With Dana Before The Mast

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Had Dana really wished to campaign for better treatment of sailors he would have emphasized the abysmal living conditions aboard both the ships on which he sailed, the overloading, undermanning, overcrowding, and underfeeding that were so much more serious than an occasional use of the lash. But he had, he explained to his fiancee, “an aversion to having the sympathy … of the public at large,” and he deliberately suppressed as “inartistic” and “repulsive” those details that might have won greater sympathy for the sailor’s hard lot: “the loathesome sanitary conditions, the vermin-infested wood, the beetles they picked from their clothing, the bedbugs they skimmed from their mugs of tea and bowls of stew.”

Dana himself thoroughly enjoyed his two years before the mast and always looked back on his experiences at sea and in California with nostalgia and delight. It is his enthusiasm and not his occasional complaints about injustice that communicates itself to the average reader, and his book had far more effect on prospective immigrants to California and young boys anxious to go to sea than it did on congressmen who might pass legislation benefiting seamen. In none of the debates on the bill that eventually did away with the lash on American ships did legislators refer to the flogging scene in Dana’s book or to the far longer and more detailed one in Melville’s White Jacket.

Dana himself did not believe that improvement in the seaman’s lot should be sought through legislation. What had appalled him on the Pilgrim was the injustice of Captain Thompson’s action; Dana actually favored the retention of flogging, provided the offense was serious and provided the victim had been found guilty after a fair trial. What sailors really needed, he thought, was the stoppage of their rum ration and a plentiful supply of Bibles aboard ship. Most of the trouble at sea could be blamed on the sailors themselves, many of them “abandoned men” whose blasphemy, lying, and drunken habits were a “mortification and [a] disgrace. … A bad crew will make a bad captain.” Hopefully Dana looked forward to the time when “every ship will be a Bethel; with religious services every morning and evening, and officers and crew guided by the principles of love.”

The first acts that really aided the sailor were passed, without any support from Dana, some thirty years after the publication of his book; seamen were subject to involuntary servitude long after the abolition of Negro slavery and half a century after Two Years Before I the Mast .

If the book’s effect on the condition of sailors was trivial, its literary influence was not. Nearly three dozen books with titles resembling Dana’s were published in the two decades after 1840; Two Years, one of the first American books to win wide popularity in England, started a vogue for realistic tales of the sea and doubtless helped create an audience for Melville’s early work. Recent research has destroyed the old picture of Melville as an artless spinner of sailors’ yarns, “the man who lived among cannibals” and made literature out of his personal experiences. He was, it is now clear, a literary man, to whom a book was as exciting as any actual adventure. Two Years, which Melville read many times and thought “unmatchable,” was the probable source of a dozen incidents in his books, ranging over nearly half a century.

But Two Years is more than just an item in a Melville bibliography. Although it is dismissed in less than a page in surveys of our literature, Dana’s book still manages to outsell many of its more famous contemporaries. Most of the people who read Two Years have discovered it, along with Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels, in their teens; it thus has a kind of sub-literary fame not dependent on the fashion among professors of American literature.

Both the book’s interest for young readers and its lack of appeal to critics can be partially explained by its simple, straightforward style and lack of erudition or philosophical depth. The conditions under which Dana wrote it fortunately kept him from that overelaboration and striving after effect which mar so much of his other writings. The detailed journal Dana had kept on the voyage was lost by his cousin Frank as soon as the Alert docked, so he had to work his story up from, a notebook account that was only twenty pages long. While writing Two Years, he was kept so busy with other work that he had no time to polish his narrative. Although he took nearly two years to finish it, his first draft was his final one, and he made only a few, unimportant corrections in the manuscript. The resulting prose was simple and easy to grasp, with a great power of communicating the feeling of an experience. Here, for example, is Dana’s quiet, unemotional observation about a shipmate’s death:

The watch on deck were lowering away the quarter-boat, and I got on deck just in time to fling myself into her as she was leaving the side; but it was not until out upon the wide Pacific, in our little boat, that I knew whom we had lost. It was George Ballmer, the young English sailor, whom I have before spoken of as the life of the crew. …