A Boy's Book on the Witchery of the Sea

August 12, 1994|By WILLIAM AMELIA

On August 14, 1834, 160 years ago this Sunday, the brig Pilgrim, a small square-rigged sailing vessel, warped out of Boston harbor bound for the California coast, a voyage that would produce one of the most important personal narratives of life at sea and forever change the face of maritime literature.

On board the Pilgrim was Richard Henry Dana Jr., a proper Bostonian with his sophomore year at Harvard just completed and his eyesight failing after a bout of measles. By shipping as an ordinary seaman, Dana hoped that the rigors of a long sea voyage would improve his health and restore the weakened vision that had required him to leave college. This was an unusual choice for an educated man of good family; Dana's biographers reason that it might have been a temporary state of depression or his need to escape from the constraints of Boston society that led him to sail on a hard voyage of indefinite duration.

Reasons aside, Dana and American literature benefited from his decision that cured him physically and resulted in his classic autobiography, ''Two Years Before The Mast.''

With cultured Harvard Square behind him, Dana's world was now the Pilgrim, 86 feet, 180 tons, with a cramped and coarse crew -- a typical small square-rigger in the age of sail and muscle. For a ship that would attempt to double Cape Horn she was poorly officered and undermanned, with a crew of only five able seamen, including Baltimorean William Brown. Making up the crew were four ''green hands,'' Dana among them, rated as ordinary seamen.

Dana described his personal narrative as ''the life of a common sailor at sea as it really is.'' His journal showed the abuses endured by his shipmates ''before the mast,'' a term referring to the ship's forecastle, the section forward and below deck where sailors lived. He noted down a verse known as the ''Philadelphia Catechism,'' which captured the monotonous labor of life at sea but not its cruel abuses:

Six days shalt thou labor and do all

thou art able

And on the seventh -- holystone the

decks and scape the cable.

To many, Dana's book is seen as a story of initiation, the transformation of a man exposed to a range of experiences, or as Dana put it, ''learning truths through strong contrasts.'' The complete journals of the voyage disappeared on the Boston docks upon his return. His published manuscript was a recreation from memory of his journals. William Cullen Bryant, the American poet and editor who was a friend of Dana's father, handled negotiations with Harpers, the New York publisher. The results were disastrous. With Bryant's counsel, Dana refused the initial offer of 10 per cent royalty after the sale of the first thousand copies and settled, instead, for a flat fee of $250, with the publishers to own the copyright.

''Two Years Before The Mast'' came out in 1840 in Harper's Family Library series at 45 cents a copy. It was an immediate success. In the first two years alone, Harper's had earned $10,000 and by the end of the copyright period, earnings had reached an extraordinary $50,000.

It would be more than 30 years before Dana regained copyright control of his work. Other than his initial Harper's settlement and a voluntary payment of $500 by a British publisher, his earnings were nil. Yet hundreds of thousands of copies were published and in Europe, pirated editions were widely sold. Even a niche market was discovered. With its realistic reportage of Spanish California, it was promoted as an emigrant's guide to California, when settlement to that area began.

Dana wanted to evoke sympathy for the status of seamen and their lack of redress. He created some awareness, but no improvement in the economic or legal status of seamen can be traced directly to his influence. The New York Review said ''It will dissipate all illusions about the sea, as a forecastle of a ship is the most undesirable of asylums.'' Another critic said Dana told his story too well and ''made the witchery of the sea more a witchery than ever.'' As a literary by-product, the book introduced the genre of journey literature, reflecting the mobility and variety of American life.

Dana returned to Boston on September 22, 1836. He graduated from Harvard in 1837 and went on to the college's Dane law School. While pursuing his studies, he wrote ''Two Years Before the Mast'' and in 1840 opened a legal practice specializing in maritime law.

Dana became a prominent authority on admiralty and international law. He established the principle that sailing vessels have right of way over those under power, and his manual for seamen, ''The Seaman's Friend,'' became an authority on naval law. Yet despite his achievements in literature and law, he viewed his life with dissatisfaction, writing, ''My life has been a failure compared with what I might have done. My great success -- my book -- was a boy's work, done before I came to the bar.''

There are many who would discount such a statement from the writer whose vivid images of the long-ago age of sail have enlightened and endured for generations.

5) William Amelia is a Baltimore writer.

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