Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

Two Years Before the Mast: A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea, by Richard Henry Dana. Signet Classics (1840), 432 pages.

This book is quite well-known and already has legions of devoted fans; my purpose here is to urge reluctant readers to give this a chance. (I’m identifying as “reluctant” people like myself who: (1) hate sailing narratives and (2) are turned off by any and all nautical terms and are subsequently annoyed or confused by the title of the book.)

Two Years was written in 1840 and was a bestseller at that time; Dana became a Harvard-educated lawyer specializing in maritime law who lobbied for social justice on the high seas as a result of his witnessing so many abuses during his time on the boat, and this book led to positive changes for sailors’ lives. Beyond that, it was also widely read during the Gold Rush because it was one of the only books in existence that described California. People preparing to move there in the mid-1840s pored over the book for any advice and information that could help them.  At over 400 pages, it is quite filled with descriptions of landscapes, animals, and people, unlike anything else I’ve read.

To be clear, though, it is very much a sailing narrative. I was a child who was unable to read Book 3 in the Narnia series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (despite loving the rest of the series), simply because of the boat on the cover and the sailing terms in Chapter 2. My advice, if you feel similarly, is to approach Two Years as if it were two books in one: a sailing book and a book about California. Simply skim through the former but savor the latter.

Dana boarded a ship in Boston in 1834 and sailed around the Horn to California, returning home two years later. So there are lengthy bits about head winds, and south-easters, and topsails and whatnot. But—the descriptions of pre Gold Rush California are a must read. He spent seven months moving back and forth between Santa Barbara, San Francisco, LA, and San Diego, collecting and loading cattle hides onto the ship for transport to the east. Again, this is pre Gold Rush…so pre that these places were not yet even villages. LA didn’t exist at all; he refers to it as “pueblo de los Angelos” and he hated it because he had to walk an entire “league” from shore (San Pedro Bay), uphill all the way, to reach the one man in the one house (that was the entire pueblo) who stored the hides. “One night, he burst into our room at the hide-house, breathless, pale as a ghost, covered with mud, and torn by thorns and briers, nearly naked, and begged for a crust of bread, saying he had neither eaten nor slept for three days.”  This is typical of Dana’s writing: his descriptions of the people he meets are always lively, detailed, and quite funny. Everybody was eccentric or insane, and he tells their stories with much color and dry humor. A description of one of the native Hawaiians that Dana worked with:

He must have been over fifty years of age, and had two of his front teeth knocked out, which was done by his parents as a sign of grief at the death of Kamehameha, the great king of the Sandwich Islands. We used to tell him that he ate Captain Cook, and lost his teeth in that way. That was the only thing that ever made him angry. He would always be quite excited at that; and say “Aole” (no) “Me no eat Captain Cook!”

Cook was killed by the native Hawaiians only 56 years before Dana’s writing, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn that people were already amusing themselves with cannibalism jokes in the 1830s. And it’s interesting to think that if this fellow was over fifty-six years old, he could feasibly have had a bite of Cook as a small child.

There are two sections of the book that are particularly memorable: his description of Dana Point, and his return visit to San Francisco in 1859 (the latter appearing as an afterward that first appeared in the 1869 edition of the book). Dana Point, in Orange County, is named after this author, and visitors to the harbor will find this handsome statue of a topless Dana staring out to sea with a book in his hand. He has a rather muscular abdomen.

San Juan [Dana Point] is the only romantic spot in California. The country here for several miles is hightable-land, running boldly to the shore, and breaking off in a steep hill, at the foot of which the waters of the Pacific are constantly dashing…  The rocks were as large as those of Nahant or Newport, but, to my eye, more grand and broken. Beside, there was a grandeur in everything around, which gave almost a solemnity to the scene: a silence and solitariness which affected everything! Not a human being but ourselves for miles; and no sound heard but the pulsations of the great Pacific! And the great steep hill rising like a wall, and cutting us off from all the world, but the world of waters! I separated myself from the rest and sat down on a rock, just where the sea ran in and formed a fine spouting horn… My better nature returned strong upon me. Everything was in accordance with my state of feeling, and I experienced a glow of pleasure at finding that what of poetry and romance I ever had in me, had not been entirely deadened by the laborious and frittering life I had led. Nearly an hour did I sit….

Dana visited San Francisco again in 1859, and of course found it almost unrecognizable, writing that he “could scarcely keep my hold on reality.”  He is melancholy about it all, while also enjoying the fact that he’s quite famous because everyone has read his book.

The customs of California are free; and any person who knows about my book speaks to me. The newspapers have announced the arrival of the veteran pioneer of all. I hardly walk out without meeting or making acquaintances.  I have already been invited to deliver the anniversary oration before the Pioneer Society….


The past was real. The present, all about me, was unreal, unnatural, repellant.