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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
After rounding the Cape, the Alert came home with a rush, sometimes making 250 miles in a day. Despite illness, hard work, and hurricanes, Dana was in perfect health when he got back to Boston, and had had enough toughening to stand up to overwork and nervous strain for the next two decades. On the last day of the voyage his former anxiety to see family and friends vanished, to be replaced by something very like indifference:
A year before [he recalled], while carrying hides on the coast, the assurance that in a twelvemonth we should see Boston made me half wild; but now that I was actually there, and in sight of home, the emotions which I had so long anticipated feeling I did not find, and in their place was a state of very nearly entire apathy.
A final reason for the book’s continued appeal, especially to younger readers, is its psychological truth. Despite Dana’s aristocratic reserve and his care not to permit any “exposure or development of [his] own mind & feelings” in the book, it nevertheless resembles the novel of adolescence that has been so popular a form in America. Like Wellington Redburn, Huck Finn, Nick Adams, and a hundred other heroes, Dana is a young, inexperienced boy at the beginning of his book, and a grown man, with knowledge of the world and of good and evil, at the end of it. The adolescent reader quite naturally identifies himself with the young man who comes aboard the Pilgrim green and ignorant, and gradually, by willingness and hard work, earns his place among the other members of the crew. Such a reader triumphs vicariously with Dana over seasickness, injustice, ice and storms, and comes to understand what it is to make one’s way in the world. Success in real life replaces the narrow and artificial successes of the schoolroom: “I got through [sending down a royal-yard] without any word from the officer, and heard the ‘well done’ of the mate, when the yard reached the deck, with as much satisfaction as I ever felt at Cambridge on seeing a ‘bene’ at the foot of a Latin exercise.” Two Years has doubtless meant much to thousands of boys who never went on to appreciate more complex and more demanding literary forms.
To Dana himself, although he dismissed his voyage as a “parenthesis” in a life devoted to politics and the law, the experience was well-nigh decisive. At nineteen he was apparently about to succumb to the same kinds of obscure nervous disorders that made invalids of his uncles, his father, his brother, and his future wife, and tormented his friends Parkman, Prescott, and Longfellow. Hard work, sea air, and freedom from the genteel tyranny of Cambridge restored him to robust health in a matter of weeks and strengthened him for a life of strenuous effort. He owned his later success as a lawyer, as an antislavery politician, and as Lincoln’s wartime U.S. attorney for the district of Massachusetts, to the toughening effects of his voyage.
Like many men of his class and generation, Dana was tormented by the feeling that he had failed to equal the achievement of his ancestors, that he had not accomplished enough. “My life,” he wrote forty years after his voyage, “has been a failure, compared to what I might and ought to have done. My great success—my book—was a boy’s work, done before I came to the Bar.”
To a Dana only public service and high political office seemed really important, to bring him up to the level of his ancestors. Yet he had, as a young man of twenty-five, achieved something rarer than political success, and far more lasting. He had written a book which, after the passage of a century, may fairly be said to have achieved a kind of immortality; and no man who has managed to write a book that lives on after him can truly be said to have been a failure.