It's been a long time since I enjoyed a book as much as Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, which describes events of 1834-36 and was first published in 1840. It's a great piece of writing. I've heard about it since I was a child, but just got around to reading it this week. It's a book that alters my understanding of the early nineteenth century.
Why did I like it so much. Let me count the ways.
1. It's a sensitive work. Dana's a Boston patrician but instead of going to sea as a junior officer, which he could easily have done, he enlists as a common seaman. He describes life on board the ship from the seaman's point of view. I don't know another book that's so honest, so real, and so uncomplaining. Dana later put what he learned to work, becoming an advocate for sailors' rights. His is not a modern sensibility, but on the whole there's far less of the deplorable racist and sexist assumptions that disfigure the earlier literature and make us cringe for our ancestors.
2. I've always loved sea stories. Wasn't I transfixed, as a child, by the Bounty and Hornblower stories? But Dana is leagues ahead. Two Years is non-fiction that is more compelling reading than most fiction. I couldn't put it down. Besides, I had just read Moby-Dick, a thoroughly romanticized version of life on sea. Melville is poetic; Dana is gritty and detailed. I'm sorry, but I'm almost always happier in the world of the enlightenment than the world of nineteenth-century romanticism. Something in the mitochondria, perhaps.
3. A large hunk of the book takes place in California, when it was still part of Mexico and there was a shack or two where there's now Santa Barbara or San Diego or Monterey. It's an invaluable record of California before the gold rush, both picturesque and enlightening
4. It has great characters: ship captains both competent and cruel, sailors brave and cowardly, as well as the occasional onboard eccentric. A good account of naval camaraderie.
5. Language. Some of us enjoy specialized vocabulary of any sort. This book is a treasure trove of words unfamiliar to a landlubber like me. "It was clew up and haul down, reef and furl, until we had got her down to close-reefed topsails, double-reefed trysail, and reefed forepenser." "I threw the downhaul over the windlass, and jumped between the knight-heads out upon the bowsprit. The crew stood abaft the windlass and hauled the jib down, while we got out upon the weather-side of the jib-boom... the great jib boom flying out to leeward and slatting." "The cook made us a mess of scouse." "Dessert was duff." Sometimes Dana lays it on a bit thick, but it's worth it. What is a martingale anyway? Well, "it comprises the parts of the standing rigging which strengthen the bowsprit and jib boom against the force of the head stays" Clears that up. Who's up for a great big helping of scouse?