Two Years Before the Mast
September 14, 2004 12:09 PM   Subscribe

Two Years Before the Mast. "In the following pages I design to give an accurate and authentic narrative of a little more than two years spent as a common sailor,before the mast, in the American merchant service. It is written out from a journal which I kept at the time, and from notes which I made of most of the events as they happened." At the beginning of his third year of Harvard a severe attack of measles interrupted Henry Dana's studies, and so affected his eyes as to preclude, for a time at least, all idea of study. The state of the family finances was not such as to permit of foreign travel in search of health. Accordingly, prompted by necessity and by a youthful love of adventure, he shipped as a common sailor in the brig, bound for the California coast.
posted by weston (22 comments total)
In a genre that has produced some of the most ripping yarns of all time, "Two Years Before the Mast" is an astonishingly dull tale of the sea (alright, it may have established the genre -- still). It was revered from its own time into the early 20th Century. But who can tell why? Melville's "Redburn" and "White Jacket" are a trillion times better -- and they're novels, yes, but drawn from the author's own experiences. "Two Years Before the Mast" is plodding and honest and exposed the mistreatment of seamen -- but I could not recommend it. After Melville, go straight to Nordhoff and Hall's "Bounty" trilogy, and as long as you're in the 20th century, you know where to go next: Patrick O'Brien -- and stay there for the rest of your life.
posted by Faze at 12:38 PM on September 14, 2004

Faze, we're clearly not on the same page. I find Dana far easier to digest and enjoy than Melville.
posted by weston at 12:59 PM on September 14, 2004

In which Faze meets people that are not exactly like him, to his great astonishment.

Thanks weston. :)
posted by kavasa at 1:05 PM on September 14, 2004

Thanks weston, I'll take a look at this later. I'm amazed that there are ASCII graphics of ships which describe the various sails and such and I am further amazed that they seem to work (to this landlubber anyway)
posted by substrate at 1:15 PM on September 14, 2004

Faze is spot on when he writes that Dana's account of his time at sea is plodding and honest, but I found the pace tied to the level of description, which serves the purpose of the book well. The draw for me is maybe the same as it was for Dana, that this here is real, no mere fiction, and just knowing that made reading this book worth my time.

The timing of his journey (and return trip) makes the narrative more relevant to those of us living in the modern day. Dana describes the California coast so well at a time when western influences, namely our economy and religion, were beginning to affect those who called California home before we, and the threat of Indian attacks prevented overland travel. In the decade between his odyssey and return trip, San Francisco has grown up from a modest mission and fur trading post to a booming city of over a hundred thousand people, setting the stage for California as we know it today.

(Sorry, no ghost-pirates in this one)
posted by StrangerInAStrainedLand at 1:20 PM on September 14, 2004

Or, you could read this, and conclude after only 8 or so books that the whole Patrick O'Brien thing is really overrated.
posted by Irontom at 1:44 PM on September 14, 2004

Oops, I meant to address my last comment to Faze.
posted by Irontom at 1:45 PM on September 14, 2004

Conrad, writing a little later in the 19th Century than Dana and Melville and also writing fiction, was another who knew whereof he spoke, though he spent most of his sea time as a mate rather than in the forecastle.

Masefield of Sea Fever and Cargoes fame (also mentioned recently in the green for writing the Box of Delights which is related to the sea only by having some pirates in it) also had personal experience of the sea. He wrote the The Bird of Dawning (I think the link is to the full text as html!), really a sort of young adult coming of age book mixed with the story of a Mary Celeste-like abandoned ship, which I like.

Twentieth century writers who also sailed before the mast on square-rigged ships and later wrote about it include Eric Newby and Alan Villiers.

There are many people who like O'Brien, but there are many who also still prefer Forester (an IMDB link because I'm lazy).
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 1:58 PM on September 14, 2004

The use of terminology - such as "Then the starboard watch board the main tack, and the larboard watch lay forward and board the fore tack and haul down the jib sheet, clapping a tackle upon it if it blows very fresh. "


"When all was right, the bunts were triced well up, the yard-arm gaskets passed, so as not to leave a wrinkle forward of the yard -- short gaskets, with turns close together. "

reminded me of reading about someone upgrading their MySQL install and resetting the IP addresses so that the APache logs would corss domains.

Despite, or because of, this I loved this book. My wife's family lives all around Dana Point and this book helped me to understand some things about OC that had remained opaque previously.

Remember, everyone, Faze relies on magic. Given that the book is factual, modest, and relies on reportage rather than wishful thinking, we may be reconciled to his all too predictable distatste.
posted by mwhybark at 2:01 PM on September 14, 2004

argh. And my all too predictable typos.
posted by mwhybark at 2:02 PM on September 14, 2004

Since the ghost of O'Brian has been summoned, I'll take this chance to give some props to Dewey Lambdin's Alan Lewrie series. It takes place in the same timeframe as Aubrey and Hornblower but has far, far more sex and violence. I'm about four books into the series so far and it's pretty good.

I read about three chapters of Dana's account and since my recent readings have given me a broadside or a piece o' mutton by the second chapter at least, I lost interest. I guess the goes to show the difference between a romantic view of the age of sail and the true hard work and drudgery of the era.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 2:09 PM on September 14, 2004

Dewey Lambdin = Piers Anthony[NSFW?] of the sea-dog genre?
posted by StrangerInAStrainedLand at 2:22 PM on September 14, 2004

Not as raunchy as Piers, but he does get a woman every book it seems (and all the hijinx of juggling two mistresses). I'd put it more on par with Cornwell's Sharpe.

Sex isn't all that graphic or constant, but it's an underlying theme. Lewrie did join the Navy to get away from false charges of raping his half-sister, after all.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 2:30 PM on September 14, 2004

The ASCII art stuff is damn cool

/Tried copying it to the blue - didn't work
posted by magullo at 3:26 PM on September 14, 2004

Ahh, RHD and the Pilgrim. I dunno if the Kids Today still do this, but when I was a kid, all OC fourth graders spent a weekend on the Pilgrim. We got to split up into crews, do different jobs, swab decks, gather hides, row ashore, hoist sails, all without ever leaving Dana Point Harbor.

Lucky me, I was in the galley crew. Nothing like making oatmeal and serving it to thirty surly fourth graders who liked their oatmeal out of a paper pouch.
posted by RakDaddy at 4:59 PM on September 14, 2004

The Dana book is if for nfo other reason worth readilng because the narrator went as ordinary seaman and came from a family that was a bit aboive your avezrage ordinary; and the descrtiptionof San Frisco bay and what inhabitants would be like because of the weather is a sure fire hit to the center of the target...laid back etc because of climate. Personal tastes: love Melville and Conrad but find O'Brien tedious.
posted by Postroad at 5:55 PM on September 14, 2004

Ahhhh. I had to go on the Pilgrim too. Worst. Fieldtrip. Ever.

What, you mean living in a tiny floating dictatorship in the middle of the ocean sucked ass? Waking up in the middle of the night to stand around cold is miserable? Going back to your bunk to find the stinkest kid in your class in there can drive you to a muderous rage?

I have an imagination. I understood it sucked from the book. Thanks for traumatizing me forever Richard Henry Dana and the crew of the Pilgrim.

Now building a mission--good times with genocide.
posted by dame at 6:35 PM on September 14, 2004

By the way RakDaddy where'd you grow up? H.B. myself.
posted by dame at 6:36 PM on September 14, 2004

Weston, thanks, and I look forward to giving this link the time and attention it deserves.
posted by Shane at 7:53 PM on September 14, 2004

Two Years Before the Mast is a delightful book. Since some of my other sea-story favorites have been mentioned, I'll just briefly plug Jules Vernes' 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:53 AM on September 15, 2004

Go Vikings! Er, as in "The Long Ships", by Frans Gunner Bengtsson. Such good reading that they still haven't made it into a good movie after four tries. It is one that makes you really sad when you get to the end because there is no more.
posted by kablam at 1:28 PM on September 15, 2004

Costa Mesa for me, Dame. Went to Adams Elementary.

Anyone else have historical torture field trips?
posted by RakDaddy at 12:56 PM on September 16, 2004

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