Monday, March 28, 2011

Book Club: Two Years Before the Mast

I'm taking a break from standard illustrated history books to discuss Richard Henry Dana Jr.'s Two Years Before the Mast. Originally published in 1840, the book tells of Dana's work on the brigs Pilgrim and Alert in the California cowhide trade. Dana was from a well to do family, and when measles caused his eyesight to go bad, he was advised to travel in hopes of improvement away from the strain of reading.

Life at sea for a common sailor in the 1830s was little different from slavery, and Dana wrote the book as an expose of the hard lives of sailors. So how is this a Boston book? I thought you'd never ask. Boston - and New England - boys sailed the world during the early 1800s, and some of those became captains and ship owners whose work generated the wealth that built Victorian Boston. The story of Boston's overseas trade is very much the story of the city itself. Dana's book gives us insight into a way of life that Bostonians would have taken for granted during the 19th Century, but is largely forgotten now. The book was very successful in its day, and Dana was a leading citizen of the city.

I will admit that I skimmed a good deal of the book - the details of rigging a sailing ship are less entertaining today than they were to the land-bound readers of the time. However, I would not hold that against the book. The good parts are very good stories of life on board ship, sailing around the Horn, dealing with a dictatorial captain, and the rest of a common seaman's life. The book is available online for free, or you can get a copy at the library.

Please note that there is a later, larger version that was published when Dana had traveled back to California and revisited the locations he knew as a sailor.

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