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Two Years Before the Mast   By: (1815-1882)

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Two Years Before the Mast Richard H. Dana, Jr.


In 1869, my father, the late Richard Henry Dana, Jr., prepared a new edition of his ``Two Years Before the Mast'' with this preface:

``After twenty eight years, the copyright of this book has reverted to me. In presenting the first `author's edition' to the public, I have been encouraged to add an account of a visit to the old scenes, made twenty four years after, together with notices of the subsequent story and fate of the vessels, and of some of the persons with whom the reader is made acquainted.''

The popularity of this book has been so great and continued that it is now proposed to make an illustrated edition with new material. I have prepared a concluding chapter to continue my father's ``Twenty four Years After.'' This will give all that we have since learned of the fate of crew and vessels, and a brief account of Mr. Dana himself and his important lifework, which appears more fully in his published biography[1] and printed speeches and letters.[2] This concluding chapter will take the place of the biographic sketch prefixed to the last authorized edition. There is also added an appendix with a list of the crews of the two vessels in which Mr. Dana sailed, extracts from a log, and also plates of spars, rigging and sails, with names, to aid the reader.

In the winter of 1879 80 I sailed round Cape Horn in a full rigged ship from New York to California. At the latter place I visited the scenes of ``Two Years Before the Mast.'' At the old town of San Diego I met Jack Stewart, my father's old shipmate, and as we were looking at the dreary landscape and the forlorn adobe houses and talking of California of the thirties, he burst out into an encomium of the accuracy and fidelity to details of my father's book. He said, ``I have read it again and again. It all comes back to me, everything just as it happened. The seamanship is perfect.'' And then as if to emphasize it all, with the exception that proves the rule, he detailed one slight case where he thought my father was at fault, a detail so slight that I now forget what it is. In reading the Log kept by the discharged mate, Amerzeen, on the return trip in the Alert, I find that every incident there recorded, from running aground at the start at San Diego Harbor, through the perilous icebergs round the Horn, the St. Elmo's fire, the scurvy of the crew and the small matters like the painting of the vessel, to the final sail up Boston Harbor, confirms my father's record. His former shipmate, the late B. G. Stimson, a distinguished citizen of Detroit, said the account of the flogging was far from an exaggeration, and Captain Faucon of the Alert also during his lifetime frequently confirmed all that came under his observation. Such truth in the author demands truth in illustration, and I have cooperated with the publishers in securing a painting of the Alert under full sail and other illustrations, both colored and in pen and ink, faithful to the text in every detail.

Accuracy, however, is not the secret of the success of this book. Its flowing style, the use of short Anglo Saxon words,[3] its picturesqueness, the power of description, the philosophic arrangement all contribute to it, but chiefly, I believe, the enthusiasm of the young Dana, his sympathy for his fellows and interest in new scenes and strange peoples, and with it all, the real poetry that runs through the whole. As to its poetry, I will quote from Mrs. Bancroft's ``Letters from England,'' giving the opinion of the poet Samuel Rogers:

``London, June 20, 1847.

``The 19th, Sat. we breakfasted with Lady Byron and my friend Miss Murray, at Mr. Rogers'. . . . After breakfast he had been repeating some lines of poetry which he thought fine, when he suddenly exclaimed, `But there is a bit of American prose, which, I think, has more poetry in it, than almost any modern verse.' He then repeated, I should think, more than a page from Dana's `Two Years Before the Mast' describing the falling overboard of one of the crew, and the effect it produced, not only at the moment, but for some time afterward... Continue reading book >>

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