Richard Henry Dana, Jr. Essay - Critical Essays

Dana, Sr., Richard Henry


Richard Henry Dana, Sr. 1787-1879

(Also wrote under pseudonym of The Idle Man) American essayist, poet, editor, short story writer, critic, and lecturer.

Considered a minor literary figure, Dana was among the first American literary critics to be a proponent of romanticism. Following his conversion to Congregationalism in 1827, Dana rejected the romantic mode and began a sustained conservative attack on what he saw as the paucity of American culture.

Biographical Information

Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1787, Dana was the youngest of five children. After schooling in Newport, Rhode Island, he entered Harvard College in 1804, but was expelled three years later for taking part in a student rebellion. Dana's hopes of a comfortable career as an independent man of letters were severely compromised when his brother Francis lost much of the family fortune in property speculations. Admitted to the bar in 1812, Dana married Ruth Charlotte Smith one year later. When the North American Review was founded in 1815, Dana became a contributor, and in 1818 he was named assistant editor. His outspoken review of William Hazlitt's Lectures on the English Poets countered the prevailing neoclassical critical fashion and he was denied the editorship of the journal, causing him to resign from his post. In 1821 Dana began to publish a new periodical, The Idle Man, but it ran only six issues. Following his wife's death in 1822, Dana was influenced by the revival movement led by Lyman Beecher and, in 1826, he converted to Congregationalism and began to write on religious matters. In the latter part of his career, faced with penury, Dana extended the range of his literary endeavors, writing poetry, teaching English literature, and lecturing on Shakespeare. Suffering from failing health, Dana retired to his house at Cape Ann and died there on February 2, 1879.

Major Works

Dana's broad literary output included poetry, short fiction, book reviews, lectures, and essays. His first publications were reviews and critical essays for The Monthly Anthology and its successor, the North American Review. Dana's notorious review of Hazlitt's Lectures on the English Poets, in which he praised William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge at the expense of neoclassical poet Alexander Pope, established his reputation in Boston as a romantic iconoclast. Dana's early prose fiction, such as the gothic tale "Paul Felton" (1822), is characterized by its exploration of the supernatural and the psychology of the imagination. Dana published his first volume of poetry, The Buccaneer and Other Poems (1827), at the behest of his friend William Cullen Bryant, and followed it with Poems and Prose Writings (1833). A two-volume edition of the Poems and Prose Writings was published in 1850. Of Dana's poems, the long poem "The Buccaneer" has helped sustain his reputation as a noteworthy poet. In 1838 Dana began a series of seven lectures on Shakespeare, but these remain unpublished. His later essays reveal his rejection of the romantic mode and offer a conservative critique of American cultural shallowness and anti-intellectualism, conditions which stemmed, Dana believed, from America's passion for social equality and its disinterest in the past.

Critical Reception

The strength and independence of Dana's literary opinions often exposed him to censure. During his period of literary activity, his work met with both critical hostility and public indifference, but it was also well received by many reviewers and, for a time, he enjoyed a solid reputation as a serious literary figure. Many of Dana's contemporaries found his poetry stronger in conception than performance. Often viewed as a provocative essayist and an idiosyncratic reviewer, Dana left an intellectual stamp on his work which enhanced his essays and sometimes damaged his poems. His philosophical seriousness was at times taken for Calvinist brooding, and he was criticized for his gloomy tone. Although his lectures on Shakespeare were prompted by financial expediency, they were generally well received. Modern critics, such as Doreen Hunter and Robert A. Ferguson, have focused their analyses of Dana's work on his rejection of romanticism in favor of his later conservative views of religion and law. Dana's professional life ended in obscurity; he lived long enough to see his own career eclipsed by that of his son, Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

Principal Works

The Idle Man [editor and major contributor] (essays, short stories, poetry) 1821-22
The Buccaneer and Other Poems (poetry) 1827
Poems and Prose Writings (poetry, essays and criticism) 1833
*Poems and Prose Writings. 2 vols. (poetry, essays, and criticism) 1850
*Includes the first edition of Poems and Prose Writings (1833).


Richard Henry Dana, Sr. (essay date 1827)

SOURCE: "Preface to the First Edition of the Poems," in Poems and Prose Writings, Vol I, Baker and Scribner, 1850, pp. ix-xi.

[In the following preface to his first collection of poems, first published in 1827 and reissued in 1850 with a second volume of his poetry, Dana expresses his hopes for the public's favorable reception of his work, and comments on the partly factual source for "The Buccaneer. "

It is not without hesitation that I give this small volume [The Buccaneer and Other Poems] to the public; for no one can be more sensible than I am how much is necessary to the production of what may be rightly called poetry. It is true that something resembling it is oftentimes borne into instant and turbulent popularity, while a work of genuine character may be lying neglected by all except the poets. But the tide of time flows on, and the former begins to settle to the bottom, while the latter rises slowly and steadily to the surface, and moves forward, for a spirit is in it.

It is a poor ambition to be anxious after the distinction of a day in that which, if it be fit to live at all, is to live for ages. It is wiser than all, so to love one's art that its distinctions shall be but secondary: and, indeed, he who is not so absorbed in it as to think of his fame only as one of its accidents had better save himself his toil; for the true power is not in him. Yet the most self-dependent are stirred to livelier action by the hope of fame, and there are none who can go on with vigour, without the sympathy of some few minds which they respect.

I will not say of my first tale ["The Buccaneer"] as Miss Edgeworth sometimes does of her improbabilities, "This is a fact"; but this much I may say: there are few facts so well vouched for, and few truths so fully believed in, as the account upon which I have grounded my story.

I shall not name the island off our New England coast upon which these events happened, and these strange appearances were seen; for islanders are the most sensitive creatures in the world in all that relates to their places of abode.

I have changed the time of the action—which was before the war of our Revolution—to that of the great contest in Spain; as the reader will see, in my making use of the Christian name of Lord Wellington...

(The entire section is 977 words.)

The American Monthly Review (review date 1833)

SOURCE: Review of Poems and Prose Writings, in The American Monthly Review, Vol. IV, No. VI, December, 1833, pp. 468-80.

[In the following excerpt, the author favorably reviews Dana's poetry and prose, calling him "one of the best writers of the day. "]

Mr. Dana is a poet in the true sense of the term. He combines a striking originality and reach of thought with beautiful and expressive language. But the former power far exceeds the latter. Indeed he seems himself to be aware of this; for he says of his own poetry that it lacks "something of that melody of voice and harmony of expression, which so win upon us unawares." As a poetical thinker, Mr. Dana has no...

(The entire section is 2330 words.)

The New Englander (review date 1851)

SOURCE: A review of Poems and Prose Writings, in The New Englander, Vol. IX, No. XXXIII, February, 1851, pp. 28-35.

[In the following favorable review, the author praises Dana's poetic diction, his style, and his artistic character.]

Our first remark is, that Mr. Dana's language is made up in a great degree of Saxon. It is free, more than that of most authors, from Latinisms, Gallicisms, from modern conventionalisms, and all pert and dainty expressions. He eschews, as by instinct, such words as "emanate," "develop," "position," "responsibility," "elevated," "exposition," etc., unless in cases where they may be absolutely needed to give the sense. It is hardly...

(The entire section is 3098 words.)

R. H. Stoddard (essay date 1879)

SOURCE: "Richard Henry Dana," in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Vol. LVIII, No. 347, April, 1879, pp. 769-76.

[In the following excerpt Stoddard provides a critical overview of Dana's literary career, noting especially the influence of Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" on "The Buccaneer."]

To rightly understand an author, and the place he occupies in the literature of his country, we must not only understand the events of his life and the order in which his works were written, we must also understand the literary conditions under which they were produced, and which conspired to make them what they were. To judge the authors of the last century by the standards...

(The entire section is 5626 words.)

William Charvat (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: "Criticism, Magazines, and Critics," in The Origins of American Colonial Thought, 1810-1835, A. S. Barnes and Company, Inc., 1961, pp. 164-205.

[In the following excerpt, Charvat provides an overview of Dana's work as a literary critic and examines the critical value of Dana's unpublished lectures on Shakespeare.]

Dana was a . . . militant romantic . . . , and his utterances were loud as well as strong. His life was full of stridencies and contradictions, beginning with his expulsion from Harvard in 1807. This literary rebel was a confirmed Federalist and a trinitarian tending toward high-church Episcopalianism. As poet and novelist he was of the Gothic school,...

(The entire section is 1038 words.)

Doreen Hunter (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "America's First Romantics: Richard Henry Dana, Sr. and Washington Allston," in The New England Quarterly, Vol. XLV, No. 1, March, 1972, pp. 3-30.

[In the following excerpt, Hunter addresses Dana's early espousal of romanticism and his later conversion to evangelical Christianity.]

Like so many writers and artists of their generation, Dana and [Washington] Allston inherited a world view at odds with the one they adopted in their early manhood. They were torn between a traditional body of ideas which assumed the existence of universal truths and the exciting but private psychological visions of Coleridgean idealism. Unable to reconcile a yearning for the...

(The entire section is 5266 words.)

Robert A. Ferguson (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "The Richard Henry Danas: Father and Son," in Law and Letters in American Culture, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984, pp. 241-72.

[In the following excerpt, Ferguson compares Dana's early romanticism with his later thoughts on legal theory, contrasting the gothic story "Paul Felton" (1822), with the essay "Law as Suited to Man " (1835).

Some individuals personify the wholeness of an age; others reflect the incompleteness of its parts. Daniel Webster, in the first category, spoke confidently for the nineteenth century and symbolized its conventions. The Richard Henry Danas, father and son, were more shadowy figures caught up in changes that they...

(The entire section is 4571 words.)

Further Reading


Dana, Richard Henry, III. "Richard Henry Dana, Sr." In Later Years of the Saturday Club, 1870-1920, edited by M. A. DeWolfe Howe, pp. 36-42. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1927.

A brief biographical sketch of Dana by his grandson.

"Richard Henry Dana." Harper's Weekly XXIII, No. 1156, (22 February 1879): 142.

A brief obituary essay which addresses Dana's friendship with William Cullen Bryant, his poetry, and the success of his lectures on Shakespeare.

Hunter, Doreen M. Richard Henry Dana, Sr. Boston: Twayne, 1987,...

(The entire section is 266 words.)