Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

In Two Years Before the Mast: A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., presents a narrative of his two years as a sailor aboard the Pilgrim, trading on the coast of California. He describes the sailor’s life in the early days of shipping, as well as life in California before the gold rush. His eyesight impaired by measles, Dana left Harvard University to take a voyage during his convalescence—but as a sailor rather than passenger. Upon his return, he published his narrative of that sea journey. The book consists of thirty-seven chapters, most of them subdivided into journal entries written on particular days of interest. The concluding chapter, written some time later, suggests reforms to remedy the injustices of sailors’ lives.

Dana begins on the day of sailing, August 14, 1834, on the brig Pilgrim. The ship was bound for the West Coast of North America from Boston. His first impression of the ship was negative. The captain described himself to the crew as “clever,” but “a bloody rascal” when crossed. The narrative follows the daily life and hardships of the sailors on the journey around Cape Horn. Dana describes memorable experiences such as the sighting of albatrosses, dolphins, and whales. He also shares much technical knowledge about the ship itself. Arriving at the California coast, the vessel anchored in the bay of Santa Barbara. Dana describes the coast of California and its inhabitants. The brig engaged in trading, traveling up the coast to Monterey and back down to San Pedro and San Diego.

Learning that the Pilgrim was to be in California for longer than two years, Dana resigned himself to becoming a lifelong sailor. Friends interceded on his behalf, however, and he was transferred to the Alert, scheduled to return to Boston at the end of two years. Here he found better living conditions and a kinder captain. After sailing to San Francisco, the Alert returned to San Diego, loaded its cargo of hides, and journeyed to Boston. It arrived in September, 1836, whereupon Dana left the ship to return to his studies.


(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Aaron, Daniel. “Two Boston Fugitives: Dana and Parkman.” In American Literature, Culture, and Ideology: Essays in Memory of Henry Nash Smith. New York: Peter Lang, 1990. Compares Two Years Before the Mast and Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail (1849). Though purportedly factual, both incorporate fictive devices such as psychologically motivated background descriptions and characters whose personalities affect events that are narrated suspensefully. Stresses the authors’ family and vocational pressures.

Gale, Robert L. Richard Henry Dana, Jr. New York: Twayne, 1969. Includes an analysis of the narrative movement, structure, rhetoric, and tone of Two Years Before the Mast. Places it in the context of other American journey books.

Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. New York: Seltzer, 1923. This insightful work includes a discussion of the flogging Dana observes and his response to it, his mysterious toothache, and the power of the sea and Dana’s descriptions of it.

Lucid, Robert F. “The Influence of Two Years Before the Mast on Herman Melville.” American Literature 31 (November, 1959): 243-256. A careful examination of the degree to which Melville may have been influenced by Dana’s narrative in composing Redburn: His First Voyage (1849) and White-Jacket (1850).

Philbrick, Thomas. James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961. Contrasts Dana’s realistically accurate depiction of life at sea with Cooper’s more romantic treatment in his early sea fiction.