“The round masts,” cries Walt Whitman in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," “the swinging motion of the hulls, the slender serpentine pennants” — they were words in mid-19th century America that could have described any substantial port in this comparatively young country. Boston, Massachusetts, was such a one, its commodious harbor the site of much commerce and many historical events, not the least of which was the “Boston Tea Party.”
A student at Harvard College in 1833, young Richard Henry Dana would have been familiar with Boston’s dock area, no doubt would have walked its wharves, and so in that year when an attack of measles weakened his eyes, forcing him to break off his studies, it was not surprising that an enterprising young fellow, impatient with his indisposition and restless, might decide to ship out — anywhere! One of Ralph W. Emerson’s students, son of a poet who was also a founder of the literary journal North American Review, Dana would have tapped into a resilience of self-reliance already and, long before sailing, would have been imbued with an understanding of what was involved in a two-year voyage.
Having signed on as a common sailor aboard the brig Pilgrim — a full-scale replica of the vessel lies at Old Dana Point, at the west end of the Plaza — Richard Henry Dana set off for California in 1834, spent two years at sea (the exact length of time that Thoreau spent in his cabin at Walden Pond), and shipped back to Boston aboard the Alert. His health having been restored, he returned to Harvard after his voyage and, after graduation, went on to study law. In 1840, he was admitted to the bar, just prior to the publication of his account of his travels, Two Years Before the Mast (1840), which became an enormous success. Dana actually ran for Congress in 1862 and lost, and although appointed by President Grant as ambassador to England in 1876, he was denied confirmation by the Senate, the chairman of whose Foreign Relations Committee, a dissenter on the vote no doubt, scornfully dismissed him as “one of those damn literary fellers.” Active in law and public affairs, Dana was not only a delegate to the Free Soil Convention of 1848 but appeared in several important cases defending fugitive slaves as well, and he even acted as one of the counsel for the United States in the trial of Jefferson Davis. Travel remained a passion, and he was in Rome in the midst of writing a work on law when he caught pneumonia in 1882. He is buried in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a tiny graveyard right across from Harvard’s Massachusetts Hall.
Common report has always had it that Two Years was a manual for seafarers first, and no less importantly, an animadversion, high-mindedly composed, against the harsh and difficult life and lot of the common seaman, the rectification of which was one of Dana’s motives for writing the book. The fact of the matter is, he wrote the book in the hope that it would bring clients to his law practice. According to Dana, it was published “not because I supposed the book could be of much benefit to me in a literary or pecuniary point of view, but because I thought it would be of some use to me in Boston in securing to me a share of maritime business.”
Which it did.
So much for altruism.
Curiously one of the first books of its kind, a work of sea poetry, Two Years Before the Mast opened up the lore and language of sea life to the landlocked “seafaring mind” and gave such armchair adventurers the chance to look in on an exotic world of shipboard life and the opportunity to travel especially round the Horn and to far California. Van Wyck Brooks reminds us that no Massachusetts mind was ever far from the sea. In 1839, Herman Melville, 20 years old, sailed for Liverpool but was home in time, Wright Morris once observed, for the publication of a book that can’t have affected him any way but forcefully, just at a time when America was expanding. Interestingly enough, this book was Dana’s sole literary work, although his legal manual, The Seaman's Friend, enjoyed wide popularity among sailors. Dana’s father sold the book to Harper's in New York “for $250, plus 24 copies.” According to J. North Conway in American Literacy, “Within the first two years of publication, it made close to $10,000 for Harper's, became a bestseller, and went on to earn the publisher close to $50,000 over the course of its original copyright, which ended in 1869.” Having sold the copyright to the publisher, Dana never saw a penny of the profits, which is perhaps a comment on, as well as a lesson in, Yankee ingenuity.
What he did manage to do was return, like Melville’s Ishmael, with an observant and well-documented adventure story — with not only the facts but the strong fictional, figurative power of a mind able to find the poetry inherent in commonplace things. It was a passion shared by Thoreau at Walden, Melville at Pittsfield, and Emily Dickinson, his contemporary, at Amherst. Sea life 150 years ago remained as much a mysterious and inexact frontier as Nebraska Territory and far California were to the Eastern reader. How long ago was it? Abner Doubleday had just invented the game of baseball at Cooperstown, New York. William Henry Harrison had just been elected president. At 40, Edgar Allen Poe published his first book of short stories, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, which included “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The first dental school opened in Baltimore, Maryland. And in 1840, James Fenimore Cooper published The Deerslayer, more than adequate proof that savagery and danger was just as close in upper New York state as it was in gun-toting Sierra Nevada or Laredo.
California, momentous in fact and metaphor, looms large in Two Years Before the Mast, a place where Dana landed after seven months at sea. He touched land at San Diego on Saturday, March 14, 1835. It was not only a strangely new place, California was a new word. In a decade, thanks to a gold strike, it would leap into prominence as a new El Dorado and infect the dreams of every restless, acquisitive American, many of whom, preferring death by water than by Indian arrows or covered wagons, sailed precariously around the Horn.
A New Englander can be priggish at the best of times. (“Why do Bostonians never travel?” a Brahminic lady from Beacon Hill was once asked by a bewildered out-of-towner. “Because,” answered she, “we are already there.”) We are often told how Emerson, James Russell Lowell, Longfellow, and other area thinkers, all friends of the well-thought-of Danas of Cambridge, who often sat around the Atlantic Monthly offices and read their own entries in that periodical, considered anything west of Worcester, Massachusetts, virtually to be part of Ultima Thule, the “frontier,” a sort of dark, forested, slightly ominous, uncultured vastness, and we are therefore hardly surprised to find, often, a condescending Dana — in many instances not much different from Bob Hope’s ludicrous dentist, Peter Potter (Harvard ’88), in the comic film The Paleface, a yahoo in the West — peering down his nose in a rather fastidious way at what he can’t quite approve: “The Californians are an idle, thriftless people and can make nothing for themselves. The country abounds in grapes, yet they buy at a great price, bad wine made in Boston and brought round by us....”
Having coursed along the coast, the Pilgrim anchored after 150 days out of Boston, at Santa Barbara, then Monterey — where he saw much of “cockfighting, gambling of all sorts, fandangos, and various kinds of amusement and knavery” — and then came to the “little harbor of San Diego.” He writes, “Everyone was desirous to get a view of the new place. A chain of high hills, beginning at the point (which was on our larboard hand coming in), protected the harbor on the north and west, and ran off into the interior, as far as the eye could reach.... The entrance is so narrow as to admit but one vessel at a time.... There was no town in sight.”
Dana saw no trees. There were men in red shirts, wearing straw hats, going in and out of doors — these were “hide houses.” (Hides and whaling were the only industries in old San Diego.) Other ships stood in the harbor, other “shipmates” (the term by which sailors addressed one another at the time when unacquainted) shouted their hellos. Sunday was “liberty” day. These merchant marines — which is what they were — got out their “go-ashore jackets and trousers,” their “pumps, neckerchiefs, and hats [black straw]” and, going ashore by boat, jumped out and “set on our walk for the town, which was nearly three miles off.” There were no streets. There were no fences. Houses were placed at random — one-story jobs, “and of the cottage form.” Some of the better houses had “glass to their windows and board floors,” and in Monterey — Dana’s favorite spot, “the pleasantest and most civilized-looking place in California” — all the houses were whitewashed on the outside.
Briefly, this was foreign territory, like much of America in that it was unexplored. In Louisiana at this time, for example, only one person in 50 spoke English, which was the reason Jefferson balked at giving it statehood. San Diego’s 850 citizens — and only whites were considered citizens — incorporated as a city on March 27, 1850, 300 years after the Spanish conquistador Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo first reported a “closed and very good bay” here in 1542 — and this was several thousand years after the La Jollan and Kumeyaay first inhabited the area. The railroad didn't nose its way into San Diego until 1885. There were only eight black people in San Diego in 1850. Nor, until 1850, could a black testify against a white person in court. So Dana was staring upon a haphazard colony of settlers “from almost every nation under the sun” who “amid the babel [sic] of English, Spanish, French, Indian, and Karaka,” he notes, “we found some words we could understand in common.” The land was in fact occupied by millions of indigenous peoples — Indians, and, in the case of the Southwest, by Spanish and Mexicans. Indeed, this was a Spanish Catholic world essentially, a sort of box-set, to my mind, of La Bohème. “No Protestant has any political rights, nor can he hold property, or, indeed, remain more than a few weeks on shore, unless he belong to a foreign vessel. Consequently, Americans and English who intend to reside here become Papists, the current phrase among them being: ‘A man must leave his conscience at Cape Horn.' ”
So on that Sunday, young Dana — a stripling tar, 20 years old — walked into San Diego wearing a blue jersey, duck trousers, and a straw hat. He and his friend Stimson headed right to a “grog-shop” — liquor was one real (12 1/2 cents) a glass — and after a few drinks with other shipmates (“if you drink with one, and not with another, it is always taken as an insult”), they rented horses to ride. “Horses are the cheapest thing in California; very fair ones not being worth more than ten dollars apiece, and the poorer being often sold for three or four.” Dana points out that in taking a day’s ride “you pay for the use of the saddle...if you bring the saddle back safe, they care what little becomes of the horse.”
The first place Dana and Stimson ride to is the old “ruinous presidio,” which stands on a rising ground near the village that it overlooks. Abruptly, they then ride off, three miles distant — “this town,” he noted, “is not more than half as large as Monterey, or Santa Barbara, and has little or no business” — to “the mission.” “Grass is green and rank,” he observes, the country “rather sandy,” and the treelessness odd. “¿Hay alguna cosa de comer?” asks Dana of the mission steward of the Gray Friars. A splendid meal is then given both young men, free, for “charity,” as a grace: “baked meats, frijoles stewed with peppers and onions” — Dana calls frijoles “the perpetual food of California” — “boiled eggs, and California flour baked into a kind of macaroni. These together with the wine,” exclaims Dana delightedly, “made the most sumptuous meal we had eaten since we left Boston.”
The business of the Pilgrim was, of course, hides — “California money.” But Dana might just as well have been a travel writer, so intent was he, aside from lugging hides, on noting the multifarious life around him. He is naive and appreciative and often happy. He is also often parochial, peevish, and disapproving. “We had frijoles...which when well-cooked are the best beans in the world,” he grudgingly admits — he ate it with local coffee, “made of burned wheat,” and hard bread — but he duns the Mexicans for laziness (“Among the Mexicans there is no working class”), lamenting that the Indians, “practically serfs,” do all the hard work. Dana is shocked that “chicken-skin” boots cost $15 a pair in Monterey. And language is another thing. “The language of these people, which is spoken by all the Indians of California, is the most brutish, without any exception, that I ever heard, or that could well be conceived of.” He grizzles, “It is complete ‘slabber.’ The words fall off of the ends of their tongues, and a continual slabbering sound is made in the cheeks, outside of the teeth. It cannot have been,” he asserts from something of a great height, Harvard speaking here, “the language of Montezuma and the independent Mexicans.”
Rattlesnakes bother him — the sailors, of course, wantonly kill all the reptiles they find — and crows who irksomely peck at the valuable hides. Dana is passingly anticlerical and uninterestingly but patently racist. (“Tom Cringle says that no one can fathom a Negro’s affection for a pig; and I believe he is right, for it almost broke our poor darky’s heart [the cook of the Pilgrim] when he heard that Bess the ship’s pet pig was to be taken ashore and that he was to have the care of her no more.”) Dana loves the bird song. He thinks the fondness for dress among the women is “excessive” — he is almost pathologically silent and noncommittal about sex and passion and love, almost to the point of a taboo. (But sex as a subject on shipboard [and often on land] is quite commonly a taboo, silently and suspiciously proscribed in discussion, as it was, for example, on Amundsen’s famous journey to Antarctica.) Dana is shocked, furthermore, at how much women spend on “spangled satin shoes, silk gowns, high combs, and gilt, if not gold, earrings and necklaces.” He is also determined to believe in the lawlessness he had heard about before coming west. “Revolutions are matters of frequent occurrence in California,” he remarks. “They are got up by men who are at the foot of the ladder and in desperate circumstances” — quite mainstream Marx — “just as a new political organization may be started by such men in our own country.”
Our own country. It cannot be forgotten that in coming to California in Two Years Before the Mast, Dana is visiting foreign ports, trading with the missions, and receiving hides in return. “Nearly all the cattle in the country belonged to the missions,” he points out. In the year 1793, when Vancouver visited San Diego, the missions, he says, had obtained great wealth and power — Jesuit missions, these were, which after their expulsion passed into the hands of the Franciscans, who in turn were stripped of their possessions by the Mexican government, who confined the priests to their spiritual duties. The supplanting administradores, “strangers sent from Mexico...broken-down politicians and soldiers,” are the very ones giving rise to Dana’s 20-year-old ongoing conviction of the lawlessness of the area and the potential for revolution, the primal scream, one can’t help feel, of muscular white colonialism, and a situation, in this case, that would soon be solved by the Mexican War we waged only a few years later, the “Vietnam” of the 19th Century.
But there is watchfulness over unmarried women. The women are pretty. Justice is swift, if not always fair. The soil is excellent, the weather balmy, the harbor open, and, while the Indians are intemperate, “a common vice,” Dana says, “I do not remember ever having seen a Mexican intoxicated
“Such are the people who inhabit a country embracing four or five hundred miles of seacoast, with several good harbors; with fine forests in the north; the waters filled with fish, and the plains covered with thousands of herds of cattle; blessed with a climate than which there can be no better in the world.” (Infinitely more hospitable, say, than the Pilgrim's deck, where, having witnessed a merciless flogging en route of two simple men, Dana in high dudgeon minutely recorded it — the main reason, curiously enough. Two Years got its reputation from a mere six or seven pages alone as a polemic against maritime cruelty.)
Parenthetically, Dana goes on to say, “In the hands of an enterprising people, what a country this might be, we are ready to say.” There is more than a hint of “Manifest Destiny,” that phrase, in the young Harvard student’s mouth. No?