Two Years Before the Mast (American History Through Literature)
In 1834 Richard Henry Dana Jr. (1815882), concerned about his failing eyesight, abandoned his studies at Harvard and signed on as an ordinary seaman on the brig Pilgrim for a journey around Cape Horn to California. For a member of a prominent Boston family, this was an extreme move away from a life of privilege. Two Years before the Mast (1840) is Dana's record of his epic voyage, and its story falls into three stages: the journey to California, his time in and off of the coast of California, and finally the journey home.
Although purporting to be nothing more than an autobiographical memoir, Two Years before the Mast, as is true of any account of a journey, becomes a voyage of discovery and self-discovery. It takes its place in a
What separates Two Years before the Mast is that these are journeys across the landmass of America; Dana's is a sea journey. There are other accounts of sea journeys from this period, the most celebrated of which are fictional, such as Edgar Allan Poe's (1809849) The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838) and Melville's Typee (1846), White-Jacket (1850), and Moby-Dick (1851). American sea stories, both fictional and nonfictional, tend to focus on heroes on the edge of a new frontier. This is underlined by their sense of space. British sea stories reflect a small island where people live in close proximity. The American sea story, by contrast, feels boundless: the distances are enormous, and the time spent away from land is lengthy. There is always a sense of an epic journey into the unknown. The purpose of this journey, however, is economic. America in the 1830s was a maritime trading nation; at the heart of Two Years before the Mast is the trade in animal hides, which are collected on the mainland by the crew and then brought back from California to Boston. But in 1834, although it would not have been apparent at the time, America's maritime-based economic order was about to go into decline. During the 1840s and 1850s the land frontier, the whole of mainland America, took over as the central feature of both the American economy and the American imagination. The change is reflected in Dana's "Twenty-Four Years After" postscript (1869), which replaced his original concluding chapter that had focused on sailors' rights; by this time, the sea no longer has the same significance in America's sense of its national identity.
Regardless of whether it is the land or sea frontier, however, similar assumptions inform all these travel narratives. In the words of Eric J. Sundquist: "The literal mapping of the United States was accompanied by a vast written record that established the psychological and political boundaries of the nation territory that existed as an act of prophetic vision even before poets and novelists expanded its horizons" (p. 129). American travel narratives describe a new territory but bring that place under control, absorbing it into America's narrative. When this pattern is acknowledged, it becomes apparent why the longest section of Two Years before the Mast, allegedly an account of a sea journey, is set in California. When the book was first published California was part of Mexico; following the Mexican-American War in 1846848, California became part of the United States. In 1849, the year of the gold rush, nearly 100,000 forty-niners entered the territory.
But every step of Dana's journey is rich in implications. The basic informing structure is that the values of Boston (values that are reasserted when Dana meets other cultivated people) are set against the different values and order of the ship and then set against the values encountered in California. On the journey home there is a feeling of captivity, with Dana longing for liberation, a liberation that can only be achieved through restoration to his own world. This secure sense of his own core values positions Dana in a certain way: he becomes an observer, and analyst, of the contradictions of America. The journey affects him profoundlyarticularly the inhumane treatment of sailors that he witnessesut in essence it reinforces his commitment to the values he held when he embarked.
THE REGIME OF THE SHIP
Problems emerge fairly slowly in the text. Initially the impression is positive. What is obvious as the work commences is the spirit and energy of America, people working together in a democratic, trading nation. Dana conveys the flavor of business and enterprise. There is a new challenge every day, the series of challenges reaching a climax with the rounding of Cape Horn on the journey home. One distinctive feature of the book is Dana's positive portrayal of his fellow seamen. The British naval writer Captain Marryat is always disparaging, leveling insults at his own characters. Dana, by contrast, is liberal and fair. This becomes clear if one compares Dana's stance with that of Poe in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. What appears to underlie Poe's strange allegorical work is a fear of blackness coupled with distrust of the working-class crew. Poe, a product of the antebellum South, seems driven by racial and class anxieties, his fear of anarchy leading to a desire for confrontation and destruction. Dana exemplifies a different position, that of the antebellum northern liberal conservative.
Dana's stance is evident in the way the fierce regime of the ship is at odds with his sense of justice. As always happens in sea stories, people are physically mistreated. The form it takes here is the ferocious, arbitrary punishments meted out by Captain Thompson. Dana was not opposed to corporal punishment, accepting that the conventions of polite society are not entirely applicable at sea. But a line can be crossed, and unreasonable corporal punishment is incompatible with everything America should stand for. As the captain flogs two crew members, they are robbed of their identities: "A man human being, made in God's likenessastened up and flogged like a beast! A man, too, whom I had lived with and eaten with for months, and knew almost as well as a brother" (p. 153). Focusing on his own response to the punishment, Dana grasps some awkward truths about America. In a key sentence, he writes: "I thought of our own situation, living under a tyranny; of the character of the country we were in" (p. 157). This can be taken as a local reference, as the ship has now arrived in California, but if one accepts that Dana is writing about the country as a whole, what is striking is the juxtaposition of tyranny and America. The simplicity of the formulation is typical of the seemingly artless manner in which Two Years before the Mast offers a complex mediation on the state of the emergent nation; Dana has constructed a consideration of the gap between the democratic ideal and the complicated reality of America.
The picture becomes even more complicated when the crew steps ashore in California. There is a sense, however, in which the interpretation of this unfamiliar territory has been determined in advance. In California, Dana meets "idle, thriftless people, [who] can make nothing for themselves. The country abounds in grapes, yet they buy bad wine made in Boston, and brought round by us" (p. 125). The Mexicans and Native Americans Dana encountered in California represent the opposite of everything America stands for, and his characterization of them is typical of many American travel narrativesrue not only of the people's indolence but also evident in their domestic immorality and, at the political level, in the constant revolutions that characterize Mexican life. There is a natural abundance in California, but it is being squandered; it is crying out to be brought under American control. Indeed, the standard pattern in American travel narratives could also be said to be the pattern of all travel narratives: the traveler arrives on another shore, which is discovered to be a place of idleness, luxury, and excess. The new land is a place of Edenic possibility but is also a place of indulgence; it is, in particular, a land of sexual indulgence and as such a place of temptation. The traveler is in danger of being seduced by a way of life that is the opposite of everything that his (or, more rarely, her) culture represents.
The standard pattern of American travel narratives is also the pattern of all colonial and colonizing narratives. And California is not just successfully colonized but absorbed into the United States, a development considered in "Twenty-Four Years After," the postscript altering, and possibly concealing, some of the original implications of Dana's work. But even before the addition of the postscript, Two Years before the Mast was probably being read in a different way after 1848 when, with the annexation of California, the book enjoyed a second burst of popularity. In a sense it became the authoritative guidebook, not only describing the nature of the territory but also by default suggesting what America would be able to do for California. All of this is confirmed in "Twenty-Four Years After," when the reader is presented with an impression of a vibrant economyven if there is a hint of regret at how the world has moved on. Moreover, the annexation of California adds to the complexity and diversity of America. Dana depicts people drawn together, but not united, by the scramble for wealth. As always, there is a gap between the simple democratic ideal and the awkward economic reality of America.
DANA, DEMOCRACY, AND THE LAW
A travel narrative tells the reader about the country from which the traveler originates and about the country (or countries) encountered, yet it also tells about the traveler. In this context, it is helpful to call upon Jonathan Arac's description of the structure of a personal narrative, specifically how there is a "circular shape of descent and return touching of ground, even a humiliation before the return to the elevation of ordinary civilized life" (p. 661). If one looks for Dana's moment of humiliation, it could be argued that the moment occurs when he uses his social connections to avoid staying on in California. Summoned by Captain Thompson, he is told that he will not be permitted to return home for another twelve months. But Dana has "friends and interest enough at home to make them suffer for any injustice they might do me" (p. 350). Consequently, another sailor, "looking as though he had received his sentence to be hung" (p. 350), is ordered to take Dana's place, Dana having to provide him with $30 and a suit of clothes. A tense situation is resolved when a "harumscarum lad" (p. 351) offers to stay on. It is a brief but telling episode. Once again it illustrates the disparity between the democratic ideal of America and the uncomfortable reality, that all men are not equal. But is also illustrates how Dana, as a privileged individual, is implicated in the larger issue. The problem is not a political abstraction; he is personally involved. Indeed, he has exploited the system to his own advantage. The reader can understand why, on the return leg of the voyage, Dana is keen to escape from the sea; it is as if he wishes to return to his insulated, slightly unreal life in Boston.
The journey, however, has made him aware of the contradictions at the heart of American life. In particular, as framed and developed in his narrative, Dana's experiences have enabled him to ponder, although never directly, questions about labor and individual rights. As such, Two Years before the Mast resembles a great many other nineteenth-century American works, texts generically labeled as romances. Traditionally, critical readings of such works focused on the idea of escape, but beginning in the late twentieth century more emphasis was placed on how these works engage with actual social and political conditions. Robert Clark notes that while American romance narratives may offer a picture of a society that believes it is "perfect" and "a spiritual example to the less enlightened peoples of the world," it is also a society "inflected by slavery, genocidal conquest and acute class tensions" (p. 586). In a word, what people are confronted with is a representation of nascent capitalism, with all of the ideals and ills attendant upon that formation.
If Two Years before the Mast evokes the nature of the problem, the rest of Dana's life demonstrates his commitment to the belief that the law can, and should, be used to restrain the worst excesses of a market economy. This is reflected in the original concluding chapter, focusing as it does on sailors' rights, where Dana puts his faith in "laws, with heavy penalties" (p. 469). His position is also made clear in the book he published in 1841, The Seaman's Friend handbook of sailors' rightss well as in his work as a lawyer, where he acquired a reputation for taking on the cases or ordinary seamen. Of most interest, however, is his representation without charge of fugitive slaves captured in Boston under the Fugitive Slave Law. It was a form of legal work that inevitably antagonized his social peers in Boston, people who relied upon the southern plantations to maintain the prosperity of their cotton mills. This political stance was foreshadowed in Two Years before the Mast, a text that simultaneously exposes the unfairness, and inhumanity, of the market economy and Dana's commitment to the law as the best, possibly the only, means of correcting the balance.
See also Exploration and Discovery; Maritime Commerce; Nautical Literature; Reform; Travel Writing
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