Before the Mast
And Other Voyages
Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
(Library of America)Ten years ago, Outside Magazine published a choice selection of The Best of Travel Writing. It included 150 or so titles, and most were as good as the best, giving us the likes of Jan Morris, Isak Dinesen, Bruce Chatwin, V. S. Naipaul, Jamaica Kincaid, and Evelyn Waugh's wry Ninety-Two Days.
However, like all lists of "the best," it reflected the peculiar tastes of the editors. Paul Bowles eccentric Sheltering Sky, Melville's Moby Dick, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and Whitman's Leaves of Grass are included, which to some of us might be a stretch. We might wonder why they didn't include Dante's Divine Comedy --- one of the most heart-felt travel documents of all time; and, perhaps, "Oedipus Rex." (One wag called the chance meeting with Oedipus' father Laius at the crossroads "the first recorded example of road rage," making it a travel book with a vengeance).The Dharma Bums turns up on the Outside list, but not the bible of those seeking the Big Enchilada of Escape, On the Road. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky's charming, funny, exasperated account of traveling through late-nineteenth-century India while being followed by the colonial secret service (The Caves and Jungles of Hindostan) did not make the cut but Joshua Slocum's Sailing Alone around the World and Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World (both among the best of the genre) did.
We thought it strange at the time that Dana's Two Years Before the Mast was not listed but now, after reading it, or attempting to read it, we understand perfectly. First off, the title is a baldfaced lie. Dana's service atop, behind, or under the mast amounts to a little over nine months. The rest of the time he was on foot in California, catching, cleaning and hauling smelly cattle hides up and down the hills of San Diego. As a title, A Little More than a Year in the Hide Business would, perhaps, not have sold as well.
The second reason that the book became a best seller depended less on the quality of writing and more on animal luck: between 1840 when it was published and 1859 when he wrote the follow-up, California had grown, wildly, as a result of the great gold rush. There were practically no writings on the state --- Dana's being one of the few --- so those planning to go west and get fabulously rich naturally bought his book.
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Two Years is a big bore. It took us what came to seem like two years to make it half-way through the text. It is crawling with the nautical language that gave Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, and S. J. Perelman and dozens of others fodder for their parodies:
We sprang aloft immediately and furled the royals and top-gallant-sails, and took in the flying jib, hauled up the mainsail and trysail, squared the after yards .... Having called all hands, we close reefed the topsails and trysails, furled the courses and the jib, set the fore-top-mast staysail, and brought her up nearly to her course, with the weather braces hauled in a little to ease her.
Since this bit of gibberish comes early in on Two Years the reader may be thinking it is all for atmosphere, and that perhaps Dana will close haul his flying jibs and get on with the story. But no. In an ice storm near the Cape, in Chapter 31,
The boys of the other watch were in the tops, taking in the top-gallant studding-sails, and the lower and top-mast studding-sails were coming down by the run. It was nothing but "haul down and clew up," until we got all the studding-sails in, and the royals, flying-jib, and the mizen top-gallant sail furled and the ship kept off a little. The fore and main top-gallant sails were still on her, for the "old man" did not mean to be frightened in broad daylight.
If you are a fan of the ilk of the sea tales of Patrick MacDonald, this might appeal to you. For the rest of us who can't tell a jib from the bilge, nor the poop from a reef, it is trying at best, throw-the-book-across-the-room at worst.
Dana's conclusions consisted of a warning to all who thought there was "a witchery in the sea, its songs and stories, and in the mere sights of a ship, and the sailor's dress, especially to a young mind, which has done more to man navies, and fill merchantmen, than all the pressgangs of Europe." He accurately protrayed the life for the common sailor "all work and hardship ... and matter-of-fact drudgery." The food was terrible, the water --- both on deck and surrounding the vessel --- dangerous. On "temperance" ships, such as his, there wasn't even the relief of rum to warm the heart and lighten the soul.
His main complaints were the smelly dark accommodations for sailors, the impossible endless tasks above deck, and the fact that, with two or four-hour shifts, sleep was impossible. Later as an attorney in Boston, he helped to litigate cases against callous captains who deprived their charges of food and who, in some cases, resorted, and resorted brutally, to the lash.
Dana comes across as a bit of a prude, one who picks and chooses the facts to be laid out in order to to paint himself more sturdy of heart. He pointedly ignores a letter from a companion who referred to "the beautiful Indian lasses who often frequented your humble abode in the hide house."
One is here reminded of the words of Winston Churchill. As we wrote in a review of The Unexpected Hero,
Early on, he got appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. He was rumored to have said, "What are the traditions of the Navy? Rum, sodomy, and the lash?" In later years he explained that he had never said this but wished he had.--- Spencer Wright, Retired USN