made over by his experience--a patrician who, in his heart, becomes a common sailor, but one who never comes to relinquish his previous social status and persona.

For most memoirs to succeed, the reader must be convinced that the author has set off on a sincere sojourn of personal discovery, to find his or her true self. Here, in Two Years Before the Mast, we see that discovery take place before our eyes, even if the author never fully admits it.
Profile Image for Quo.
284 reviews
August 2, 2020
By my own reckoning, there are 2 books held within the sea tale by Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before The Mast, one being a delightful account of the landscapes & the people encountered ashore & the other a virtually baffling & rather overwhelming collection of nautical terminology, nomenclature & jargon that would have been most familiar to any seaman working on a mid-19th century merchant ship, such as the brigantine Pilgrim, (a two masted, square sailed ship), the one that a young Dana shipped out on in August 1834, leaving Boston's harbor & bound "round the horn" of South America for California.

However, my own version of the book had no helpful commentary, footnotes, glossary or other aids but having long ago bought a copy of the nicely-bound Harvard Classics Edition for $1 at a local library sale, after dusting it off, I decided to muddle through. An interlinear edition of the sort I used for Horace, Virgil & Cicero while laboring through school Latin, would have been most useful! Here is just one example:
We got up tricing-lines from the jib-boom-end to each arm of the fore yard & thence to the main & cross-jack yard-arms. Between the tops & the mast-heads, from the fore to the main swifter & then to the mizzen rigging & all directions athwartships, tricing-lines were run. Then the head-stays, guys & spitsail-yard were lined & we got out the swinging booms to the forward after-guys. If the weather took hold, the royals were clewed up, fore & aft, top-gallant yards clewed down & the flying-jib hauled down.
At the risk of putting readers off on reading this classic book, I still feel compelled to give fair warning. You either skip all of this detail or spend ages attempting to master the inner workings of such a ship.

Suffice it to say by way of an introduction, having entered Harvard, Mr. Dana contracted measles & had a discomforting loss of sight. So instead of taking a modified gap-year from Harvard by touring Europe in style or joining the French Foreign Legion, the young man, a certified Boston Brahman, signed on to be a merchant seaman, ordinary class, a voyage that lasted 2+years & proved to be a growthful experience that affected the rest of his life.

On board such a ship, the work detail is almost constant, especially since to save the company money, it was understaffed. The ship's captain is lord & master but more like a god, with the chief-mate akin to a prime minister in charge of men, supplies & the ship's log, while the 2nd-mate is looked on as "dog's berth" or "sailors waiter" & disliked by all. There is also a cook & a steward who acts as the captain's servant + a carpenter & a sailmaker.

The social distance between the captain & the crew was extreme, something that must have entailed a great adaptation for a well-bred Harvard man used to some degree of luxury. Dana seems to have headed into all of this with a considerable amount of energy, self-reliance & an ability to assimilate life on board rather quickly.

Every day a sailor's life hangs in the balance due to frequently shifting weather patterns, sometimes unpredictable ropes & sails, lack of sleep, occasional outbreaks of scurvy, tightly rationed food & water and the relationship among the seaman can make a critical difference. One young sailor falls overboard & with heavy winter togs & unable to swim, he perishes. Even a sudden misstep by a seaman that brings him close to death while furling sails in treacherous weather is never acknowledged by his mates, for "a sailor, not being free-agent, is indifferent to the rights of others." It is all just part of the job, with compassion & commiseration in very short supply.

The Pilgrim has been enlisted to sail far around South America via Tierra del Fuego & the Drake passage with its severe winds, rogue waves & seasonal ice & snow in order to reach California, a most hazardous endeavor but at this time, the fur & hide trade at various ports in California was still quite lucrative. At the point of the voyage, California was still Mexican territory but many Americans & others were attracted by the lure of gold, among other commodities & the appeal of the unknown.

While ferrying back & forth along the California coast, Dana's ship encounters a ship from Sitka in what was then still Russian Alaska. Part of the charm of Two Years Before The Mast comes in considering just how perilous such a voyage was before the Panama Canal was completed & modern navigational equipment came to be and also how different America was before "Manifest Destiny" caused its eventual expansion from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Alas, the book details a period toward the middle of the 19th century, a time when even a Harvard man who believes in the abolition of slavery in America refers to the African-American cook as a "darkie", sees all Mexicans he encounters as shiftless & lazy, with their color "like an Irish man's pig" & their form of speech a "creole drawl" while also being "untrustworthy knaves".

Meanwhile, Indians Dana meets ashore speak "speak a brutish, inhuman language" and the Irish who found their way to California in an attempt to better their fortunes are described as of "low collective intelligence in relation to the number of faces". In spite of this seeming aversion to diversity, Dana does take a particular & very keen interest in a group of "Sandwich Islanders" he encounters (Hawaiians who were then part of Great Britain) & seems to genuinely embrace them one & all, calling them "the most interesting, intelligent & kind-hearted people I'd ever met."

Dana attempts to teach himself Spanish to enhance the trading of tobacco, cloth & other items for the hides that the ship will transport back to Boston to be rendered into shoes & gloves. He also learns to sew, repairing his own clothes & making some new togs from cloth acquired along the way.

En route to California, the captain of Dana's ship becomes irascible and severely flogs both a younger sailor & an older Swede who speaks in his shipmate's defense, something that gravely offends Dana, so much so that when given an opportunity, he switches to another much more amenable ship, the Alert. On board the new sailing ship, he befriends & learns from a man named Tom Harris, 20 years at sea but someone with an amazing memory & an interest in books. The new ship is also due to return to Boston a year sooner than the Pilgrim, something that will allow Dana to re-enroll at Harvard much sooner.

The return trip after 18 months away at that point, including a great many weeks ashore salting & curing hides for the long transit home, proves to be perilous, with occasional doldrums but also including a winter (southern summer) transit of the Horn of S. America in the midst of gale force winds, fog, icebergs, snowstorms and then later hurricanes after safely clearing the "Horn" & finally heading north.
We stood hour after hour, until our watch was out. During all of this time hardly a word was spoken, not a bell was struck & the wheel was silently relieved. The rain fell in heavy showers & we stood drenched & blinded by the flashes, which broke the Egyptian darkness with a brightness that seemed almost malignant; while the thunder rolled in peals, the concussions of which appeared to shake the very ocean.

A ship is not often injured by lightening, for the electricity is separated by the great number of points she presents. We went below at 4 o'clock leaving things in the same state but it is not easy to sleep when the very next flash may tear the ship in two, or set her on fire or take the masts down.

Some but not all seamen do survive such voyages & upon his return, R.H. Dana was the toast of his Harvard campus. After completing his degree at Harvard, writing Two Years Before The Mast & gaining a law degree, Dana spent a great deal of time representing the cases of common seamen of the sort that he had once been & proposing legislation that would benefit them, even arguing a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Thus, an elite Bostonian, once the student of Ralph Waldo Emerson & whose own son married Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's daughter & who Herman Melville befriended, feeling "a kind of Siamese link of affection for", in time became the benefactor of many he felt were without an advocate. His 1840 book endures, the tale of an adventure at sea that changed the author's life & in so-doing, that of many others because of Dana's experiences during the voyage.
Profile Image for Alan.
Author 6 books296 followers
July 27, 2022
I read part of this in Jr HS, then all of it after I graduated from college; my Shakespeare teacher (38 plays in the full year course) asked me, as he read it, why so much reference to the "lee scuppers." For a beginning sailor like me, an easy answer: those are the drains that fill because of the heel of the boat away from windward. (By the way, sailor's usage for "going wrong," say gambling "blown hard to Lee.")
I recall how Dana records the loss of their first crewman off South America; this, from a small crew, perhaps 9. As soon as they got on deck after the news, the sailor's clothes were auctioned. (No time for sentiment onboard, as RHD says.) Then I recall the great joy of their tea and molasses, or after reefing the topsail, some grog (with rum). The weather around Cape Horn was abysmal, with big seas and sleet and snow, but they were on their way to pick up hides dropped down from the high coast of Santa Barbara. Dana observes that if the Californians ever learn to make shoes, their services will no longer be required: shipping hides, taking them around Cape Horn to New England to be made into shoes, which are then shipped around Cape Horn to be sold to the Californians.
Dana observes that Spanish/Californian culture is not workers: there are the upper class owners, then the servants and slaves of other ethnicities. (A century earlier, John Adams in Galicia observes that the only ones thriving are the clerics of numerous churches, convents etc.)
The fear of the captain and mates, the appreciation of the cook and his tea, the hard work and danger aloft--these remain with me fifty years after reading Dana. I had a chance to sail on a square-rigger out of Mass Maritime, captained by a woman Master Mariner, my colleague at an NEH seminar at Brown University (headed by John Hattendorf and Felipe Fernandez-Armesto).
On my only trip to the coast south of L.A., I did get down to Dana Point, CA where I was impressed how the mock-up of the brig Pilgrim was even smaller than I envisioned.
Profile Image for Paul Haspel.
543 reviews65 followers
April 19, 2022
Two years from the life of Richard Henry Dana, Jr., did not go as anyone, including Dana himself, would have expected. For a young Boston gentleman of good family, a Harvard scholar, to sail “before the mast” as a common sailor on a merchant ship would have seemed unthinkable: it simply wasn’t done! But a persistent eye ailment that interfered with Dana’s studies got him thinking that a physically demanding regimen of out-of-doors hard work might restore his health; and Dana’s decision to go to sea ultimately resulted in the writing of a book that is at once an American literary classic and one of the greatest sea stories ever told.

Two Years Before the Mast (1840), Dana’s recounting of his 1834-36 sea voyage – around Cape Horn to the coast of California, and back again – achieved great popularity from the time of its initial publication, for a number of reasons. For one, sea stories were at the peak of their popularity at this point in American literary history. As ships ventured further and further into what had been unknown territory, they caught the imagination of an adventure-minded public who wondered what marvel might come next, the same way many people of today enjoy seeing movies about the future possibilities of space travel. Dana’s book therefore came into the world at the right time to find a receptive audience.

Another reason for the popularity of Two Years Before the Mast has to do with Dana’s chronicling of life in 1830’s California. Once Dana had inured himself to the rigors of a sailor’s life, and had endured the hazardous passage around Cape Horn, he found himself in California at a time when California was going through a period of profound change.

It had been Spanish for centuries, the province of los Californios, the old Castilian aristocracy; but Mexico had gained her independence from Spain in 1821, and therefore Dana and his shipmates were living and traveling in Mexican-ruled California as they loaded aboard their ship the hides that were the reason for their ship’s voyage to the west coast of North America.

Moreover, there were hints of further changes in the air, as growing numbers of Anglo-Americans were settling in California, converting to Catholicism (as required by Mexican law), and thriving in their new country. In 1840, when Dana published his book, much of American society was seized with the idea of Manifest Destiny – the belief that it was the “manifest” (or self-evidently obvious) destiny of the United States of America to be a transcontinental nation, stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. That belief, in practice, meant all or part of California switching over -- one way or another -- from Mexican to U.S. sovereignty.

No one could have known in 1840 that California would declare herself an independent republic in 1846; or that gold would be discovered in California in 1849; or that California would join the Union as the 31st state in 1850. But the possibilities of California were very much on Americans’ minds in 1840 – something that further contributed to the popularity of Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast.

But many books are popular in their own era, only to lose that popularity with the passage of time; and Two Years Before the Mast endures in our time because it is a great story that is very skillfully told. Dana captures well the dangers of life at sea, as when in Chapter VI he describes the death of George Ballmer, a young English sailor who fell into the sea and was lost. Comparably moving is the passage in Chapter XV in which Dana describes with indignation the flogging of two members of the ship’s crew: “A man – a human being, made in God’s likeness – fastened up and flogged like a beast!” (p. 153). Dana’s vivid descriptions made the American public aware of the suffering of common sailors, and Dana spent much of his later legal career advocating on behalf of those who sailed before the mast.

The book is also noteworthy for its descriptions of life in the Mexican province of Alta California. Dana’s ship stopped for ox-hides at San Diego, San Pedro (now the port of Los Angeles), Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco, and it is interesting to hear Dana’s impressions of each community. Santa Barbara “is certainly finely situated, with a bay in front, and an amphitheatre of hills behind” (p. 101). Monterey “is decidedly the pleasantest and most civilized-looking place in California” (p. 129). By contrast, according to Dana, San Diego “is not more than half as large as Monterey, or Santa Barbara, and has little or no business” (p. 171). True from 1834 to 1836, perhaps; but today, the S.D. Chamber of Commerce might beg to differ.

His impressions of the Mexican people of California, unfortunately, seem shaped by cultural bias: “The Californians are an idle, thriftless people, and can make nothing for themselves” (p. 125). Regrettable words – and sadly, not the last time a New Englander has had something bad to say about Californians. Just see what happens in any bar in Boston when the Red Sox have just dropped both ends of a doubleheader to the Angels or the A’s.

This Penguin Books edition of Two Years Before the Mast includes “Twenty-Four Years After,” the appendix in which Dana, for later editions of his book, describes returning to California in 1859 – by which time the Golden State, nine years after her accession to the Union, was a thriving center of Yankee enterprise and American commerce. Thomas Philbrick of the University of Pittsburgh provides a helpful introduction and thorough notes. Dana’s original glossary of nautical terms is here as well – something that can be most helpful, given the specialized nature of nautical terminology. It may help to have a schematic of a brig of Dana’s time before you as you read. But however you read Two Years Before the Mast, read it. Whether you live in California (where Dana is honored through memorial plaques, schools and streets that bear his name, and even a statue at Dana Point in Orange County) or elsewhere, read it. It is truly a milestone in American literature.
Profile Image for Daniel Villines.
382 reviews51 followers
May 6, 2023
Second Reading: April 11, 2014

Two Years Before the Mast is somewhat unique in that my enjoyment of this book is mostly related to the fact that this book exists. I say this as a native Californian with roots that reach back into Mexico. Two Years provides a snapshot of one point along my ancestral past.

It's truly fortunate that Dana, a member of the educated professional class of the early 1800s, decided to remedy his eye fatigue by taking one of the lowest working class positions of the time: a common sailor on board a merchant ship. He was completely out of his element both physically as well as intellectually. The sea-terms used in his new capacity as a sailor must have been just as foreign to him as they are to anyone reading this book today. And yet, he still found time to record his experiences and produce this book.

The history that this book imparts is mesmerizing. It depicts California as a backwater of Mexico and as an unknown frontier of the United States. The ports that it depicts are unbelievably simplistic in comparison to the development that has transpired over the past 180 years. The only export at the time was cattle hides from ranches located in the vast open plains that are now the inland cities of California.

Just 10 years after publication, gold was discovered in California and most of Dana's setting was drastically and irreversibly changed. However, if one looks close enough, Dana's past is still easy to find:

San Juan [now known as Dana Point]:

San Juan is the only romantic spot on the coast. The country here for several miles is high table-land, running boldly to the shore, and breaking off in a steep cliff, at the foot of which the waters of the Pacific are constantly dashing. For several miles the water washes the very base of the hill, or breaks upon ledges and fragments of rocks which run out into the sea...Having nothing on but shirt, trousers, and hat, the common sea rig of warm weather, I had no stripping to do, and began my descent by taking hold of the rope with both hands, and slipping down, sometimes with hands and feet round the rope, and sometimes breasting off with one hand and foot against the precipice, and holding on to the rope with the other. In this way I descended until I came to a place which shelved in, and in which the hides were lodged. Keeping hold of the rope with one hand, I scrambled in, and by aid of my feet and the other hand succeeded in dislodging all the hides, and continued on my way.


First Reading: April 28, 2007

This is the uniquely historic view of California as told by Dana prior to the gold rush invasion of 1849. Descriptions of various coastal cities including Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego are provided at a time when cowhides were the only things worthwhile for ships to trade in along the California Coast. The descriptions of California weather patterns are fascinating in that they describe storms that no longer (at least not yet) exist. Also, if you’re looking for good Mexican food, Dana’s account proves that good Mexican food existed in California long before Taco Bell.
Profile Image for booklady.
2,230 reviews65 followers
May 3, 2023
Mr. Richard Dana Jr. or Dana as his shipmates called him, is a man I would like to know. Based on his autobiographical Two Years Before the Mast, a recounting of his 1834-1836, seagoing-adventures aboard the Pilgrim (outbound) and Alert (return), Mr. Dana was a popular, hard-working, man’s man able to tell a tale. While attending Harvard, he contracted measles weakening his eyesight, choosing to become an ordinary seaman on a two year voyage to California—then the farthest hinterlands—for his ‘recovery’. This wasn’t the only odd (well to me anyway) medicinal prescription used back then either. How does a teaspoon of raw potatoes and onions beaten to pulp, administered every hour and held in one’s mouth as long as possible, strike you as a cure for scurvy, for a patient in the very last stages? When you are desperate, you do what you have to, right?

This was one of the most interesting books dear husband and I have listened to in a long time. We both learned so much. Although we’ve neither of us ever had the least desire to ‘go to sea’ – and this book only confirmed that for us – we appreciated what these men endured and Dana is the most meticulous of observer-narrators. He kept a very detailed journal throughout. Do you know what reefing a sail is? I do now! His descriptions of icebergs were praised by Herman Melville. Wherever he went, Dana was friendly and eager to help without regard to social class or race; he was also curious to visit all places of worship, respecting various religious traditions, characteristics setting him above men of his or any age.

There is also a 24 years later Epilogue where Dana returns to the California and to recount the changes which have occurred in the intervening years. He concludes with a brief update on what happened to some of his mates, those he was able to locate.

Without being the least bit sentimental, the author is a very empathic man, concerned for all and saddened by many things he sees. It was the main reason he wrote the book—to address the injustices borne by the ordinary sailors. After he was admitted to the bar in 1840, he went on to specialize in maritime law, and defended many common seamen in court.

Excellent book. Admirable author. 5+ stars
Profile Image for brendan.
98 reviews9 followers
May 8, 2008
this book is absolutely essential for anyone who has any desire of stepping off the quarterdeck of his historical fiction (O'Brien novels) and heading down to the focs'l to hear about sailing traditional ships from the men who were actually sweating lines, heave-yo-ho-ing, and climbing the rigging to furl the royals before a gale.

dana passes the equator four times over the two years that he is a merchant mariner sailing to, the then mexican owned california, to load his ship with hides bound for boston's leather factories. the narrative style is straight forward and matter of fact. dana hardly lets his bias sit between the reader and the tale. filled with technical sail handling language the amateur mariner might choose to read up on square sail theory before reading or merely depend upon his imagination.

dana provides a vivid description of pre U.S. california and the hide trade that provided americans with their first contacts with the pacific coast (not the western colonization or the gold rush) and some supplementary essays by dana show, upon his return 10 or so years later) how the settlements thrived around the embryonic ports of san franscisco, san diego, etc.

ultimately, an engaging travel narrative, providing a particular flavor for the modern equivalent of the author in the matter-of-fact 1st person narrative characteristic of the genre before twain.
Profile Image for Manray9.
379 reviews101 followers
July 13, 2016
Two Years before the Mast is a captivating account of Richard Henry Dana, Jr.'s service as a common sailor on a voyage from Boston to the California coast in the early 1830s. The long expositions on the technical aspects of navigation under canvas may not be of interest to those without familiarity with maritime life, but his personal narrative of daily life aboard a sailing vessel and the work of the cowhide trade in early California make the book worthwhile. Two Years before the Mast is an excellent non-fiction counterpart to the novels of Patrick O’Brian and Captain Marryat’s Mr. Midshipman Easy. I recommend it to those with an interest in nautical life in the days of sail.
Profile Image for Andrew.
12 reviews8 followers
July 11, 2007
This book made me cry multiple times, but not for the direct subject matter. I think there were just a few too many references to the California coast described in enough detail that the effect was to pry out long-lingering ghosts haunting the coastline of my own isle of denial. his descriptions are never quite up to the par of his literary contemporaries, but the detail leaves any California-lover desperately lamenting the irretrievable passage of those first rough-and-tumble times that "modern man" first began journeying to that area of the world.

Dana's description of first arriving in San Francisco made me shiver, and I still get goosebumps thinking about it. The complete and utter irretrievability of that outpost wilderness fills me with something more than sadness and something less than rage.

The book itself is a fascinating look at pre-gold rush California, and Dana treats the California coastline and journey there and back from Boston as a sort of seafaring pioneer narrative. it is cast in plain terms and he calls things as he sees them. the concept of an intelligent, thoughtful voice penning such a journey, as opposed to what I would assume might typically be the voice of an ignorant, uneducated sailor, gives the story a fresh slant. as the journey progresses on, there are moments where Dana's amusement with the whole situation wears quite thin and the reality of the possibility in becoming a career sailor inches just too close to reality for his comfort. it is in these moments that his true humanity shines through.

This is an excellent read for any twentysomething who is still not convinced of what their life and career should look like.
Profile Image for Gu Kun.
258 reviews30 followers
October 6, 2018
Some call this youth literature. If so, at age fifty-eight I must still have a very young heart (and mind?). I learned a lot about the gruesome existence of sailors in the mid-19th century. Found the philosophical observations of this young writer very astute.
Profile Image for W.
1,185 reviews4 followers
March 25, 2020
This is supposedly a classic,a sailor's life at sea in the year 1834. A Harvard student enlists as a common sea man to improve his health.He stays onboard a ship for two years and keeps a diary.

But if I was expecting adventure,I was disappointed. I found it rather boring and monotonous with little action.The writing style didn't engage.

There is a lot of sailing terminology and technicalities which were of little interest to me.

Profile Image for Lobstergirl.
1,713 reviews1,242 followers
June 24, 2010
This book didn't give me the thrill I was hoping for; it's not exactly The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea. Just as much time is spent on land as at sea, engaged in the hides trade, visiting with Spanish and Indian locals, riding horses, attending wedding fandangoes. Dana's writing is missing some vital spark. There is also so much sailing and ship-equipment terminology that entire paragraphs would go by where I had to guess what was going on, since the language didn't really help me. The nice sectional drawings of the hulls of the Pilgrim and Alert were helpful, showing the cabin, steerage, 'tween-decks, and forecastle.

A few things struck me. 1) Most of the sailors sewed their own clothes for the return voyage, including tarpaulins and hats. The edition I read contained a photo of Dana's white duck sailor suit. Martha Stewart would be proud. 2) Who knew that it took 10-12 men six weeks to load 40,000 hides on board? The sheer amount of time (two years) and labor involved in getting the hides back to the east coast is astonishing. 3) On the return trip the men are so starved for fruits and vegetables that after stopping to procure some onions and potatoes from a passing ship, they eat the raw onions like apples (and nothing ever tasted so delicious). 4) Dana and his fellow sailor-friend Benjamin Stimson (who I gather is an ancestor of the statesman Henry L. Stimson?) are slumming. They're Harvard boys among mostly uneducated sailors. Dana's classmates included James Russell Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Dana would eventually graduate at the head of his class. My edition contained a photo of the Dana residence in Harvard Yard, and it's very impressive - large, white, elegant. Later William James and the Harvard President, Conant, would live there. Yet Dana befriends a fellow sailor, uneducated but brilliant, who bests him in their arguments about the Corn Laws and other topics. 5) I'm in awe of how insanely clean sailing ships were kept. I want a 19th century sailor to clean my house for me every week.

I was more interested in the crew's encounters with historical context than in the seafaring itself. The ship is completely disconnected from news of the outside world; when they do get letters from home, they're already six months old. So when in 1836 Dana gets his hands on some newspapers from "the city of Mexico," he is bewildered to see Taney (Roger B.) referred to as "Justicia Mayor de los Estados Unidos." What had become of Marshall (John), he wondered. "Was he dead, or banished?" (Dead.) Then, in September 1836, they encounter the brig Solon near Bermuda and ask its men who is President. They respond, "Andrew Jackson." But "thinking the old general could not have been elected a third time, we hailed again, and they answered, Jack Downing, and left us to correct the mistake at our leisure." Must be an inside joke...
Profile Image for BAM the enigma.
1,848 reviews360 followers
July 4, 2022
Oh yay another boat book...........WILSON!

This is going to get one star but it's not going on my suck ass shelf. It's well written but it's the same ole same ole and me hates the repetition my precious
Profile Image for Leftbanker.
800 reviews307 followers
December 21, 2020
I have said before that if you book your travel online and use credit cards then the words “adventure” and “journey” hardly belong in our vocabulary. Two of my favorite books, Two Years Before the Mast: A Sailor’s Life at Sea (1840) by Richard Henry Dana Jr. and Around the World on a Bicycle (1887) by Thomas Stevens chronicle a kind of travel was at the very end of an era in which travel truly could be defined as adventure. I think that rounding Cape Horn on a square-sailed brig and riding around the world on a bike would still qualify today as thrilling, but can’t compare with what these men pulled off well over a century ago. These books will give you something to think about the next time you are complaining about not having enough clean towels in your hotel room.

I remember reading Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents back at university and since then I have felt that because the world is completely known to us, our inability to discover goes against our primal instincts, just as Freud postulated that civilization is in conflict with man’s instinctual quest for freedom. People make attempts to push the limits of travel and adventure but these seem desperate and phony to me. Who cares who was the first person to climb Mount Everest on a Segway Scooter, or whatever? Swimming from Cuba to the United States without the aid of a shark cage was the latest yawn to hit the newspapers.

The protagonists of these two memoirs don’t suffer the fate of inconsequential stunts, at least not in my book. Tom Stevens starts out in April of 1884 from San Francisco and pedals his penny farthing bike with a 50 inch front wheel eastward across the Sierra Nevada mountains. A man who had little to learn about traveling light. In his small handlebar bag he carried some socks, a spare shirt, a raincoat that doubled as a tent and bedroll, and a revolver. Just how he financed the journey isn’t well explained in the book.

As I have stated somewhere else, to judge people from the past on things like our modern thoughts on political correctness makes about as much sense as making fun of the clothes they wore. If you are free of prejudices and racism then you are just reflecting the norms of our societies, so don’t be so quick to pat yourself on the back while condemning folks who lived in other times. At least Stevens had a bit of humor to spice up his stereotypes. He refers to a Hungarian gypsy as an “unregenerate chicken-lifter.”

Even many generations after the puzzle of determining longitude had been solved, ships were still at the mercy of lousy time pieces. The captain on this voyage quickly abandoned the use of the ship’s unreliable chronometer and set longitude by means of dead reckoning and line-of-sight.

He describes in great detail the difficult and sometimes perilous work of a sailor. In this passage, the ship is rounding Cape Horn which is infamous for its high seas and terrible storms:

The crew stood abaft the windlass and hauled the jib down, while John and I got out upon the weather side of the jib-boom, our feet on the foot-ropes, holding on by the spar, the great jib flying off to leeward and slatting so as almost to throw us off the boom. For some time we could do nothing but hold on, and the vessel, diving into two huge seas, one after the other, plunged us twice into the water up to our chins. We hardly knew whether we were on or off; when, the boom lifting us up dripping from the water, we were raised high into the air and then plunged below again. John thought the boom would go every moment, and called out to the mate to keep the vessel off, and haul down the staysail; but the fury of the wind and the breaking of the seas against the bows defied every attempt to make ourselves heard, and we were obliged to do the best we could in our situation.

Fortunately, no other seas so heavy struck her, and we succeeded in furling the jib ``after a fashion''; and, coming in over the staysail nettings, were not a little pleased to find that all was snug, and the watch gone below; for we were soaked through, and it was very cold. John admitted that it had been a post of danger, which good sailors seldom do when the thing is over.

Step aside fast-food workers, the definition of “shit job” just took on a new meaning.
Profile Image for Vladys Kovsky.
118 reviews27 followers
December 22, 2020
I rarely enjoy historical fiction. I find that authors often don't do enough to forget prejudices and sensibilities of their present day and carry this baggage into the imaginary past they are trying to recreate. This time machine for language, notions, ideas, stereotypes is difficult to avoid for authors and might be easy to spot for readers. It is almost impossible to purge, to surgically remove all vestiges of now from a creating mind, something is bound to slip in unconsciously.

Why not read an account of an actual eyewitness then? Something written at the time of the events in question is certainly going to be free of the interferences from the future.

Ever since setting foot in the Golden State for the first time I was interested in one point in history of California - the time when it stood at the crossroads of possible futures, the time when it was an almost forgotten province on the outer reaches of newly independent Mexico, the time when Russians used it as a supply zone to access the riches of fur trade in Alaska, the time when no reliable passage overland was known to open it up for pioneer wagons from the East.

In comes Richard Henry Dana Jr, a Harvard student tired of his studies, so intense that they affected his eyesight, looking for adventure. In 1834 he is recruited as a common sailor on board of a brig Pilgrim bound for California. His two-year voyage spent on the open seas and on the desolate western coast forms a basis for this book, published to great acclaim in 1840.

In addition to giving a historical perspective on a far away land and accurately depicting miserable living and working conditions of sailors, the book had a significant influence on many a traveler to the West, sparking in imagination of the masses the comparative ease of making it in the fertile lands of California. Was Dana instrumental in determining the course of California's history by directing the stream of pioneers to the land of plenty years before gold was discovered there? That we cannot say with certainty, but we can surely be grateful to Dana for his contribution to literature, if not by his own writing, but as a person responsible for pushing Melville to write his own masterpiece.

Another interesting aspect of the book is that it can be read today as a postmodernist recount by an unreliable narrator. It is evident from a close reading how the author hides his own failures and shortcomings, trying to paint himself in a more favorable light than he likely deserves. He uses his influence in Boston to secure his own early return back home ahead of the rest of the crew, he hides from his duties with a toothache when things get too tough around Cape Horn, he recounts the cruel punishment of sailors by the captain but fails to stand up to the captain when he is clearly the only one in a position to do so. Dana's personal deficiencies are complemented by prejudices common to many if not all in his days. These are necessary to paint a complete picture of the time and place: repeated references to inferior nations and races (pretty much anyone who is not Anglo-Saxon), propagation of stereotypes of the day (lazy Native Americans, good natured but stupid Hawaiians, fat loving and also stupid Russians, unenterprising Spaniards, etc), an attitude of reverence to everything English, an unshakable belief in Protestant values as the only acceptable ones.

In summary, it's an entertaining book of dwindling importance as the values it promotes no longer rhyme with the modern understanding of humanity. I would recommend it for everyone interested in that period in history and specifically the history of California. I would suggest to skip the Concluding Chapter as its moralizing and preaching can get tiring very quickly.
Profile Image for Joshua Rigsby.
193 reviews54 followers
September 29, 2015
For anyone interested in sea stories, the early victorian era, or the history of California, this book is required reading.

Dana does a great job conveying the specificity and nuances of his work at sea without ever coming off as self-important or boring. His observations of Mexican California are fascinating, and one gets the sense of Dana's genuine curiosity about the languages and customs of this land so far removed from what he had known in Boston. He even picks up a little Spanish along with his marlin spike seamanship. Good for him.

As wonderful as the descriptions are, Dana is not afraid to describe the brutality he sees as well, recording in painful detail the whippings and other discipline meted out aboard a vessel run by a power-hungry captain, and the grief and vacant sense of loss after a man is lost overboard in a heavy sea.

All told it's a great yarn, particularly if you already have a strong grasp of nautical vocabulary, and are at least vaguely familiar with the geography and topography of the California coast.

Read it!

Profile Image for Abrahamus.
220 reviews5 followers
June 9, 2014
This book is, I suppose, something of a family favorite. It was a favorite of my father's and became one of mine as well. R. H. Dana was a student at Harvard in the 1830s who, following an illness which compromised his eyesight and forced an extended leave from study, signed on as a rank-and-file seaman aboard a merchant vessel bound to California via the arduous passage around Cape Horn. The book is delightful both as a portrait of life at sea in the days of sail and as a sketch of California as it was before the Gold Rush of 1849. I traveled to California for the first time shortly after reading this book, and Dana's account greatly enriched the experience. One of the high points of that trip was a visit to the mission of Santa Barbara and its beautiful old fountain, from which Dana had watered his own horse during an excursion ashore some 160 years prior.
Profile Image for Jessaka.
887 reviews120 followers
February 7, 2018
I believe this was one of the books that my 8th grade teacher, Mr. Bailey, recommended to me back in the 50s. For some reason I remembered the names of the books he recommended but never read any until I was in my 70s.

I can still remember taking them off the book shelf at the Paso Robles Library and placing them back on the shelf. I remember the exact shelf. You walked into the library, made a right turn into another room, and it was on the first end shelf along with "Kon-Tiki" and "The Raft"--both other recommendations by him.

Mr. Bailey's one other recommendation was "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson. I have not read "Silent Spring." I tried.

Mr. Bailey was also my favorite teacher, and I was always going around saying, "Mr. Bailey said..." And now I wish I had kept in contact with him.

But this was a boring read with little action and emotion involved. If you like history and information on ships and life aboard one, you may like it. If you like adventure, well, I didn’t think there was much in this book. I would think that many would like the Hornblower series, or “Treasure Island” over this, and for true adventures, “Kon Tiki,” "The Raft, "Paddle to the Amazon” and “Mutiny of the Bounty.” But if a person wanted to know what daily life as a sailor was like on board a ship in the 1800s, well, this book could be for you.

I questioned how he could write a diary on ship and not get caught. He wrote about the cruelty of the captain towards the men. He also wrote about a man on board, who he knew had jumped ship and had hid out on the coast line of California until the ship left, and on his return trip his learning that the man got on another ship would arrive to take him home. If his diary was found it would have been the end of him, but maybe he just took notes and remembered to fill in the blanks later.

Here is a gem from this book:

The author came upon a few of the Kanaka tribe of Hawaii while in San Diego, and wrote: “Whatever one has they all have, money, food, clothes, they share with one another, even to the last piece of tobacco to put in their pipes.” One of them said, “Kanaka all ‘e same a’ one!” I liked the sharing and wondered what this world would be like if we all took care of each others needs.

I had to pass up the cock fighting and the killing of coyotes, but the fact that California is replete with rattlesnakes interested me. He was in the woods chopping down a tree when he heard a rattlesnake. He just kept chopping because at least he knew where it was, sort of, and he felt as long as he could hear the rattle he was safe. When the rattling stopped he became unnerved, so he threw a rock in the area where the sound came from, and it began rattling again.

California hasn’t changed much over the years. One person, who lived along the coast in an RV park on Camp Pendleton, told me he would walk outside in the morning and there would be several rattlesnakes on his patio. Since he was on a nature preserve he could not kill them. A Buddhist monk, who is a friend of mine, once told me that he walked out of his room just to run into one, and since they didn’t believe in killing, he had to walk around it.

I had seen several in California over the years as I grew up there. Once I was gathering fire wood and came to the bottom of the pile. There was a rattlesnake curled up asleep. I got my shotgun and called a friend to ask if the shot would ricochet off the tin shed or go through it. I didn't know how powerful buckshot was. I pulled the trigger, picked up the snake with a shovel, and buried it. Later, I heard my dog barking, so I went outside, and the snake was half out of the ground, twisting in the air. That is when I cut off its head and buried it separately from the body. If the snake and kept squirming I was afraid that it could accidently bite the dog.

In this part of California where I lived, in Creston, farmers threw the dead ones over their fence that runs along the road so people can see them. Maybe that is like notches on a gun butt. And these stories ran through my head as I read the book because I was trying to humor myself since I was so bored.

And then the book continued to move at a slow pace, and I was counting the time on my kindle like a person watching their watch when bored. I wanted to finish it reading because I had owned the book for many years.

As a note: I admire that the author became a lawyer and fought for the rights of sailors and slaves. He also wrote the book, “The Seaman's Friend: A Treatise on Practical Seamanship” which was a reference book for legal enquiries on the legal rights and responsivities of sailors. It may be good to read this first if you need to understand sea terms, which, if you did not know them, it may also make “Two Years before the Mast” an even harder read.

Profile Image for Cat.
183 reviews34 followers
August 23, 2007
I read this book after reading about it in Kevin Starr's excellent history of California: California and the American Dream as well as reading about it in the foreword to Herman Melville's "White Jacket".
White Jacket was, of course, at least partially inspired by this book, and after reading "Two Years" I can certainly see the influence reflected in Dana's work.

This book has, essentially, two scenes that are varied throughout the book. The first scene is "life on board the 19th century clipper ship". Examples include: The tyranny of the captain (most notably), travelling around the cape, the daily routine (monotony of), encountering other ships, talking to the other sailors, the daily routine (complaining about), and so forth. As far as I'm concerned, Dana handles this subject just about as well as anybody COULD handle this subject. I would be lying if I said I understood all of the sailing vocabularly (how many sails did they have on those clipper ships? To me, it sounded like about a thousand or so!). None the less, life on a ship is life on a ship.

The second scene is Dana's interaction with the California coast. Were this book merely a description of life at sea, I probably would not have read it. According to Starr, this book was the ONLY English language book written about California at the time of the gold rush of 1848, and so it plays a prominent (though largely forgotten(?)) part in the shaping of the image of California in the minds of Americans (and if you want to see where I'm cribbing this from see the Starr book pgs. 38-47 thereabouts).

When Dana sails into San Francisco at the time of this book, there was one (1!) house in the entire Bay Area. That's impressive. We also get first hand descriptions of Santa Barbara and San Diego (where I live), that are unique. Dana treats the residents of California as one might expect from a wealthy white dude from the east coast of the U.S.: The Mexicans/Spanish are "noble" but "lazy" and the indians are nearly beneath mention. Dana is quick to see the potential in California but equally as quick to dismiss the current residents as hopelessly lazy. At one point Dana refers to the "California Disease"(laziness). By the end of his time on the coast, he is calling California "Hell". That probably has more to do with his daily work (processing hides) then California itself.
Profile Image for Julie Mickens.
180 reviews30 followers
August 2, 2017
Historically unique and surprisingly readable first-person account of life at sea on a merchant vessel 1834-36, sailing from Boston, around Cape Horn and up and down the undeveloped, cowhide-disgorging California coast. Most versions also include an equally interesting Afterward, in which the now-40something author returns to California in 1859, post-statehood and post-Gold Rush.

Having heard the book's title referenced for years, I'd always assumed it was a fictional adventure tale, but, no, it's a first-person memoir. Surprisingly modern in some ways; in other respects, disturbingly old-fashioned. As far as I know, there are no other contemporary books in English with as much detail on California during the years between Mexican independence and USA statehood. And, as Dana himself explains, details on merchant ships' grueling and often merciless conditions during the Age of Sail -- from the perspective of the common sailor -- were not, and are not, widely available.

Beyond this broad overview, there's a lot to unpack and assess here, considering that this is both a literary work (very popular in its day and for decades after) as well as a primary source with a mostly trustworthy but not-perfectly-reliable narrator. My five stars aren't because the book is perfect, but because of its uniqueness, and because the text in past & present context offers rich analytical opportunity.

Maybe I'll get to a longer analysis soon, but if not, give the book a try. As mentioned, I expected it to a skimmable slog, but was surprised to, for the most part, actually enjoy it. It's old enough to be in the public domain, so Kindle, EPUB and other electronic versions can be gotten for free or cheap in many places. (I got a 99c Kindle version.) Paradoxically, reading this 19thC text via an e-reader app is probably the best way to do it, because you can use the built-in dictionary function to look up much of the archaic and nautical terminology.
Profile Image for Czarny Pies.
2,483 reviews1 follower
April 27, 2019
This in one greatest books to come out of the Transcendalist movement. After attending a private prep school run by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Dana enrolled at Harvard in 1831 where he contracted measles from which Opthamalia developed. In order to do the most to restore his eyes to good health, Dana signed on for a two-year term on a Boston merchant ship bound for the Pacific.

The book which follows is a delightful adventure tale for youth which describes the harrowing dangers and incredible hardships of the common sailors who made the long voyage around Capehorn to trade in the remote pacific outposts of the U.S. They livee in cramped quarters, worke long hours, suffered from malnutrition, contracted scurvy and died with distressing regularity.

The voyage had a transformative impact on Dana. He returned to Harvard, completed his degree specializing in Maritime law, and campaigned the rest of his life for the improvement of the working conditions of merchant sailors. The idealist Dana would later found the Free Soil Party in 1848 which ran on the platform of not admitting Slave states to the Union.

Two years before the Mast is one of the greatest works of youth literature ever written in America. I urge new generations of American parents to continue encouraging their children to read this book which as great tale of the formation of a social activist as well as being a better tale of adventure on the High Seas than any of the Captain Blood novels.
Profile Image for Carmen.
2,056 reviews1,855 followers
April 29, 2015
Dana leaves Harvard to spend two years as a sailor, learning the hard life of the uneducated. A rather boring book. Written in the 1830s. This is called an American classic, and it is soothing, in a way. Lots of descriptions of ships, storms and sailor customs. Almost no dialogue. Life on a ship is monotonous – and so is this book.
Profile Image for Still.
573 reviews81 followers
October 7, 2018
I need to re-read this novel.
As a teenager it was one of my favorites.
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
645 reviews57 followers
March 8, 2023
Loved this. Dana writes in a clear, straightforward style and in a down-to-earth tone. This book, more than many sea accounts of that period, showcases the contrast between life behind the mast (officers) and before it (the crew). Issues of class and dignity are central to this memoir, and Dana's first-hand experience of the work required of sailors gives his account a certain degree of weight. His concern for others is palpable throughout, and it's clear that his ideas of how to improve life at sea are the informed suggestions of one who has live that life. This book also serves as a sort of travelogue, as Dana describes the different places he visits and people he encounters. This was before California was part of the US, so much was different, and I appreciate the way that Dana breathed life into that time and place. Finally, I greatly enjoyed the portions about the sea journey itself. His account of Cape Horn was riveting, one of the most powerful and stunning passages I've read in any memoir. I was especially glad that Dana didn't try to over-simplify the technical aspects of sailing: his use of correct nautical terminology was a wise decision. To people who understand it, it makes perfect sense. To people who don't understand, it still conveys a sense of the amount of work involved, and the different elements connected to sailing. It also in no way hinders one's understanding of the narrative. On the contrary, it imbues it with a richness not to be found in many books of the sea. An afterward gives more details as to the changes out west and the fates of his fellow crew members. Brilliant, and not to be missed.
Profile Image for George.
60 reviews43 followers
October 22, 2021
“Two Years Before the Mast” by Richard Henry Dana is an outstanding personal account of a 19th Century 20-year old individual. And the epilogue written decades later is the icing on the cake.

If you want to read personal accounts of 19th Century individuals, this book “pairs” well with “The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass” in my opinion.
Profile Image for Emily.
873 reviews146 followers
June 20, 2019
Just like Emily Dickinson said, "There is no frigate like a book," and surely it's never been more nearly literally true of any other book for me than this one. My understanding of early California history has been vastly expanded by this account, published in 1840, written by a Harvard student who sought to relieve eye strain brought about by measles by taking a berth as a common sailor ("before the mast" refers to where most of the crew sleeps). This was an unusual choice for a well-to-do, well-educated young gentleman, but Dana seems to have been an extraordinary person. His voyage was on a merchant ship bound from Boston to California, a round trip which ended up taking two years, 1834-1836, but could easily have taken more. Pre-gold rush California is presented as a God-forsaken coast, a foreign country (which of course it was at the time) good for nothing except raising cattle, and loathed by the sailors for the heavy surf breaking on its beaches, which made the ships' boats almost impossible to relaunch after a trip to shore.

This is one of those titles that one sees in pretty much every used bookstore that doesn't disdain older books of the not particularly valuable variety, often in the children's section -- even though it certainly wasn't written for children! It's so ubiquitous that it was one of the candidates for the used bookstore bingo game my sister and I envisioned creating back in the day. When such a book falls into my lap, I generally give it a try, because it often turns out that they were republished in so many editions over the years for good reason. Two Years Before the Mast (and I'm glad to have finally shaken myself of the conviction the "the mast" was some kind of event with a two year build up) is indeed interesting and worthy. It is very alive for a book that was published so long ago, and must surely be one of the very first "how the other half lives" sort of book. That said, while I'm glad to have read it, I'm equally glad to have finished it. A sailor's life can be rather monotonous, perhaps especially when a good part of "Jack's" time is spent hauling unwieldy leather hides in and out of ships. Still, fans of Patrick O'Brian and the like, who just can't get enough of shipboard life might well find this appealing.
Profile Image for Nooilforpacifists.
856 reviews37 followers
September 20, 2015
Two years into Harvard, in 1834, Dana is advised that further studying by candlelight will blind him. So he quits to work in the world outside of Cambridge--the world of real men.

The book is astonishing in so many ways: that it's literate; that he survives sailing around the Great Horn; that he survives the near empty, but still dangerous, American West coast killing cows for their hides; that he advances from the lower deck (a common sailor) to an officer.

Dana returns to Massachusetts two years later a different man--a writer, lawyer, and advocate for downtrodden seaman and slaves.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
204 reviews13 followers
Shelved as 'dnf'
July 28, 2021
I'm loving this and want to come back and finish it fairly soon. But I want to read a couple other things first, maybe. So I'm putting it here to remind myself.
Profile Image for Ron Sami.
Author 3 books81 followers
September 6, 2021
This is an excellent book that describes in great detail about the life of a simple sailor on sailing ships.
The review will present an assessment of various aspects of the book on a scale of one to five. I also use the rating 6 as extremely high.

Plot. Rating 5
It's actually a memoir, but the plot of the book is intriguing enough to grab the reader's attention. Most of all, I was interested in various problems that constantly arise on sailing ships in their difficult voyages. Dana very scrupulously describes the various operations with the sails depending on the strength and direction of the wind, rough seas, cold or heat, as well as all sorts of unforeseen situations. If you try to understand this, then you will gradually realize how experienced this young student has become and how much knowledge of his era he gives the reader. Of course, his book is aimed at people who are familiar with sailing ships in much the same way that drivers are now familiar with cars.
The overland part is also interesting. There are a lot of small details both during the sea and land part. The author describes not only his own life, but also the people around him, and many of them have their own short storylines. And although the main plot of the book is predictable, no one can imagine the development of the fate of the characters in the book. In addition, Dana managed to arrange the climax of the plot in the second part of the book.

Characters. Rating 5
Despite the seeming dryness of the narrative, Dana knows how to create living, well-rounded characters. A stern captain, a careless second mate, a prodigy sailor, an experienced Swedish sailor and dozens of other diverse people not only on ships, but also in California. They all have a certain depth, which also adds interest to the narrative.

Dialogues. Rating 4
There are few dialogues in the book, but they are natural and true. The aggravation of conflicts between seafarers is well shown in the dialogues. For example,

Writing style. Rating 5
I believe the book has a good writing style. It is written with subtle humor and easy to read. Only the constant technical details can cause difficulties in understanding; although, they are also described quite clearly. The book has beautiful descriptions of the ocean, ships, California shores, and icebergs. There are various metaphors that I liked.

Worldbuilding. Rating 6
There is hardly any other fiction book that describes the sailing ships of age in such detail. I would call the peacebuilding in the book extremely outstanding. In documentary books about geographical discoveries, there are many details about the life of sailors, but I have not seen such a large wave of details anywhere. Dana also brilliantly describes uninhabited California, the battle of ships against the wind off its shores, the lives of the locals, and the difficult job with hides he had to do.

Conclusion. Overall rating 5
This book is a gem that takes the reader aboard sailing ships. I do not see any significant shortcomings in it and will definitely re-read it.
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