Two Years before the Mast. A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea.

Depicts the life of the forecastle seaman on a merchant vessel in 1840. Published anonymously, Dana was an educated gentleman who presented himself as a common seaman intending to “present the life of a common sailor at sea as it really is,—the light and dark together.” (p. 4)

p. 24-25, on a pleasant Sabbath at sea: The men are all dressed in their best white duck trowsers, and red or checked shirts, and have nothing to do except make the necessary changes in the sails. They employ themselves, in reading, talking, smoking, and mending their clothes. If the weather is pleasant, they bring their work and their books upon deck, and sit down upon the forecastle and windlass. This is the only day on which these privileges are allowed them. When Monday comes, they put on their tarry trowsers again, and prepare for six days of labor.

p. 39, during storm rounding Cape Horn: It was in vain to think of reading or working below, for we were too tired, the hatchways were closed down, and everything was wet and uncomfortable, black and dirty, heaving and pitching.

p. 46, following the sudden death of a seaman: Our cook, a simple-hearted old African, who has been through a great deal in his day, and was rather seriously inclined, always going to church twice a day when on shore, and reading his Bible on a Sunday in the galley, talked to the crew about spending their Sabbaths badly, and told them they might go as suddenly as George had, and be as little prepared.

p. 98-99, at Monterey in California: I had never studied Spanish while at college, and could not speak a word, when at Juan Fernandez but during the latter part of the passage out, I borrowed a grammar and dictionary from the cabin, and by continual use of these, and a careful attention to every word that I had heard spoken, I soon got a vocabulary together, and began talking for myself. As I soon knew more Spanish than any of the crew, (who indeed knew none at all,) and had been at college and knew Latin, I got the name of a great linguist, and was always sent by the captain and officers to get provisions, or to carry letters and messages to different parts of the town. I was often sent to get something which I could not tell the name of to save my life; but I liked the business, and accordingly never pleaded ignorance. Sometimes I managed to jump below and take a look at my dictionary before going ashore; or else I overhauled some English resident on my way and got the word from him; and then, by signs, and the help of my Latin and French, contrived to get along. This was a good exercise for me, and no doubt taught me more than I should have learned by months of study and reading; it also gave me opportunities of seeing the customs, characters, and domestic arrangements of the people; beside being a great relief from the monotony of a day spent on board ship.

p. 105-06, on a sailor from the Sandwich Islands who spoke some English: He was very fond of reading, and we lent him most of the books which we had in the forecastle, which he read and returned to us the next time we fell in with him. He had a good deal of information, and his captain said he was a perfect seaman, and worth his weight in gold on board a vessel, in fair weather and in foul….

p. 203, in South Sea Islands waiting for their ship, the Pilgrim, to return and release the men from a period of monotony: Then I took hold of Bowditch’s Navigator, which I had always with me. I had been through the greater part of it, and now went through it beginning to end, working out most of the examples. That done, and there being no sign of the Pilgrim [his ship], I made a descent upon old Schmidt, and borrowed and read all the books there were upon the beach. Such a dearth was there of these latter articles, that anything, even a little child’s story–book, or the half of a shipping calendar, appeared like a treasure. I actually read a jest-book through, from beginning to end, in one day, as I should a novel, and enjoyed it very much. At last, when I thought there were no more to be got, I found, at the bottom of old Schmidt’s chest, “Mandeville, a Romance, by Godwin, in five volumes.” This I had never read, but Godwin’s name was enough, and after the wretched trash I had devoured, anything bearing the name of a distinguished intellectual man, was a prize indeed. I bore it off, and for two days I was up early and late, reading with all my might, and actually drinking in delight. It is no extravagance to say it was like a spring in a desert land.

p. 227-28: It being the turn of our watch to go below, the men went to work, mending their clothes, and doing other little things for themselves; and I, having got my wardrobe in complete order at San Diego, had nothing to do but read. I accordingly overhauled the chests of the crew, but found nothing that suited me exactly, until one of the men said he had a book which “told all about a great highwayman,” at the bottom of his chest, and producing it, I found, to my surprise and joy, that it was nothing else than Bulwer’s Paul Clifford. This, I seized immediately, and going to my hammock, lay there, swinging and reading until the watch was out. The between-decks were clear, the hatchways open, and a cool breeze blowing through them, the ship under easy way, and everything comfortable. I had just got into the story, when eight bells were struck, and we were all ordered to dinner. After dinner came our watch on deck for four hours, and, at four o’clock, I went below again turned into my hammock, and read until the dog watch. As no lights were allowed after eight o’clock, there was no reading in the night watch. Having light winds and calms, we were three days on the passage, and each watch below, during the daytime, I spent in the same manner, until I had finished my book. I shall never forget the enjoyment I derived from it. To come across anything with the slightest claims to literary merit, was so unusual, that this was a perfect feast to me. The brilliancy of the book, the succession of capital hits, lively and characteristic sketches, kept me in a constant state of pleasing sensations. It was far too good for a sailor. I could not expect such fine times to last long.

p. 264: …and we exchanged books with them—a practice very common among ships in foreign ports, by which you get rid of the books you have read and re-read, and a supply of new ones in their stead, and Jack is not very nice as to their comparative value.

p. 319, while bound for Monterey in Feb. 1836: Captain Arthur left files of Boston papers for Captain T——, which, after they had been read and talked over in the cabin, I procured from my friend the third mate. One file was all the Boston Transcripts for the month of August, 1835, and the rest were about a dozen Daily Advertisers and Couriers, of different dates. After all, there is nothing in a strange land like a newspaper from home. Even a letter, in many respects, is nothing in comparison with it. It carries you back to the spot, better than anything else. It is almost equal to clairvoyance.

p. 326, while confined to the ship: Unfortunately, our books were where we could not get to them, and we were turning about for something to do, when one man recollected a book he had left in the galley. He went after it, and it proved to be Woodstock. This was a great windfall, and as all could not read it at once, I, being the scholar of the company, was appointed reader. I got a knot of six or eight about me, and no one could have had a more attentive audience. Some laughed at the “scholars,” and went over the other side of the forecastle, to work and to spin their yarns; but I carried the day and had the cream of the crew for my hearers. Many of the reflections, and the political parts, I omitted, but all of the Puritans, and the sermons and harangues of the Roundhead soldiers. The gallantry of Charles, Dr. Radcliffe’s plots, the knavery of the “trusty Tompkins,”—in fact, every part seemed to chain their attention. Many things which, while I was reading, I had a misgiving about, thinking them above their capacity, I was surprised to find them enter into completely. I read nearly all day, until sundown; when, as soon as supper was over, as I had nearly finished, they got a light from the galley; and by skipping what was less interesting, I carried them through to the marriage of Everard, and the restoration of Charles the Second, before eight o’clock.

p. 398ff. Chapter XXXII has a fine account of rounding Cape Horn on the return journey. The book has several other references to reading, a fascinating crossing of social strata between Jack Tar and a Harvard student pretending to be one.

p. 477-79, in a passage praising the work of the American Seamen’s Friend Society and other Bible societies: These societies make the religious instruction of seamen their prominent object. If this is gained, there is no fear but that all other things necessary will be added unto them. A sailor never becomes interested in religion, without immediately learning to read, if he did not know how before;… and hours reclaimed rfrom indolence and vice, which follow in the wake of the converted man, make it sure that he will instruct himself in the knowledge necessary and suitable to his calling.