Cover image for Two years before the mast : a personal narrative of life at sea
Two years before the mast : a personal narrative of life at sea
Dana, Richard Henry, Jr., 1815-1882
Publication Information:
New York, N.Y. : Penguin Books, 1981.
Physical Description:
572 pages ; 19 cm.
General Note:
"Twenty-four years after" included as appendix.
Reading Level:
1290 Lexile.
Added Author:
Format :

On Order



In 1834, Richard Henry Dana Jr. left the comforts of Boston for the hardships and abuses of the most exploited segment of the American working class. Dana's account of his passage around Cape Horn to California, and back, is a remarkable portrait of the seagoing life: the day-to-day routines and conversations, the sailors who manned the ship, the brutality of incompetent officers, and the style of life in the newly emerging coastal towns of California.

As Thomas Philbrick discusses in his introduction, the public's sympathy for the plight of mariners, which was aroused by the book, eventually faded, but Two Years Before the Mast forever changed readers' romanticized perceptions of life at sea and inaugurated a lasting tradition of realism and concern for human values.

Author Notes

Dana's reputation rests solely upon a single book. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Dana was the son of the elder Richard Henry Dana, a minor New England poet and a founder of the North American Review. He received a fairly conventional early education in the Boston area and entered Harvard College in 1831. Health and eye problems interrupted his studies several times, and finally, in hopes of regaining his strength, Dana shipped out on the sailing vessel The Pilgrim in 1834 as a common sailor. He remained at sea for two years, much of that time gathering hides off the California coast, which was still under Mexican rule. From these experiences he soon produced his great masterpiece, Two Years Before the Mast (1840).

Upon his return to Boston, Dana completed his studies at Harvard and was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1840, the same year he completed Two Years Before the Mast. Because of his experiences and his passionate commitment to the rights of the common sailor, he specialized in maritime law, soon earning himself the nickname, "the sailors' lawyer." His work on behalf of sailors in both the courts and the popular press led to important reforms in the conditions of their lives and the terms of their employment. Active also in the still unpopular cause of abolition, Dana alienated himself from the rich and powerful, those proper Bostonians who controlled so much of the world to which Dana was drawn by his political ambitions.

(Bowker Author Biography)



Chapter I I am unwilling to present this narrative to the public without a few words in explanation of my reasons for publishing it. Since Mr. Cooper's Pilot and Red Rover, there have been so many stories of sea-life written, that I should really think it unjustifiable in me to add one to the number without being able to give reasons in some measure warranting me in so doing. With the single exception, as I am quite confident, of Mr. Ames entertaining, but hasty and desultory work, called "Mariner's Sketches," all the books professing to give life at sea have been written by persons who have gained their experience as naval officers, or passengers, and of these, there are very few which are intended to be taken as narratives of facts. Now, in the first place, the whole course of life, and daily duties, the discipline, habits and customs of a man-of-war are very different from those of the merchant service; and in the next place, however entertaining and well written these books may be, and however accurately they may give sea-life as it appears to their authors, it must still be plain to every one that a naval officer, who goes to sea as a gentleman, "with his gloves on," (as the phrase is,) and who associates only with his fellow-officers, and hardly speaks to a sailor except through a boatswain's mate, must take a very different view of the whole matter from that which would be taken by a common sailor. Besides the interest which every one must feel in exhibitions of life in those forms in which he himself has never experienced it; there has been, of late years, a great deal of attention directed toward common seamen, and a strong sympathy awakened in their behalf. Yet I believe that, with the single exception which I have mentioned, there has not been a book written, professing to give their life and experiences, by one who has been of them, and can know what their life really is. A voice from the forecastle has hardly yet been heard. In the following pages I design to give an accurate and authentic narrative of a little more than two years spent as a common sailor, before the mast, in the American merchant service. It is written out from a journal which I kept at the time, and from notes which I made of most of the events as they happened; and in it I have adhered closely to fact in every particular, and endeavored to give each thing its true character. In so doing, I have been obliged occasionally to use strong and coarse expressions, and in some instances to give scenes which may be painful to nice feelings; but I have very carefully avoided doing so, whenever I have not felt them essential to giving the true character of a scene. My design is, and it is this which has induced me to publish the book, to present the life of a common sailor at sea as it really is,--the light and the dark together. There may be in some parts a good deal that is unintelligible to the general reader; but I have found from my own experience, and from what I have heard from others, that plain matters of fact in relation to customs and habits of life new to us, and descriptions of life under new aspects, act upon the inexperienced through the imagination, so that we are hardly aware of our want of technical knowledge. Thousands read the escape of the American frigate through the British Channel, and the chase and wreck of the Bristol trader in the Red Rover, and follow the minute nautical manœuvres with breathless interest, who do not know the name of a rope in the ship; and perhaps with none the less admiration and enthusiasm for their want of acquaintance with the professional detail. In preparing this narrative I have carefully avoided incorporating into it any impressions but those made upon me by the events as they occurred, leaving to my concluding chapter, to which I shall respectfully call the reader's attention, those views which have been suggested to me by subsequent reflection. These reasons, and the advice of a few friends, have led me to give this narrative to the press. If it shall interest the general reader, and call more attention to the welfare of seamen, or give any information as to their real condition, which may serve to raise them in the rank of beings, and to promote in any measure their religious and moral improvement, and diminish the hardships of their daily life, the end of its publication will be answered. Excerpted from Two Years Before the Mast: A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea by Richard Henry Dana All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Thomas Philbrick
Introductionp. 7
Suggestions for Further Readingp. 31
A Note on the Textp. 33
Two Years Before the Mastp. 35
Notesp. 485
Appendix A "Twenty-Four Years After"p. 497
Notes for "Twenty-Four Years After"p. 535
Appendix B Glossary of Nautical Termsp. 537