Saturday, November 26, 2011

Two Years Before the Mast

Richard Henry Dana (1815-1882)
While I've been continuing with my readings in transcendentalism (see previous posts), I also have needed a little fiction fix. This is being satisfied by Richard Henry Dana's 1840 novel Two Years Before the Mast. The novel represents Dana's recollections of having served aboard a sailing ship as a young man, new to the life of a sailor.  It became a huge bestseller at the time once the Gold Rush picked up steam, because it described California in those days. I was led to the novel during my Herman Melville kick. I read in Melville's biography that he had read Two Years Before the Mast and I believe it had influenced his own writing. 

The book is apparently out of print, so I trolled ebay looking for an old or antiquarian hard cover edition for my library. I couldn't find anything I liked, so I hopped onto iBooks and found an edition there. For free! Got to love technology!  So far, the novel is a surprisingly easy to read, with very little in the language to mark it as having been written in the 1800s. This is because Dana's style is very crisp and lacks the filigree and ornamentation sometimes found in writers of the era. I've been reading it on planes and during my business travels, and I find that I like reading books this way because I always worry about how traveling with books can damage them.

Dana also seems to have been an interesting person in real life. Aside from his two years at sea, he was a lawyer who defied the people of his social circle to defend fugitive slaves. He was also a supporter of the Free Soil movement, which fought against slavery expanding into new territories as the United States stretched across the continent to the Pacific.

Naturally, I'm not expecting the literary depth (some might say pretensions) of Melville. That was not Dana's point in writing Two Years Before the Mast. What I'm looking forward to (and already enjoying a bit of) is the idea of reading an account of life back then through a first hand eyewitness recounting actual experiences.  This is one of the reasons I find early US literature so fascinating; it is a means of becoming something of a time traveler and seeing what life was like when our country was growing and not even a hundred years old yet.

By the way, the picture at left is a photo of a replica of the ship that Dana sailed in, the Pilgrim, during his travels.  In fact, I believe Dana Point in California got its name from - you guessed it - Richard Henry Dana.

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