Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana

Introduction

In 1869, my father, the late Richard Henry Dana, Jr., prepared a new edition of his “Two Years Before the Mast” with this preface:

“After twenty-eight years, the copyright of this book has reverted to me. In presenting the first ‘author’s edition’ to the public, I have been encouraged to add an account of a visit to the old scenes, made twenty-four years after, together with notices of the subsequent story and fate of the vessels, and of some of the persons with whom the reader is made acquainted.”

The popularity of this book has been so great and continued that it is now proposed to make an illustrated edition with new material. I have prepared a concluding chapter to continue my father’s “Twenty-four Years After.” This will give all that we have since learned of the fate of crew and vessels, and a brief account of Mr. Dana himself and his important lifework, which appears more fully in his published biography1 and printed speeches and letters.2 This concluding chapter will take the place of the biographic sketch prefixed to the last authorized edition. There is also added an appendix with a list of the crews of the two vessels in which Mr. Dana sailed, extracts from a log, and also plates of spars, rigging and sails, with names, to aid the reader.

In the winter of 1879–80 I sailed round Cape Horn in a full-rigged ship from New York to California. At the latter place I visited the scenes of “Two Years Before the Mast.” At the old town of San Diego I met Jack Stewart, my father’s old shipmate, and as we were looking at the dreary landscape and the forlorn adobe houses and talking of California of the thirties, he burst out into an encomium of the accuracy and fidelity to details of my father’s book. He said, “I have read it again and again. It all comes back to me, everything just as it happened. The seamanship is perfect.” And then as if to emphasize it all, with the exception that proves the rule, he detailed one slight case where he thought my father was at fault — — a detail so slight that I now forget what it is. In reading the Log kept by the discharged mate, Amerzeen, on the return trip in the Alert, I find that every incident there recorded, from running aground at the start at San Diego Harbor, through the perilous icebergs round the Horn, the St. Elmo’s fire, the scurvy of the crew and the small matters like the painting of the vessel, to the final sail up Boston Harbor, confirms my father’s record. His former shipmate, the late B. G. Stimson, a distinguished citizen of Detroit, said the account of the flogging was far from an exaggeration, and Captain Faucon of the Alert also during his lifetime frequently confirmed all that came under his observation. Such truth in the author demands truth in illustration, and I have cooperated with the publishers in securing a painting of the Alert under full sail and other illustrations, both colored and in pen and ink, faithful to the text in every detail.

Accuracy, however, is not the secret of the success of this book. Its flowing style, the use of short Anglo–Saxon words,3 its picturesqueness, the power of description, the philosophic arrangement all contribute to it, but chiefly, I believe, the enthusiasm of the young Dana, his sympathy for his fellows and interest in new scenes and strange peoples, and with it all, the real poetry that runs through the whole. As to its poetry, I will quote from Mrs. Bancroft’s “Letters from England,” giving the opinion of the poet Samuel Rogers:

“London, June 20, 1847.

“The 19th, Sat. we breakfasted with Lady Byron and my friend Miss Murray, at Mr. Rogers’. . . . After breakfast he had been repeating some lines of poetry which he thought fine, when he suddenly exclaimed, ‘But there is a bit of American prose, which, I think, has more poetry in it, than almost any modern verse.’ He then repeated, I should think, more than a page from Dana’s ‘Two Years Before the Mast’ describing the falling overboard of one of the crew, and the effect it produced, not only at the moment, but for some time afterward. I wondered at his memory, which enabled him to recite so beautifully a long prose passage, so much more difficult than verse. Several of those present, with whom the book was a favorite, were so glad to hear from me that it was as true as interesting, for they had regarded it as partly a work of imagination.”

In writing the book Mr. Dana had a motive which inspired him to put into it his very best. The night after the flogging of his two fellow-sailors off San Pedro, California, Mr. Dana, lying in his berth, “vowed that, if God should ever give me the means, I would do something to redress the grievances and relieve the sufferings of that class of beings with whom my lot has been so long cast.” This vow he carried out in no visionary scheme of mutiny or foolish “paying back” to the captain, but by awakening a “strong sympathy” for the sailors “by a voice from the forecastle,” in his “Two Years Before the Mast.”

While at sea he made entries almost daily in a pocket notebook and at leisure hours wrote these out fully. This full account of his voyage was lost with his trunk containing sailors’ clothes and all souvenirs and presents for family and friends by the carelessness of a relative who took charge of his things at the wharf when he landed in Boston in 1836. Later, while in the Law School, Mr. Dana rewrote this account from the notebook, which, fortunately, he had not entrusted to the lost trunk. This account he read to his father and Washington Allston, artist and poet, his uncle by marriage. Both advised its publication and the manuscript was sent to William Cullen Bryant, who had then moved to New York. Mr. Bryant, after looking it over, took it to a prominent publisher of his city, as the publishers at that time most able to give the book a large sale. They offered to buy the book outright but refused the author any share in the profits. The firm had submitted the manuscript to Alonzo Potter, afterwards Bishop of Pennsylvania, then acting as one of their readers. Bishop Potter, meeting Dana in England years later, told him most emphatically that he had advised the purchase at any price necessary to secure it. The most, however, that the elder Dana and Bryant were able to get from the publishers was $250, so that modest sum with two dozen printed copies was all the author received at that time for this most successful book. Incidentally, however, the publication brought Mr. Dana law practice, especially among sailors, and was an introduction to him not only in this country but in England. Editions were published in Great Britain and France. Moxon, the London publisher, sent Mr. Dana not only presentation copies but as a voluntary honorarium, there being no international copyright law at that time, a sum of money larger than the publisher gave him for the manuscript. He also received kindly words of appreciation from Rogers, Brougham, Moore, Bulwer, Dickens and others, and fifteen years later his reputation secured him a large social and literary reception in England in 1856. At last, in 1868, the original copyright expired and my father brought out the “author’s edition” thoroughly revised and with many important additions to the text including the “Twenty-four Years After” under a fair arrangement for percentage of sales with Fields, Osgood and Co., the predecessors of the present publishers.

In reading the story of this Harvard College undergraduate’s experience, one should bear in mind, to appreciate the dangers of his rounding the Cape, that the brig Pilgrim was only one hundred and eighty tons burden and eighty-six feet and six inches long, shorter on the water line than many of our summer-sailing sloop and schooner yachts.

Richard Henry Dana.

1 “Richard Henry Dana, Jr.” A Biography. By Charles Francis Adams. In two volumes. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

2 “Speeches in Stirring Times and Letters to a Son.” Richard Henry Dana, Jr., with introduction and notes by Richard Henry Dana, 3rd. In one volume. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

3 Extracts from this book were chosen by the oculists of the United States for use in testing eyes on account of its clearness in style and freedom from long words.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/dana/richard_henry/two-years-before-the-mast/introduction1.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:53