With Dana Before The Mast


Death is at all times solemn, but never so much so as at sea. A man dies on shore; his body remains with his friends, and “the mourners go about the streets”; but when a man falls overboard at sea and is lost, there is a suddenness in the event, and a difficulty in realizing it, which give to it an air of awful mystery. A man dies on shore,—you follow his body to the grave, and a stone marks the spot. You are often prepared for the event. There is always something which helps you to realize it when it happens, and to recall it when it has passed. A man is shot down by your side in battle, and the mangled body remains an object, and a real evidence; but at sea, the man is near you,—at your side,—you hear his voice, and in an instant he is gone, and nothing but a vacancy shows his loss. Then, too, at sea—to use a homely but expressive phrase—you miss a man so much.

In writing his one great book Dana was fortunate in the nature of the experience he was describing. Travel journals, of the kind turned out by dozens of Bostonians on the Grand Tour, are almost uniformly boring. Dana’s material, on the other hand, like Francis Parkman’s, was fresh, new, and exciting, both to himself and to his readers; he was the first writer to give a real picture of the common sailor’s life, and the first to exploit Mexican California for literary purposes.

Even the pattern of Dana’s experience was helpful, for his two-year adventure had a natural beginning (the outward voyage), a middle (the sojourn in California), and an end (the return to Boston) which brought the hero back once more to the starting point. Dana, with so much less literary ability than other writers, was fortunate in being able to tell his story as it happened and yet give it an artistically satisfying form.

The first section of Dana’s book, describing the five-month voyage from Boston to Santa Barbara, gave him an opportunity to describe his change from frock coat and kid gloves, to explain the routine on board a merchant vessel, and to give his impressions of life at sea, of Crusoe’s island of San Fernandez, and of Frank Thompson, his “regular-built down-east johnny-cake” of a captain. Reliving the experience after his return to Cambridge, Dana remembered with satisfaction the first time he had taken the wheel and won approval on his own, and not because of his family name:

Inexperienced as I was, I made out to steer to the satisfaction of the officer, and neither Stimson nor I gave up our tricks, all the time that we were off the Cape. This was something to boast of, for it required a good deal of skill and watchfulness to steer a vessel close hauled, in a gale of wind, against a heavy head sea.

The central part of the book, dealing with the time Dana spent gathering hides on the California coast, has always been of particular interest to historians of the West and to young people fascinated by colorful and distant places. To his own generation, eagerly looking to fulfill its destiny by pushing the frontier westward to the Pacific Coast, Dana gave an attractive description of California in the day of the ranchero, a picturesque land of whitewashed adobe houses with red tile roofs, gorgeously accoutered Mexican hidalgos, and women, even of the lower classes, who wore silk gowns and gold earrings and spent money on the Pilgrim’s cargo of finery “at a rate which would have made a seamstress or waiting-maid in Boston open her eyes.” Ironically enough, although Dana nowhere seemed conscious of the fact, he and his shipmates were helping to bring an end to this pre-industrial paradise. The Pilgrim and the Alert, with their manifests of “boots and shoes from Lynn, calicoes and cotton from Lowell,” and their return cargoes of leather for the Massachusetts shoe factories, were in the service of nascent American industrialism, which was to abolish Mexican rule and threaten Spanish ways of life in California just a dozen years after Dana’s voyage there. Many energetic young easterners who arrived in California in these early years settled down and made their fortunes there through ranching, shipping, trade, or in the mines, but Dana was completely oblivious of the transformation in the region's economy that was taking nlace before his eyes.

Most of the sixteen months Dana spent in California were occupied by the dreary and tedious business of peddling cargo at retail up and down the coast, and gradually collecting forty thousand hides for the homeward voyage. He therefore made skillful use of the few unusual events that occurred while he was in those waters, even shifting a few of them out of their proper place in his narrative to sustain the reader’s interest. Such events as the flogging of two sailors, the arrival of mail and six-month-old Boston newspapers, a day’s liberty, and the wedding of Doña Anita de la Guerra de Noriego y Corillo—all these gave variety to an account that might otherwise have been a little tedious.