Saturday, October 31, 2015

Books I'm Reading: Two Years Before the Mast

I can't remember when I picked up a used copy of Richard Henry Dana Jr.'s Two Years Before the Mast (Penguin Classics, 1981). I don't remember exactly why I bought it either, except that I've always enjoyed 19th century maritime literature. Dana's is a non-fictional account of two years working on American merchantmen in the 1830s--but close enough. It's been on my bookshelf for at least a few years. Recently I read it, and I'm glad I did.

The book paints a vivid picture of life on board ship in the early 1800s—specifically, life on board a vessel whose business it was to collect cowhides from the West Coast of the US and transport them around Cape Horn to the US East Coast (where they mostly became shoes). It paints a picture of pre-Gold Rush coastal California--when San Francisco, Monterey, Santa Barbara, and other cities were tiny Mexican villages (Dana Point, near Los Angeles today, was named for the author). Unlike the protagonists in so much literature about life on the oceans, Dana is not running away from anything; he sees his time at sea as a temporary separation from civilization. Dana is very much focused on getting back to life in Boston and afraid that a delay in his return will cause him to be so deeply changed by life at sea that he'll become unable to go back. Interesting for both its historical value and the psychological self-portrait the author presents.  

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