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Two Years Before the Mast

Richard Henry Dana

Book Overview: 

It is the story of a sailor's life from the forecastle, not a captain, nor a passenger, but a regular hand. The book was a great favorite with the jack tar of Dana's day. Even those who haven't the faintest idea what reefing topsail is, or which is starboard and which larboard, will find it an engaging story of an era long past told in simple narrative style.

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Book Excerpt: 
. . . front of it, which they often do in fine weather, they usually wear a small scarf or neckerchief of a rich pattern. A band, also, about the top of the head, with a cross, star, or other ornament in front, is common. Their complexions are various, depending—as well as their dress and manner—upon their rank; or, in other words, upon the amount of Spanish blood they can lay claim to. Those who are of pure Spanish blood, having never intermarried with the aborigines, have clear brunette complexions, and sometimes, even as fair as those of English women. There are but few of these families in California; being mostly those in official stations, or who, on the expiration of their offices, have settled here upon property which they have acquired; and others who have been banished for state offences. These form the aristocracy; inter-marrying, and keeping up an exclusive system in every respect. They can be told by their complexions, dress, manner, and also by their . . . Read More

Community Reviews

I read part of this in Jr HS, then all of it after I graduated from college; my Shakespeare teacher (38 plays in the full year course) asked me, as he read it, why so much reference to the "lee scuppers." For a beginning sailor like me, an easy answer: those are the drains that fill because of th...more

I read this book after reading about it in Kevin Starr's excellent history of California: California and the American Dream as well as reading about it in the foreword to Herman Melville's "White Jacket".
White Jacket was, of course, at least partially inspired by this book, and after reading "Two...more

In a way, the best thing for a writer is misfortune. In that regard, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. got lucky.

A young Harvard man, he signed on as a common seaman aboard the brig Pilgrim, bound for California from Boston, to help improve his health. Had it been smooth sailing over benign seas under a wi...more

Two Years before the Mast is a captivating account of Richard Henry Dana, Jr.'s service as a common sailor on a voyage from Boston to the California coast in the early 1830s. The long expositions on the technical aspects of navigation under canvas may not be of interest to those without familiari...more

This book made me cry multiple times, but not for the direct subject matter. I think there were just a few too many references to the California coast described in enough detail that the effect was to pry out long-lingering ghosts haunting the coastline of my own isle of denial. his descriptions...more

“The utmost was required of every man in the way of his duty.”

“Two Years Before The Mast” was not always an enjoyable read for me, but overall it was a good one, and maybe even a necessary one. Published in 1840, this book is the account of Richard Henry Dana, a Harvard graduate, who spent two ye...more

this book is absolutely essential for anyone who has any desire of stepping off the quarterdeck of his historical fiction (O'Brien novels) and heading down to the focs'l to hear about sailing traditional ships from the men who were actually sweating lines, heave-yo-ho-ing, and climbing the riggi...more

Mr. Richard Dana Jr. or Dana as his shipmates called him, is a man I would like to know. Based on his autobiographical Two Years Before the Mast, a recounting of his 1834-1836, seagoing-adventures aboard the Pilgrim (outbound) and Alert (return), Mr. Dana was a popular, hard-working, man’s man a...more

Historically unique and surprisingly readable first-person account of life at sea on a merchant vessel 1834-36, sailing from Boston, around Cape Horn and up and down the undeveloped, cowhide-disgorging California coast. Most versions also include an equally interesting Afterward, in which the now...more

This book didn't give me the thrill I was hoping for; it's not exactly The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea. Just as much time is spent on land as at sea, engaged in the hides trade, visiting with Spanish and Indian locals, riding horses, attending wedding fandangoes. Dana's wri...more

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