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This book really takes you back in time an teaches you the ways and lives of common sailors. Plus you get a rare look at California before it was fully settled. Exciting from start to finish. And its all real! Just an amazing work.
7 of 7 people found this review helpful
Two Years Before the Mast (1840/1869) is a slow-paced and absorbing book. In it Richard Henry Dana, Jr. recounts with the aid of his diary entries how he went to sea in 1834 on an American merchant ship called The Pilgrim, sailing south from Boston, going around Cape Horn, and then north to work in the cow-hide trade off the coast of California. He'd left his studies at Harvard University (and his status as scion of an elite Boston family) to work as a novice common sailor to improve his measles-weakened eyes.
Rather than a ripping sea adventure yarn (the only naval action ala Hornblower or Aubrey/Maturin being a suspenseful moment when the Pilgrim eludes a suspicious ship flying no colors), Dana intended to fill a void in the sea literature of his day by authentically showing what it was like to be a "Jack before the mast" on a merchant ship in the age of sail, because the norm then was fictional and inaccurate accounts penned by former naval officers and civilian passengers. His “design,” as he puts it, "is to present the life of a common sailor at sea as it really is, -- the light and the dark together." So he devotes much of his narrative to detailing the workings of a ship in fair weather and foul on weekdays and Sundays, including accounts of the work done (reefing, furling, and maintaining the various masts, yards, sails, and lines, as well as keeping watch, cleaning the decks, mending clothes, stowing hides, etc.), the food and drink consumed, the power hierarchy obeyed, the indelicate masculine culture endured, the few leisure activities enjoyed, and so on. He also depicts the changing features of the lands, oceans, and climates of the different latitudes and longitudes through which he sailed during his two-year sojourn.
I confess to being unable to clearly visualize Dana's detailed accounts of managing the different parts of the ship's rigging (topgallants, studdings, royals, mizzens, hawsers, cleats, tackles, yards, etc.) and to daydreaming through them. I still don’t have a clue as to what a clew line is, but it's not really necessary to follow all the nautical details, because Dana so vividly conveys the challenging, skilful, and crucial nature of the work.
In addition to giving such factual information, Dana achieves by turns a sublime poetry (from endless oceanic vistas to gargantuan ice bergs), a comic touch (for human foibles and salty phrases), a suspenseful flair (during cataclysmic storms involving rain, hail, snow, ice, thunder and lightening, driving winds, and vast swells), and a sanely indignant tone (at the abuses of power by the captains directed at the sailors). And he believes that "We must come down from our heights, and leave our straight paths, for the byways and low places of life, if we would learn truths by strong contrasts; and in hovels, in forecastles, and among our own outcasts in foreign lands, see what has been wrought upon our fellow-creatures by accident, hardship, or vice." Indeed, Dana’s younger self was open-minded, admiring uneducated but brilliant, handsome, or interesting shipmates and making fast friends with the Hawaiians who lived on the California coast to sell their services to the ships plying the cow hide trade there.
As a native of California, I was fascinated by Dana’s description of its coast in the first half of the 19th century. Places like San Francisco, Monterey, Santa Barbara, San Juan Capistrano, Los Angeles, and San Diego were all so different from what they are today, being sparsely populated, undeveloped, and colorfully and sleepily California-Spanish-Mexican. I'd always regretted America grabbing California from Mexico by war, but Dana reveals some unappealing aspects of Mexican-Californian culture, how it rigidly divided classes according to skin-color, with the aristocrats at the top being those with “purest” Spanish blood and the Indian serfs (at best) at the bottom doing all the hard and dirty work in return for poor food and shabby loincloths. Not to mention the related unfair application of justice, the need to convert to Catholicism to be able to live there, and the brutal use of horses and avid bull and cock fighting.
Two Years Before the Mast was first published in 1840, but this audiobook is the 1869 revised edition that includes a long epilogue in which Dana revisits California 24 years after he was there as a young man, describing the explosive growth of San Francisco and his feeling of nostalgia for the demise of the California cow-hide trade he loathed so much when he had to labor in it and bringing us up to date on the lives and fates of the ships he sailed on and the men he sailed and worked with.
I really liked Bernard Mayes' reading of Herodotus' Histories, as his gravelly, thin, and dry voice aptly evoked a witty and aged Herodotus, so I was looking forward to listening to his reading of Two Years Before the Mast, but I found myself at times wishing for a younger man's voice for this book, for Mayes' tended to crack and quaver when shouting ship-board orders. But he is in fine form through most of the book and in moments like when an enraged captain flogs two men, roaring with peevish tyranny, "If you want to know what I flog you for, I'll tell you. It's because I like to do it!-because I like to do it!-It suits me! That's what I do it for!"
There are two flaws in this audiobook: it lacks Dana's interesting footnotes and offers occasional faint microphone bumps.
Finally, brief remarkable moments like when Dana observes the white sails of his ship full of quiet breeze like a marble pyramid on a starry night or when he watches a solitary albatross asleep with his head under his wing, rising and falling slowly up and down the heavy swell of the waves make Two Years Before the Mast a classic.
5 of 5 people found this review helpful