Saturday, July 4, 2015

Rereading Dana

The Yankee pride in knowing how to do things, and in doing them well, runs through Two Years Before the Mast. Shortly after the ship's arrival in California, it arrives in Monterey, and
I also connected with our arrival here another circumstance which more nearly concerns myself; viz, my first act of what the sailors will allow to be seamanship--sending down a royal-yard. I had seen it done once or twice at sea, and an old sailor, whose favor I had taken some pains to gain, had taught me carefully everything which was necessary to be done, and in its proper order, and advised me to take the first opportunity when we were in port, and try it. I told the second mate, with whom I had been pretty thick when he was before the mast, that I would do it, and got him to ask the mate to send me up the first time they were struck. Accordingly I was called upon, and went up, repeating the operations over in my mind, taking care to get everything in its order, for the slightest mistake spoils the whole. Fortunately, I got through without any word from the officer, and heard the "well done" of the mate, when the yard reached the deck, with as much satisfaction as I ever felt at Cambridge on seeing a "bene" at the foot of a Latin exercise.
Doing things better than others adds to the pride:
There we found the brig which we had assisted in getting off lying at anchor, with a mixed crew of Americans, English, Sandwich Islanders, Spaniards, and Spanish Indians; and, though much smaller than we, yet she had three times the number of men; and she needed them, for her officers were Californians. No vessels in the world go so sparingly manned as American and English; and none do so well. A Yankee brig of that size would have had a crew of four men, and would have worked round and round her. The Italian ship had a crew of thirty men; nearly three times as many as the Alert, which was afterwards on the coast, and was of the same size; yet the Alert would get under weigh and come-to in half the time, and get two anchors, while they were all talking at once--jabbering like a parcel of "Yahoos," and running about decks to find their cat-block.
The others can as easily be Russians, Yankee whalers with a crew mostly of country boys who "hadn't got the hayseed out of their hair",  or much later a midshipman of the United States Navy, who "could not tell ladies the length of a fathom, and said it depended on circumstances."

Dana does concede the Californians superiority in riding
There are probably no better riders in the world. They get upon a horse when only four or five years old, their little legs not long enough to come half way over his sides; and may almost be said to keep on him until they have grown to him.... They can hardly go from one house to another without getting on a horse, there being generally several standing tied to the door-posts of the little cottages.
and in dancing
... we were invited, from every quarter, to give them an American sailor's dance; but after the ridiculous figure some of our countrymen cut, in dancing after the Spaniards, we thought it best to leave it to their imaginations. Our agent, with a tight, black, swallow-tailed coat, just imported from Boston, a high stiff cravat, looking as if he had been pinned and skewered, with only his feet and hands left free, took the floor just after Bandini; and we thought they had had enough of Yankee grace.
But what are riding and dancing to seamanship and boat handling? In general, his references to the Mexican population of California are slightly contemptuous.

Richard Henry Dana, Jr. shipped as a common seaman, "before the mast" in August 1834
from a determination to cure, if possible, by an entire change of life, and by a long absence from books and study, a weakness of the eyes, which had obliged me to give up my pursuits, and which no medical aid seemed likely to cure
He returned in September 1836, having spent nearly a year and a half on the coast of California, between San Diego and San Francisco Bay, and having in Santa Barbara read an account of the graduation of his class at Harvard. In the California of the middle 1830s, the site of the modern San  Francisco was occupied by a mission and the board house of a Yankee trader. Los Angeles was "the Pueblo" (which once gets its almost full title  "Pueblo de los Angeles"), an inconvenient thirty miles from the bad roadstead of San Pedro. Monterey was the capital of the province.

Home, he finished his undergraduate work at Harvard and entered its law school. His legal practice specialized, not surprisingly, in maritime law. He served as United States Attorney for Massachusetts during Lincoln's administration, having been active in the Free Soil movement, and in efforts to protect the free Negroes of Massachusetts from the effects of the Fugitive Slave Act. He did well enough as a lawyer, but would probably have been happier as a scholar and writer.  He returned to California, by then a state, for a brief visit in 1859, and found San Francisco changed out of recognition, San Diego hardly at all.

D.H. Lawrence speaks well of  Two Years Before the Mast in his Studies in the Classic American Literature. Simon Leys translated it into French, and in his The Hall of Uselessness includes a concise account of Dana's life and writings, crediting him with establishing the rule that ships under sail have the right of way against those using power.

The copy I have been reading, purchased at the end of the 1960s serves well enough. Somebody should bring out an annotated edition that would carefully explain, with illustrations, the technical terms. I know well enough what a fathom is, and even a studding sail yard,  but have to guess at plenty of other terms. The Library of America publishes Two  Years along with two other books of travel Dana wrote. They might better publish it with The Seaman's Friend, a book of


  1. I suppose being a Canberran temporarily resident in Belgium places me in a special position vis a vis Simon Leys/Pierre Ryckmans, but anything he took the trouble to translate must have value. Thank you for alerting me to Dana's existence.

    1. You would likely enjoy the book. Leys says that from first to last,he rewrote the manuscript three times over 18 years, so it was a fair bit of trouble.