Two Years Before the Mast

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

This personal narrative contains the two truths of all great autobiography--the truth of time and place, and the truth of character.

The descriptions of the day-to-day routine of life “before the mast” are recorded in a solid, colloquial English, a non-bookish style that persuades the reader of the author’s honesty and accuracy. The high adventure of fighting squalls and escaping ice floes is counterpointed by the drudgery of tending sail, of keeping watch, of tarring and scraping and cleaning. Dana’s account of his two-month duty ashore in California drying and curing hides, his pictures of sleepy Monterey and busy San Diego and the barren beaches of Southern California, capture exactly a time and place, history being lived rather than merely recorded.

Dana’s ability to depict human character is the second great truth of the work. The book is rich in journalistically concise portraits, such as the happy-go-lucky Sandwich Islanders who worked only until they made enough money to live idly for a month or so; or Tom Harris, who knew more about sailing than any man alive and who taught the young author more about human nature than “many hours to be passed in study.” The most memorable delineation is that of Captain Frank Thompson, a harsh, mean-spirited tyrant who flogs a sailor partly out of discipline and partly out of sadistic pleasure.

The secret of the book is its honesty. Its power was evident to Herman Melville...

(The entire section is 489 words.)