Western Canon: Two Years Before the Mast

November 22, 2016
2 mins read

The vast body of Western literature is replete with many marvelous gems. Some are well known, some are forgotten.
This is one of the forgotten gems.
Written by a young man who sailed from Boston, around Cape Horn, and over to the coast of California on board a ship as a common sailor in the American merchant service in 1834 to 1836. The purpose of the voyage was to gather hides from California, fill the hold, and bring back the filled ship to Boston.
The author, Richard Henry Dana, left his Harvard collegiate lifestyle in an attempt to improve his health and kept a journal, fortunately for us.
Dana took his journal and fashioned a solid book about his voyage. His book is full of details, many nautical terms, numerous sketches of those sailing with him, the mundane work required to sail a ship, all sorts of weather, and descriptions of the vast emptiness of California decades before it was a state. He has the raw sense of a poet and a number of passages border on the lyrical and not just serviceable prose.
sextantTake, for instance, this section written when Dana first spied an iceberg off Cape Horn:
“And there lay, floating in the ocean, several miles off, an immense, irregular mass, its top and points covered with snow, and its centre of a deep indigo color…. As far as the eye could reach, the sea in every direction was of a deep blue color, the waves running high and fresh, and sparkling in the light, and in the midst lay this immense mountain-island, its cavities and valleys thrown into deep shade, and its points and pinnacles glittering in the sun….But no description can give any idea of the strangeness, splendor, and, really, the sublimity, of the sight. Its great size… its slow motion, as its base rose and sank in the water, and its high points nodded against the clouds; the dashing of the waves upon it, which, breaking high with foam, lined its base with a white crust; and the thundering sound of the cracking of the mass, and the breaking and tumbling down of huge pieces; together with its nearness and approach, which added a slight element of fear,– all combined to give to it the character of true sublimity.” [1]
It’s long, some 450 pages, and at times drags a little, but well worth reading. Don’t let the nautical terms overwhelm you, most of them start to make more sense with usage and increased descriptions.
The heart of the book, the core of his story, is about a young man sloughing off his soft lifestyle to become a crew member on a working ship. It didn’t happen overnight. He couldn’t sit around and complain about how hard it was. He was expected to work for two years in all sorts of weather. Yes, the author is a Yank, and a privileged one at that. In some ways, that only adds to the value of the book. When hard work is needed, your background is irrelevant. You either roll up your sleeves and get to work or you perish.
And that is something the Men of the West live by.
[1] https://infogalactic.com/info/Two_Years_Before_the_Mast


  1. This book was a favorite of mine, when I was young. It and Kipling’s Captains Courageous gave me my initial love of the sea and a desire to see new horizons. And in the world we have been forced to inhabit, where there is a dearth of masculine models to emulate, they also serve as a good sounding ground for young boys to measure themselves against.
    Good choice. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. You are both more than welcome.
    Kipling’s Captains Courageous is another one that should be read, too, that has fallen out of favor.

  3. I loved Captains Courageous when I was in grade school, long before I knew what a “Bildungsroman” was. It started a life long live of Kiplings work. Two years before the mast was highly recommended to me by my 6th grade teacher after he saw I liked the Kipling. Mr Spiegel was a Battle of the Bulge vet who routinely cracked heads of rambunctious boys. They don’t make em like that any more.

    • Kipling is a must read.
      Captains Courageous is still the best Bildungsroman I’ve read. Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Kidnapped” is another one that shouldn’t be missed, though the follow up novel, “Catriona”, is of such different tone and pacing it almost seems like a different author penned it.

  4. I love this kind of book. I’ll have to look it up. BTW for younger readers I highly recommend Carry On, Mr, Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham, The Coral Island by Ballantyne. All of the CS Forester’s Hornblower books are great too.

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