Two Years Before The Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
by Paul Mathers
The book ends with an essay by Dana titled Twenty-Four Years Later. As the title suggests, it is his revisit to the California coast twenty-four years after the events described in the book. I was reminded of what I was doing twenty-four years ago. I was, in the summer of one of my childhood years probably very nearly twenty-four years ago, enrolled in a sea camp in the Southern Californian coastal town of Dana Point.
Look at the name of that town. Now look at the name of the author of the book which I have just read. Now back to the name of that town. Are you starting to sense the connection I felt with this book? So far in this series, I have read a book in which the chief character has appeared to me in a realm between sleep and waking, a book which strangers have publicly harangued me simply for reading it in public, books written by some of the chief figures of the denomination of my upbringing, a book which featured a horse after which I named my bicycle, and, frankly, some of the greatest books I have ever read in my life. This, however, was the most intensely personal book for me so far because I went to a children’s sea camp when I was a child and had one of the most treasured experiences of my life.
At the sea camp, we worked aboard a recreation of The Pilgrim, which was the ship on which Richard Henry Dana, Jr. traveled to California. The photo above is of that recreation which sits in the harbor at Dana Point today. We lifted barrels, were yelled at by an old-timey captain recreating actor, and kept watch at all hours of the night, all within the watch of a statue of Richard Henry Dana, Jr. I’ve written about this experience before, but let me restate that this was a highly formative experience in those highly formative years.
The book is about a Harvard student who begins to lose his eyesight. A long ocean voyage is recommended. He, however, decides to enlist as a common merchant sailor to gain experience and write a book about it or, rather, keep a journal which he later fleshed out into a book. The book is the story of that voyage and it contains gripping, well written accounts of many of the sort of things one might expect: whales, the coast of California, Cape Horn, ill behaved captains, storms, rum, St. Elmo’s Fire, icebergs, multiculturalism, scurvy, sea shanties, bad food, Hawaiians, floggings, bleeped-out swear words, a man overboard, superstitions, knots, dissolute squandering of shore leave, and pages upon pages of sea jargon (my edition had a helpful glossary in the back). It was also the only book about California in wide publication available at the time in which California was incorporated (er… Liberated? Appropriated? … stolen?) into the United States. Some of the peaks of his powers as an author are employed in descriptions of 1830s California (some of which made me terribly homesick). His description of the San Francisco Bay, and his reasons for his expectation of its destiny to become one of the economic boom towns of the West, borders on prophecy.
But the real gold of the book comes at the end. Of course you need the context of the whole book to appreciate the fullness of what he has to say, but his concluding chapter I found to be nothing short of sublime. Just as Life of Pi builds to an elegant argument for theism within its fictional construct, Two Years Before the Mast within its non-fictional construct builds to an elegant argument for the pragmatic way in which religion benefits the lives of humans at sea, which very easily translated to lives of humans on land as well. I should state that, like the comparison I have drawn, this is not a chapter of proselytizing. Rather, this is about the good of religion and it is put in terms that are difficult to argue with. We have shifted so completely as a society that, upon reading this, it is difficult to imagine that there are people alive today who might have known people who knew this man who put forth this argument with such confidence. To say that I found it refreshing would be a bit of an understatement.
So, the last chapter of the work is excellent and highly underlined in my copy, but then he one-ups himself. When the copyright fell back to him, he wrote a follow-up essay (as I mentioned at the beginning) in which he returns to California, now famous for having written a book that everyone in the state has read. He drops so many names of people he met, people whose names were the streets and locations I grew up knowing (Bandini, Castro, Soto, et al. He talks about where Pico met Sepulveda… as in the actual two guys, not the streets). He shows the progress of the state. San Francisco is on the exact road that he predicted. The southerly points less so, but still moving from clay huts to one of the most powerful economies in the world (he is surprised to find a modestly flourishing town in The Pueblo de los Angeles). California has been my home for this first half of my life (and doesn’t appear to be about to change in the foreseeable future). I am not sure I have ever had such a sense of reading my own history before! The history of my ethnicities are from the distant past and my blood so muddied anyway that I feel no real personal connection to them. The history of my nation mainly took place about 3000 miles away. Add to that the fact that he was a Harvard man (as, ahem, am I now) and that he is talking about my part of the world right on the cusp of the period when it began to be recognizable as such. Also add that it is excellently written and intensely personal.
For having given us this treasure of a book, I am well pleased that when it came time for the current renaming of all of these places (as places periodically must needs be renamed), the place that Dana thought to be the most beautiful has been named for him.