If an attack of measles had not threatened the eyesight of Richard Henry Dana, Jr., and forced his withdrawal from Harvard, the United States would have lost one of the most popular travel adventure books, Two Years Before the Mast. Less arduous and unpredictable forms of convalescence certainly were available to a well-born young Bostonian. Dana’s physical condition could not have been the only reason for his shipping out as a common sailor; his decision must, to some extent, have represented important psychological and emotional needs—to have an “adventure,” to “test” himself and his “manhood,” to separate himself, at least temporarily, from the narrow environment and conservative religious atmosphere of his family and social class.
Immediately after returning from his voyage, while finishing his studies at Harvard and then pursuing a law degree, Dana began to record his experiences anew, largely from memory, since his brother Frank lost the log he kept during the voyage. When the book was published in 1840, it became, to everyone’s surprise, an instant commercial success. Ten years later, following the discovery of gold in California, it enjoyed a second burst of popularity, for it was almost the only book available that dealt with the early California environment. Dana profited little from the book in a material way; discouraged in his attempts to find a publisher, he sold all rights to the work to Harper’s Magazine for $250.
Two Years Before the Mast probably remains popular because it combines two of the most popular motifs—those of the travel-adventure romance and the coming-of-age narrative—in a skillful, vivid manner. The genre of travel-adventure romance, which attracted writers as diverse and talented as James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway, was particularly popular in the mid-nineteenth century. Such narratives vicariously fulfill at least two emotional needs of the reader: the glorification of physical hardship and an identification with the overcoming of obstacles, especially nature itself, and an escape from the confines of a narrow, dull environment to a world of sensuous experience. Two Years Before the Mast combines much of the former and generous hints of the latter, especially in the description of quaint customs and free lifestyle of the Californians. The secret to the depiction of such an escape vision is to make the exotic, unknown world real to the reader, and this is where Dana succeeds brilliantly.
Although Two Years Before the Mast is autobiographical, many readers accepted it as fiction, a tribute to Dana’s storytelling abilities. His prose style is direct, concrete, and muted, lacking the rhetorical embellishment so characteristic of most mid-nineteenth century writing but frequently laced with...
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