Richard Henry Dana referred to this book as "a voice from the sea. " Influencing such authors as Conrad and Melville, it has become a maritime classic that has inflicted legions of men with a passion for the sea. Dana, a law student turned sailor for health reasons, sailed in 1834 on the brig Pilgrim for a voyage from Boston around Cape Horn to California. Dana Point was named as a result of this journey. Drawing from his journals, Two Years before the Mast gives a vivid and detailed account, shrewdly observed and beautifully described, of a common sailor's wretched treatment at sea, and of a way of life virtually unknown at that time.
|Publisher:||Blackstone Audio, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 5.90(h) x 1.40(d)|
Read an Excerpt
The lure of the sea is reflected in our never-ending fascination with the lives of sailors, and there is no more authentic "voice from the forecastle" than Richard H. Dana's in Two Years Before the Mast. While attending Harvard in the early 1800's, he became ill, and upon recuperating he decided to sail a bit before continuing his education. He joined the Pilgrim as a common sailor and his book provides a detailed description of the Pilgrim's 1834 journey from Boston around Cape Horn and along the western coast of North America. Dana brings alive for us the daily existence of life at sea in the golden age of sail:
"For a few minutes, all was uproar and apparent confusion: men flying about like monkeys in the rigging; ropes and blocks flying; orders given and answered, and the confused noises of men singing out at the ropes. The top-sails came to the mast-heads with 'Cheerily, men!' and, in a few minutes, every sail was set; for the wind was light. The head sails were backed, the windlass came round 'slip - slap' to the cry of the sailors; - 'Hove short, sir,' said the mate; - 'Up with him!' - 'Aye, aye, sir.' - A few hearty and long heaves, and the anchor showed its head. 'Hook cat!' - The fall was stretched along the decks; all hands laid hold; - 'Hurrah, for the last time,' said the mate; and the anchor came to the cat-head to the tune of 'Time for us to go,' with a loud chorus. Everything was done quick, as though it were for the last time. The head yards were filled away, and our ship began to move through the water..."
And what do sailors do for fun? Here is Dana's account of shore leave outside San Francisco:
"After this repast, we had a fine run, scouring the whole country on our fleet horses, and came into town soon after sundown. Here we found our companions who had refused to go to ride with us, thinking that a sailor has no more business with a horse than a fish has with a balloon. They were moored, stem and stern, in a grog-shop, making a great noise, with a crowd of Indians and hungry half-breeds about them, and with a fair prospect of being stripped and dirked, or left to pass the night in the calabozo. With a great deal of trouble, we managed to get them down to the boats, though not without many angry looks and interferences from the Spaniards, who had marked them out for their prey...Our forecastle, as usual after a liberty-day, was a scene of tumult all night long from the drunken ones. They had just got to sleep toward morning, when they were turned up with the rest, and kept at work all day in the water, carrying hides, their heads aching so that they could hardly stand. This is sailor's pleasure."
And here is a playful race between two ships:
"The [ship] California was to windward of us, and had every advantage; yet, while the breeze was stiff, we held our own. As soon as it began to slacken, she ranged a little ahead, and the order was given to loose the royals. In an instant the gaskets were off and the bunt dropped. 'Sheet home the fore royal! - Weather sheet's home!' - 'Hoist away, sir!' is bawled from aloft. 'Overhaul your clew-lines!' shouts the mate. 'Aye, aye, sir, all clear!' - 'Taught leech! belay! Well the lee brace; haul taught to windward' - and the royals are set. These brought us up again; but the wind continuing light, the California set hers, and it was soon evident that she was walking away from us. Our captain then hailed, and said that he should keep off to his course; adding - 'She isn't the Alert now. If I had her in your trim, she would have been out of sight by this time.' This was good-naturedly answered from the California, and she braced sharp up, and stood close upon the wind up the coast; while we squared away our yards, and stood before the wind to the south-south-west. The California's crew manned her weather rigging, waved their hats in the air, and gave up three hearty cheers, which we answered as heartily, and the customary single cheer came back to us from over the water."
This classic is rich with relationships between officers and crew, maintenance of discipline including horrific floggings, types of work, excursions onto land, contact with other ships, sailor's life stories, and encounters with people on shore. And really, we all have a bit of the old salt in us, and reading Dana one can re-live all those childhood shipwreck games. But this book is irresistible for the lingo alone. Haul to!
Table of Contents
|Sundays At Sea|
|Trouble on Board|
|Loss Of a Man|
|Putting the Vessel In Order|
|Passage Up the Coast|
|Passage Up the Coast|
|A British Sailor|
|Night On Shore|
|State of Things On Board|
|Liberty-Day On Shore|
|San Pedro Again|
|San Diego Again|
|Life on Shore|
|People at the Hide-Houses|
|Pilgrim News from Home|
|Pilgrim Occupations on the Beach|
|California and its Inhabitants|
|California and its Inhabitants|
|Life on the Beach|
|New Ship and Shipmates|
|My Watchmate, Tom Harris|
|San Diego Again|
|A Hurried Departure|
|A New Shipmate|
|Rumors of War|
|Sudden Slipping for a Southeaster|
|A Dry Gale|
|A Decayed Gentleman|
|News From Home|
|Loading for Home|
|Last of an Old Friend|
|The Last Hide|
|A Hard Case|
|An Anchor, for Home!|
|The Alert and California|
|Our Passenger, Professor Nuttall|
|First Touch of Cape Horn|
|Difficulty on Board|
|Change of Course|
|Straits of Magellan|
|A Fine Sight|
|A Reef-Topsail Breeze|
|A Friend in Need|
|Preparing for Port|
|Sights About Home|
|Leaving the Ship|
|Twenty Four Years After||432|
Reading Group Guide
1. Discuss Dana's motives for the voyage. What do you feel was the predominating factor in his decision to undertake such a journey? What were the risks involved, and how serious do you feel they were? What is your view of Dana's momentous choice?
2. What do you make of Dana's attitude toward religion, and religious instruction? Do you agree or not? Why? Is his a perspective that is anachronistic, or not?
3. How does social class play a role in the book? Discuss the implications of Dana's background. How did it affect his experience on the ship? Did you find it important, or inconsequential?
4. What is your opinion of the book's stark realism? Does Dana have an agenda in writing the book? If so, what is it? Do you think the experience was a positive one for Dana, or not?
5. What is the role of nature and the outdoors for Dana? How does he view the American West? How does his voyage attest to his view of the outdoors? Does this view change throughout his experience on the ship? If so, how?
6. Discuss the contrasts between Captain Thompson and Captain Faucon. How do their leadership skills differ? Who is more effective, and why? Discuss Dana's book on a political level. What do his portrayals of each captain reveal?
7. Discuss the considerable shift in Dana's perspective as evidenced in 'Twenty-Four Years After.' How do you account for this change? Do you agree or disagree with the author's decision to replace the original final chapter with this later account? Why or why not?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Dana writes an eminently readable first-person account of his experiences as a common sailor on a couple of commercial sailing vessels in the mid 19th century. The title references the convention that common sailors were housed in the forecastle of the ship (before the mast), while officers stayed aft. His account of the day-to-day life of a sailor, two crossings of Cape Horn, and the coast of pre-Gold Rush California are fascinating. If you want to gain a sense of the reality behind the romance of large sailing vessels, this is a must-read. His observations of his fellow sailors, officers, and the culture of California give real insight into life in the 1800's. Dana's final chapter is a thoughtful essay on the hardships of the sailor's life, with some surprising conclusions on what should and should not be done to improve their lot.
Forget Moby Dick, this is a real story of the sea! It has a remarkably contemparary feel to it and is told in a candid first person that never lags. Melvilles awful fantasy we all were forced to read blatantly rips off this fun, intimate and detailed American masterpiece. Anyone fascinated by the days of tall ships will love this intimate look behind the veil of life at sea.
This is one of the best books I've ever read. It is well written and it's history is amazing. If you're interested in the old "square rigger" sailing days and what it was like on one of these as crew this book will not let you down. It is also a great history book of California. Couldn't put it down.
This explains the old way to sail ships at sea. Having been in the U S Navy 22 years, I loved it and all the nautical terms being used. A sailors life was much different in the 1800's than it is today because of this book. If your not inerested in being at sea, then you'll find this book very boring. If you love the sea as I do, you'll enjoy it very much> I know I did.
A Vicarious Journey! This is an excellent account of a Harvard student's life on a merchant ship for two years. He clearly describes their voyage as they leave Boston in 1839, make their way southward around the Cape of South America and spend the majority of their time going up and down the California coast trading hides. What a remarkable journey!
Two Years Before the Mast is an engaging non-fiction novel published in 1840 about the experiences of a nineteen-year-old university student, who after being sick with measles, is recommended by his doctor to take time at sea to recover his health. Unlike many such cases of men going to sea to recover their health, Richard Henry Dana Jr. enlists himself as a sailor on the merchant ship Pilgrim, rather than as a passenger on a cruise. From this decision, Richard learns firsthand the rigors of sea faring travel. At a time before America was split in two, Richard provides detailed accounts of life at sea, with its glories and hardships. From cruel ship captains to breathtaking sights; Richard’s experiences led him to become a lawyer after returning from his travels; a profession which he used to fight for the rights of sailors and slaves alike. Having read Two Years Before the Mast twice now, there are some things that might benefit an interested reader to know before cracking open the book. Richard provides detailed accounts of his travels, and provides an interesting glimpse into the realities of sea trade during the 1800’s. His experiences teach a great deal about the lost art of sailing, and his descriptions of well-known locations in California, now bustling metropolises, describe California when it was a territory of Mexico. Some of his descriptions contrasted starkly with how those places look today, but the weather apparently has not changed all that much in the last 180 years. As for authenticity and information, this novel is rich in truths and is as good a novel as it is a historical document. The story follows the ebbs and flows of Richard’s travels and experiences. Often the sea is exciting and treacherous, with pirate chases and rounding the Cape Horn of South America, but not every account is that of adventure. As such, there are times the book becomes as monotonous as the daily work it describes. Richard does get stuck managing some trade of hides, and gets stuck on land for some time. In those underwhelming segments of text, it may take a bit of plowing to get through, but a nice hot beverage will ease the effort. Well written descriptions of landscapes no longer in existence can be seen more as paintings than blocks of text, and in doing so, they become serene moments. Outside of such moments however, is a rich and visceral experience of navigating the coast of the Americas as told by a person as real as you or I. Richard writes in combination of conversations and descriptions, and uses emotions that can be felt; some funny, some critical and sad. The human element is hugely important to the novel; without it no amount warm beverages would make reading enjoyable. If you consider yourself a fan of traditional sailing, put aside those fictional novels of the open seas. Instead, sail alongside Richard as he conscripts himself to a lifestyle of arduous work, salty air, and new experiences. Let him walk you through a less well-known part of pre-Civil war America; and the greater coasts of the American continents. Two Years Before the Mast is not just for people who like tales of the sea though, it is a rich example of peoples, customs, and cultures along the coasts of the Americas during the 1800’s. Richard Henry Dana Jr. has given us a text valuable for its readability, and for its influence on history.