With Dana Before The Mast


The moral climate of the age, and Dana’s own fastidiousness, however, led him to censor some details that might have enlivened his narrative still further. One of the few attractions of the barren California coast was its supply of wanton native girls; after Two Years was published, a shipmate twitted him for saying nothing about

the beautiful Indian Lasses, who so often frequented your humble abode in the hide house, and rambled through those splendid groves attached thereto [or] the happy hours experienced rambling over those romantic hills, or sitting at twilight on those majestic rocks, with a lovely Indian Girl resting on your knee.

But Two Years , like Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn , was to have an all-male cast of characters. [Years later Dana wrote in his Autobiographical Sketches… well do I know that many things are omitted there from necessity.... from that book I studiously kept out most of my reflections, & much of the wickedness which I was placed in the midst of. These I have no inclinations to go over again. The dangers to a young man’s moral purity … are more to be dreaded in such a life, than gales, mast-heads & yard-arms.”] 

The California section of Dana’s book closes dramatically. The Pilgrim and her crew were to remain in California while the hides they had collected were sent home in the Alert. Captain Thompson, short-handed, tried to order Dana to remain with his shipmates, but here privilege prevailed; despite some grumbling among the other sailors, one of them was induced to take his place on the Pilgrim, and Dana was free to return to the pattern of life set out for him by his ancestors. Two weeks later, with the Alert’s hold so crammed with hides that her beams creaked, Dana was homeward bound.

The last part of Dana’s book, in which he had to repeat, in reverse order, the course of his outward voyage, might have been anticlimactic. But the cowardice and incompetence of Captain Thompson, who like Dana had transferred to the Alert, gave Dana the opportunity to tell an exciting story of men in conflict with the tremendous forces of the air, the ice, and the ocean. After four weeks of glorious sailing in the trades, the ship ran into a series of violent storms while still 1,700 miles west of the Cape, and for the better part of a month she was in danger of foundering or being crushed by the ice every day. Dana, suffering from a toothache that left him unable to sleep for three days and unable to eat anything but a few handfuls of boiled rice, lived through this period in a somnambulistic daze. His account of this frozen nightmare world of sleet, high winds, iron-hard sails, and an icy ocean, which Melville thought “must have been written with an icicle,” is the high point of his book, and one of the great epics of the sea. And afterward, by contrast, there is the ship’s serene beauty as she makes her way through the tropics:

One night … I went out to the end of the flying-jib-boom upon some duty, and, having finished it, turned round, and lay over the boom for a long time, admiring the beauty of the sight before me. Being so far out from the deck, I could look at the ship as at a separate vessel; and there rose up from the water, supported only by the small black hull, a pyramid of canvas, spreading out far beyond the hull, and towering up almost, as it seemed in the indistinct night air, to the clouds. The sea was as still as an inland lake; the light trade-wind was gently and steadily breathing from astern; the dark blue sky was studded with the tropical stars; there was no sound but the rippling of the water under the stem; and the sails were spread out, wide and high,—the two lower studding-sails stretching on each side far beyond the deck; the topmast studding-sails like wings to the topsails; the top-gallant studding-sails spreading fearlessly out above them; still higher, the two royal studding-sails, looking like two kites flying from the same string; and, highest of all, the little skysail, the apex of the pyramid seeming actually to touch the stars, and to be out of reach of human hand. So quiet, too, was the sea, and so steady the breeze, that if these sails had been sculptured marble they could not have been more motionless. Not a ripple upon the surface of the canvas; not even a quivering of the extreme edges of the sail, so perfectly were they distended by the breeze. I was so lost in the sight that I forgot the presence of the man who came out with me, until he said (for he, too, rough old-man-of-war’s-man as he was, had been gazing at the show) half to himself, still looking at the marble sails,—“How quietly they do their work!”