Review: Two Years Before The Mast

Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before The Mast is a very well known memoir of an unusual experience.  Dana was a college student and well-to-do Bostonian who took several years off from study to serve as a common sailor on a merchant vessel trading on the coast of California.  This sounds like a recipe for gimmick book today, but that was not a common tactic at the time.

There are a lot of memoirs that get lost in time.  Dana has two major factors working for him.  First his book is one of the only pre-gold-rush descriptions of California that was accessible to the Gold Rushers.  Many of them retraced Dana’s path with gold on their mind and Two Years Before The Mast under their arm.  Second, he writes very well.

I have read many historically interesting books that were deadly dull.  Even the best authors from more than 150 years ago can be opaque.  Dana is a welcome surprise.  His language is clear, evocative, and descriptive.  While some of the turns of phrase are dated, his meaning is clear and his language flows pleasingly.

He is a good enough writer that a simple diary would be interesting.  The topic is inherently more interesting than that.  Part adventure story, part travelogue, part behind-the-scenes story, Dana always has an interesting incident to relate in his clear prose.  We are treated to two trips around Cape Horn – no Panama Canal in 1834 – trading and hide gathering work in California, a survey of the coastline and population, and quality time on the ship.  As a current Californian, it is fun to hear the descriptions of the people and land from years ago.

My version also includes a chapter relating a later trip to California years later where he sees the changes from the Gold Rush and reconnects with some of the people he met years before.

Overall a very interesting, well-written memoir of exciting times.


2 Responses to “Review: Two Years Before The Mast”

  1. Tim Buchheim Says:

    I really should read it at some point. In fourth grade I read an abridged version for children (I went to R. H. Dana Elementary School, so of course it was required) but I’m sure the real thing would be more interesting.

  2. faber Says:

    Yeah, it’s excellent. I was thinking about it today and realized I’d forgotten to mention how bad he disses whalers. It’s pretty funny, really.