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Saturday Art: Influential Authors: Richard Henry Dana, Jr.


Statue of Richard Henry Dana, Jr Dana Island, CA

I have read only one book by Richard Henry Dana, Jr but that one book is an extraordinary tale. Two Years Before the Mast was published in 1840 and was the first book ever written from the perspective of a common seaman’s life at sea. From Dana’s wiki (linked above):

In 1825, Dana enrolled in a private school overseen by Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom Dana later mildly praised as “a very pleasant instructor”, though he lacked a “system or discipline enough to insure regular and vigorous study.”[4] In July 1831, Dana enrolled at Harvard College, where in his freshman year his support of a student protest cost him a six-month suspension.[5] In his junior year, he contracted measles, which in his case led to ophthalmia.

Fatefully, the worsening vision inspired him to take a sea voyage. But rather than going on a fashionable Grand Tour of Europe, he decided to enlist as a merchant seaman, despite his high-class birth. On August 14, 1834 he departed Boston aboard the brig Pilgrim bound for Alta California, at that time still a part of Mexico.[6] This voyage would bring Dana to a number of settlements in California (including Monterey, San Pedro, San Juan Capistrano, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara and San Francisco). After witnessing a flogging on board the ship, he vowed that he would try to help improve the lot of the common seaman. The Pilgrim collected hides for shipment to Boston, and Dana spent much of his time in California curing hides and loading them onto the ship. To return home sooner, he was reassigned by the ship’s owners to a different ship, the Alert, and on September 22, 1836, Dana arrived back in Massachusetts.[7]

The first time I read this book was in my high school days. My sophomore and junior English teacher had found 100 question, multiple choice book report/tests and we had to read a book each week and take the corresponding test. There was a wide selection of books available so we were never locked into any one genre, author, or style. I don’t recall what I thought I was going to be reading when I picked up Two Years Before the Mast but I recall being quickly fascinated by the book. As always, the language used reflected an educated man of his era but still used some words in ways that we might deem racial slurs today. For example, it took me a bit to realize who he was talking about when he wrote about the “Kanakas” and the “Sandwich Islands.”

Please do read the wiki about Dana to gain a sense of his over all life but read this book as well for a fascinating window into life at sea in the 1830s where the ship’s captain was judge, jury, executioner, and God of all men on board.

The book was made into a movie in 1946 starring Alan Ladd and Brian Donlevy (Dana). While it is not a great movie, it still captures some of the adventure spirit of the book.

The picture of the statue of Dana above is from Dana Island off Dana Point, CA, an area described by Dana in the book.

A version of the statue of Dana is at the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, NY.

And because I can:

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Small town Kentucky country boy lived all over the country. Currently in Ruskin, FL