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With Dana Before The Mast
A long and arduous voyage around the Horn made a man of a sickly socialite and gave literature an enduring classic
October 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 6
Back at Harvard, Dana soon discovered that he had come alive intellectually during his absence at sea. During his last year he surpassed every other student in every branch of study, made Phi Beta Kappa, was chosen to both the rival social clubs, Porcellian and Hasty Pudding—“an honor at that time very unusual,” he noted in his autobiography—and won prizes in English prose writing and declamation. A year after his return from California he was studying law with Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, translating Xenophon’s Cyropaedia into Latin, reading Euclid, Hume, Whately’s Logic, Schiller, and Mme de Staël, teaching elocution to freshmen, composing long love letters to his future wife, and writing up an expanded version of his sea journal. In the fall of 1840 he published his book and saw it turn into an immediate best seller.
A striking success from the day it was issued, Two Years Before the Mast has remained in print continuously from 1840 to the present. Harper & Brothers, who paid Dana only $250 for the original copyright, may have made as much as $50,000 on the book; a particularly fine “first issue of the First Edition” has brought nearly $1,000 at auction. Houghton Mifflin alone has sold more than one hundred thousand copies since 1911, and fifty-four other publishers in this country have issued seventy-seven different editions, with total sales approaching a quarter of a million copies. There have been twenty-three separate editions in England and translations into a dozen foreign languages. Two Years has been made into a movie and reprinted in a collection of the World’s Greatest Books (1901), as one of the Harvard Classics (1910), and in the Modern Library (1936) series. Within the past dozen years, it has been reissued as a paperback in the United States, England, and Australia. Dana is preeminently “the man of one book,” but that book has made for itself a permanent if minor place in world literature.
Before examining the reasons for such continuous popularity, it is worthwhile disencumbering the book of sonic legends that have grown up about it. Two Years did not, as half a dozen carelessly romantic writers have asserted, inspire Herman Melville to go to sea. Melville had already made his first voyage to Liverpool the year before Dana’s book was published, and was thinking of another sailor’s berth even before Two Years came out. We have no definite evidence that he read the book before he sailed from New Bedford on the Acushnet in January, 1841. Perhaps he never saw it until his service as an ordinary seaman on board the frigate United States several years afterward.
Another common mistake has been to regard Two Years as part of the literature of reform that flourished so vigorously in this country in the decades before the Civil War. Some critics have regarded it as a kind of companion volume to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and asserted that Dana did for the common sailor what Mrs. Stowe was to do for the Negro slave. Dana’s vivid description of the flogging of two men, and his comment immediately afterward, gives some color to this view:
“No,” shouted the captain; “nobody shall open his mouth aboard this vessel but myself,” and began laying the blows upon his back, swinging half round between each blow, to give it full effect. As he went on his passion increased, and he danced about the deck, calling out, as he swung the rope: “If you want to know what I flog you for, I’ll tell you. It’s because I like to do it! because I like to do it! It suits me! That’s what I do it for! … You’ve got a driver over you! Yes, a slave-driver,—a nigger-driver! … I’ll see who’ll tell me he isn’t a NIGGER slave! …”
I vowed that, if God should ever give me the means, I would do something to redresss the grievances and relieve the sufferings of that class of beings with whom my lot had so long been cast.
Dana’s contemporary, J. Ross Browne, congratulated him for “putting down quarter-deck tyranny with … might and main,” and so well-known a critic as Van Wyck Brooks has asserted that Dana “battled like an avenging angel for … seamen’s rights.”
Evidence available from the book itself, and from Dana’s later career, however, proves that the book was not intended to be a plea for reform. The story of the flogging takes up only six pages out of some four hundred and fifty; from the rest of the book one gets the impression that the crews with whom Dana sailed, while they worked hard and had scant leisure, were on the whole fairly well treated. Dana himself called the Alert “a favorable specimen of American merchantmen … supplied with an abundance of stores of the best kind that are given to seamen”; her owners had such a high reputation for liberality that half an hour before the time set for signing on new hands “sailors were steering down the wharf, hopping over the barrels, like a drove of sheep.”