Two Years Before the Mast

Two Years Before the Mast

by Richard Henry Dana Jr., John Seelye, Wes Davis

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Tracing an awe-inspiring oceanic route from Boston, around Cape Horn, to the California coast, Two Years Before the Mast is both a riveting story of adventure and the most eloquent, insightful account we have of life at sea in the early nineteenth century. Richard Henry Dana is only nineteen when he abandons the patrician world of Boston and Harvard for an arduous voyage among real sailors, amid genuine danger. The result is an astonishing read, replete with vivid descriptions of storms, whales, and the ship's mad captain, terrible hardship and magical beauty, and fascinating historical detail, including an intriguing portrait of California before the gold rush. As D. H. Lawrence proclaimed, "Dana's small book is a very great book."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101050347
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/07/2009
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 508,744
File size: 745 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

John Seelye is a graduate research professor of American literature at the University of Florida. He is the author of The True Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain at the Movies, Prophetic Waters: The River in Early American Literature, Beautiful Machine: Rivers and the Early Republic, Memory's Nation: The Place of Plymouth Rock, and War Games: Richard Harding Davis and the New Imperialism. He is also the consulting editor for Penguin Classics in American literature.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter I

I am unwilling to present this narrative to the public without a few words in explanation of my reasons for publishing it. Since Mr. Cooper’s Pilot and Red Rover, there have been so many stories of sea-life written, that I should really think it unjustifiable in me to add one to the number without being able to give reasons in some measure warranting me in so doing.

With the single exception, as I am quite confident, of Mr. Ames entertaining, but hasty and desultory work, called “Mariner’s Sketches,” all the books professing to give life at sea have been written by persons who have gained their experience as naval officers, or passengers, and of these, there are very few which are intended to be taken as narratives of facts.

Now, in the first place, the whole course of life, and daily duties, the discipline, habits and customs of a man-of-war are very different from those of the merchant service; and in the next place, however entertaining and well written these books may be, and however accurately they may give sea-life as it appears to their authors, it must still be plain to every one that a naval officer, who goes to sea as a gentleman, “with his gloves on,” (as the phrase is,) and who associates only with his fellow-officers, and hardly speaks to a sailor except through a boatswain’s mate, must take a very different view of the whole matter from that which would be taken by a common sailor.

Besides the interest which every one must feel in exhibitions of life in those forms in which he himself has never experienced it; there has been, of late years, a great deal of attention directed toward common seamen, and a strong sympathy awakened in their behalf. Yet I believe that, with the single exception which I have mentioned, there has not been a book written, professing to give their life and experiences, by one who has been of them, and can know what their life really is. A voice from the forecastle has hardly yet been heard.

In the following pages I design to give an accurate and authentic narrative of a little more than two years spent as a common sailor, before the mast, in the American merchant service. It is written out from a journal which I kept at the time, and from notes which I made of most of the events as they happened; and in it I have adhered closely to fact in every particular, and endeavored to give each thing its true character. In so doing, I have been obliged occasionally to use strong and coarse expressions, and in some instances to give scenes which may be painful to nice feelings; but I have very carefully avoided doing so, whenever I have not felt them essential to giving the true character of a scene. My design is, and it is this which has induced me to publish the book, to present the life of a common sailor at sea as it really is,—the light and the dark together.

There may be in some parts a good deal that is unintelligible to the general reader; but I have found from my own experience, and from what I have heard from others, that plain matters of fact in relation to customs and habits of life new to us, and descriptions of life under new aspects, act upon the inexperienced through the imagination, so that we are hardly aware of our want of technical knowledge. Thousands read the escape of the American frigate through the British Channel, and the chase and wreck of the Bristol trader in the Red Rover, and follow the minute nautical manœuvres with breathless interest, who do not know the name of a rope in the ship; and perhaps with none the less admiration and enthusiasm for their want of acquaintance with the professional detail.

In preparing this narrative I have carefully avoided incorporating into it any impressions but those made upon me by the events as they occurred, leaving to my concluding chapter, to which I shall respectfully call the reader’s attention, those views which have been suggested to me by subsequent reflection.

These reasons, and the advice of a few friends, have led me to give this narrative to the press. If it shall interest the general reader, and call more attention to the welfare of seamen, or give any information as to their real condition, which may serve to raise them in the rank of beings, and to promote in any measure their religious and moral improvement, and diminish the hardships of their daily life, the end of its publication will be answered.

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Two Years Before the Mast 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 39 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Couldnt put it down. The writing is descriptive and colorful. I thought I'd just skim through this book but in the end I didn't want to miss a word . Written in layman's terms for the most part you do not have to understand nautical terms to read this book. I had no trouble reading this on my Nook as someone earlier stated. They must be doing something wrong! If you enjoy history and want a true acvount of what life was like on a merchant ship or in California in the mid1800's you will love this book!
andrew98 More than 1 year ago
This copy only fills top third to top half of the screen. This makes it annoying to read given that you have to turn the page so much more often.
Anonymous 4 months ago
A well written, accurate description of life on a sailing ship in the days of the tall ships. Read this acclaimed book to find out what it was really like.
tzelman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Entirely engrossing account of sea-voyaging to California in 1836 to collect and prepare hides
amerynth on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Richard Henry Dana's book "Two Years Before the Mast" actually did remind me of the ocean -- my interest level in the book ebbed and flowed like the tides. I found much of his tale of sailing to be somewhat mundane, but every once in a while, he'll get into a story about a crew member that is utterly fascinating. I particularly enjoyed reading about his experiences in wild California... which was the very highlight of the book for me. Overall, this book would be best for someone with a particular interest in sailing (as opposed to a general interest in exploration.)
corinneblackmer on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A harrowing tale of the life of a common sailor in 1840. The author, an undergraduate at Harvard, took to the sea because he thought it might improve his eyesight (after a bout with measles). The work is backbreaking; his witness to a flogging and the merciless discipline of the sea unforgettable. He returns two years later and, as he says, just in time before the brutality of the life of a common sailor would have consumed and overtaken him permanently. A moving plea for more compassionate treatment of common workers.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book is an interesting portrayal of life in California before the Union and the Gold Rush. I’m amazed that the author was able to capture so much detail of the area and of life aboard the ships. I wish I had seen the glossary in the back sooner, however, so that I would have better understood the parts of the ship he described, particularly the different sails that he referenced on the ships he sailed upon. Terry
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A revealing tale of the life of a sailor and the California coast in the 1800's.
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psychmd More than 1 year ago
Appearing on many top 100 must read lists, this book deserves the acclaim. You smell the salt air and feel the cramped quarters of the narrator, a Harvard educated young man who takes on the adventure of a lifetime as a common sailor in the 1830's. A poignant portrayal of nautical life and California's early days as a part of Mexico. A unique personal history that stands the test of time.
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I went on the pilgrim for the book
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