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American author and lawyer Richard Henry Dana, Jr., wrote one of the most persistently popular nonfiction narratives in American letters, Two Years before the Mast. He was also an adviser in the formation and direction of the Free soil party.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Son of a Poet Writes a Bestseller
Son of Richard Henry Dana, Jr., the Massachusetts poet and editor, the younger Dana distinguished himself in 1834 when he abruptly left the security of Harvard undergraduate life and shipped round Cape Horn to California on a tiny hide-trading sea vessel. He returned two years later, completed his studies, and in 1840 was admitted to the bar. in the same year Two Years before the Mast was published by Harper and Brothers, and though the publisher had deftly lifted the copyright (paying Dana just $250), the author hoped that the book would at least bring him some law practice.
Dana’s hopes were realized—indeed his office filled with sailors and he became known as the ”Seaman’s Champion”—and he eventually shaped an impressive legal career. Still, the fact that his publisher realized $50,000 from the book did at times move Dana to complaint. He comforted himself with the knowledge that if he had lost money he had gained fame. The book was embraced by all factions—reformers, temperance crusaders, and roman tic lovers of the sea, who saw the oceans as at least comparable to the prairies when it came to charting a frontier to explore. Since the day of its publication the book has never been out of print.
Years later, however, Dana wrote to his son: ”My life has been a failure compared with 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.” There were other books: The Seaman’s Friend (1841), a manual and hand book for sailors; and To Cuba and Back (1859), an interesting account of a vacation voyage.
Practicing Law and Politics
Dana’s real commitments were not to literature but to the law, where he finally prospered, and to politics, where he ultimately failed. Celebrated as the legal champion of fugitive black slaves, whose legal status was debated throughout the nineteenth century, Dana unsuccessfully tried to parlay his involvement in politics into a career move.
Slavery was a hotly debated issue in the U.S. for the entire life of the young republic. As slaves consistently tried to escape from Southern states into the free Northern states, the early nineteenth-century government grappled with how to handle the ex-slaves once they achieved free dom. The Compromise of 1850, also known as the Fugitive Slave Act, stated that the escaped slaves must be returned to their owners in the South. Enormous protest followed the passage of this law, and the abolitionist movement gained popularity as the Civil war, fought primarily over the financial and ethical questions regarding slavery and states rights, approached.
Despite his legal work regarding slavery, Dana consistently missed opportunities for high public office, even within the Free Soil party he had helped create. Active in the 1848 and 1852 presidential elections, the Free Soil party opposed legislation to extend slavery into new territories in the west, thus calling for all newly acquired ”soil” to be free soil. In 1878, Dana finally packed up and left for Europe, furious that his potential appointment as minister to England had failed approval in the Senate.
In Europe Dana joined some of the brilliant expatriate circles then dominating Rome and seemed to find some peace. He called it ”a dream of life.” He died in January 1882, and he was buried in the same Italian graveyard that contained the remains of British writers John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Works in Literary Context
Dana’s narrative claims to depict ”the life of a common sailor at sea as it really is,” meaning he did not intend to embellish or romanticize life at sea. While the writing process necessarily adds an element of artfulness, Dana’s narrative nevertheless uses a semirealistic approach that became popular in American literature towards the second half of the nineteenth century. His writing pre dates the literary movement of Realism by between twenty and fifty years, as the movement became popular after the American Civil War. Partly in reaction to the devastation of the war, writers who espoused realism not only used a simple writing style but also maintained that humans were not in control of their destiny. Outside forces were as powerful in determining an individual’s fate as that individual’s choices. Romantic writers, by contrast, believed that the individual was the wellspring of opportunity and destiny. Dana shows signs of realistic elements in his text, from his unembellished language to the harsh conditions the sailors faced. The success of the realistic approach Dana used in Two Years Before the Mast is attested to by the public interest the book sparked in the daily life of common seamen and the Spanish colony of California.
In subject matter and theme, Two Years Before the Mast is an important forerunner of the early novels of Herman Melville, and its balanced structure, which grows organically from the facts of Dana’s voyage, pre figures the structure used by Henry David Thoreau, one of Dana’s Harvard classmates, in Walden. The Seaman’s Friend, which was also prompted by Dana’s experiences aboard ship, was intended by Dana to be a handbook for the common sailor, including descriptions of ship construction and a glossary of nautical terms, a section describing duties aboard ship, and a practical guide to maritime law. As such, The Seaman’s Friend is a detailed glimpse of nineteenth-century sailing life for the reader of today.
Part adventure novel, part exploration story, and part travel narrative, the seafaring narrative has been a popular form of literature for centuries. From pirate stories to slave narratives, most seafaring tales share the same basic elements. Generally, a seafaring story pro vides a restricted location—a single ship—and thus a heightened dramatic element for its plotline. Crew politics usually become crucial to the storyline as sailors must jockey to maintain their position or achieve more power. Masculinity often plays a central role as well, as the sailors tend to be all male characters. Two Years Before the Mast contains each of these elements, taking place on a two-year voyage including a trip around Cape Horn. Dana describes the brutal ship conditions for sailors, the dangerous storms at sea, and the economic considerations of the ship’s trade. Although Dana’s narrative has fallen out of popularity, its prominence as the most widely-read seafaring novel of its time cannot be understated. Even Dana’s friend, Herman Melville, author of the now-classic sea novel Moby-Dick (1851), praised Dana’s work for its dramatic impact on readers.
Works in Critical Context
Dana’s literary reputation rests solely upon Two Years Before the Mast, even though that book was hurriedly written and full of stylistic errors. But, rhetorical problems do not detract from the central interests of the story, an initiation narrative in diary form that follows Dana from boyhood to manhood and also seeks to introduce the reader to the truth about life at sea and in California in the 1830s. Even with its stylistic problems, the book still became an instant best-seller after its publication, and readers continued to praise the book for much of the nineteenth century. Prominent writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Herman Melville praised the book for its realistic portrayal of life at sea and for its indictment of oppressive working conditions for sailors. Robert F. Lucid writes, ”The success of the book was instantaneous … critics found Two Years to be thrilling, sometimes lyrically beautiful, always classically simple in style; but, most consistently, they found it to be a social documentary of devastating power.” In his later life Dana considered Two Years Before the Mast a book for boys written by a boy. He intended his reputation to rest on his legal writing. To that end, Dana planned to write his masterpiece on international law during his final visit to Europe, but that study and other projected works were left incomplete at his death.
Two Years Before the Mast
John Gatta links Dana’s writing to many other nineteenth-century narratives in his inclusion of realistic as well as romantic elements, and also in his depictions of lower class characters. He writes, ”Unlike the many romanticized tales of seafaring available by the early nineteenth century, Two Years Before the Mast claims to tell it as it is. For the most part Dana’s transparently informative prose style does precisely that.” However, it also contains artistic elements that Gatta links to Dana’s own political leanings:
By the time Dana concludes Two Years Before the Mast, he has extended the truth-claims of his narrative well beyond factually accurate reportage toward morally charged testimony. His personal narrative assumes features of a social expose. Dana would later become an attorney who defended seamen as well as fugitive slaves. Accordingly, the concluding chapter of his narrative shades into an advocate’s brief on behalf of that seafaring under class whose condition Dana has witnessed but no longer shares.
- Adams, Charles Francis. Richard Henry Dana: A Biography (2 vols.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1890.
- Gale, Robert L. Richard Henry Dana, Jr. New York: Twayne, 1969.
- Shapiro, Samuel. Richard Henry Dana, Jr.: 1815-1882. East Lansing, Mich.: Michigan State University Press, 1961.
- Egan, Hugh. ”’One of them’: The Voyage of Style in Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast.” American Transcendental Quarterly 2.3 (1988): 177-90.
- Gatta, John. ”The Elusive Truths of Literary Narrative.” Sewanee Review 115.1 (2007): 131-36.
- Hill, Douglas B., Jr. ”Richard Henry Dana, Jr., and Two Years Before the Mast.” Criticism 9 (1967): 312-25.
- Lucid, Robert F. ”Two Years Before the Mast as Propaganda.” American Quarterly 12.3 (1960): 392-403.
- San Diego Historical Society. San Diego Biographies: Richard Henry Dana. Retrieved September 15, 2008, from http://www.sandiegohistory.org/bio/dana/dana.htm.
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