My parents taught me well to check if a book was abridged before reading it and reading an abridged version of Two Years Before The Mast was one of the few mistakes I made in that department as a young reader. Even in the ridiculously cut-to-size adaptation I fell for, the story entranced me, took me worlds away from my ordinary life and even my usual imaginary worlds.
That’s one thing this classic sea story is: a full immersion in a lost world, the world of sailing ships. It is still far from my typical reading fare but so interesting that, once I started, I picked it up every chance I got. It’s the first hand account by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. of two years he spent as a sailor, to save his scholar’s eyesight.
Those two years involved huge physical risks, narrow escapes, storms at sea. They involved mundane chores: scrubbing decks, mending and sewing, laundry. Dana saw the pre-Gold Rush coast of California, visited the missions, observed a wedding there, a funeral. We see through his eyes sailors’ dances, we hear the sailors’ songs and drawn-out calling of the ropes. Of particular interest to me was the prized place of letters and books in the lives of men at sea. Letters and newspapers were read and re-read. Ships traded books when they met each other. Dana reads aloud to his fellow sailors and during a particularly tedious time of high vigilance in icy seas recites memorized facts, Scriptures, and poetry to combat the oppressive boredom.
I was struck too by the function of the Sabbath in the largely secular lives of the sailors. Dana speaks of the powerful boost to morale and renewed hope he gained during his first on-shore day of liberty, how critical such days of rest are to men living with routine deprivations, steady hard work, and, in this case, bad feelings between officers and crew after a traumatic outburst of injustice from the captain. We get to see as well the customs of Catholics, at sea and in California, from an outsider’s perspective. Catholic ships take liturgical days of rest more seriously. They arrange their sails for mourning on Good Friday of Holy Week.
I saw analogies between the sailors’ life answering to bells, seeing only a limited group of people for months at a time, and working together without being allowed to speak, to the lives of prisoners, and especially to the monastic life.
Dana’s two years off from school became a defining event in his life. It is for those two years that interrupted his projected career and the book he wrote about them that we remember him today. His book preserves for our national memory scenes and people and an entire way of life that would otherwise be forgotten. It is worthy of its classic status.