While attending Harvard as a young man, Richard Dana's eyesight became weak and his health declined. He decided that the austere prescription of salt air and plain hard work would be the cure. Not many would give up comfort and privilege, but for two years, Dana served as a common sailor, given special treatment as the gentleman he was, and lived in the forecastle of the Alert, eating the mess of salt beef and common hardtack, risking his life and serving under a captain crueler than most. Dana was able to write in such a way as to re-create the life on board a sailing ship, down to the smallest details and that's what makes this book so real and touching. You can feel the cold of Tierra del Fuego, taste the salt beef, and feel the wind and damp. What's more amazing is that Dana's carefully-kept journal was lost along with his other mementos of his voyage when he landed back on shore in Boston, due to some tragic carelessness of someone he entrusted with his chest of belongings. Yet he was able to recreate his voyage in vivid detail and in some very excellent writing. Dana's later life as a lawyer was far from happy, though he made some critical contributions to maritime law. He died a poor and disappointed man, but left us the richer with his book.
Richard Henry Dana Jr. (1815-1882) was an American lawyer and politician from Massachusetts, a descendant of an eminent colonial family who gained renown as the author of the American classic, the memoir Two Years Before the Mast. Both as a writer and as a lawyer, he was a champion of the downtrodden, from seamen to fugitive slaves. Dana was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on August 1, 1815 into a family that had settled in colonial America in 1640, counting Anne Bradstreet among its ancestors. In July 1831, Dana enrolled at Harvard College, where in his freshman year his support of a student protest cost him a six month suspension. In his junior year, he contracted measles, which in his case led to ophthalmia. Fatefully, the worsening vision inspired him to take a sea voyage. But rather than going on a fashionable Grand Tour of Europe, he decided to enlist as a merchant seaman, despite his high-class birth. On August 14, 1834 he departed Boston aboard the brig Pilgrim bound for Alta California, at that time still a part of Mexico. This voyage would bring Dana to a number of settlements in California (including Monterey, San Pedro, San Juan Capistrano, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, and San Francisco). After witnessing a flogging on board the ship, he vowed that he would try to help improve the lot of the common seaman. After graduating from law school, he went on to specialize in maritime law, writing The Seaman's Friend in 1841 - which became a standard reference on the legal rights and responsibilities of sailors - and defending many common seamen in court. He had kept a diary during his voyages, and in 1840 he published a memoir, Two Years Before the Mast. The term, before the mast refers to sailors' quarters, which were located in the forecastle (the ship's bow), officers' quarters being near the stern. His writing evidences his later social feeling for the oppressed. With the California Gold Rush later in the decade, Two Years Before the Mast would become highly sought after as one of the few sources of information on California.