California Authors


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Richard Henry Dana (1815-1882)
by Janice Albert

Richard Henry Dana:
replica of the ship Pilgrim at Dana Point, CA

“There was a grandeur in everything around, which gave almost a solemnity to the scene: a silence and solitariness which affected everything! Not a human being but ourselves for miles; and no sound heard but the pulsations of the great Pacific!”

These are the words of Richard Henry Dana, describing his 1835 memory of the beach at San Juan, now a town in Orange County known as Dana Point. “My better nature returned strong upon me. Everything was in accordance with my state of feeling, and I experienced a glow of pleasure at finding that what of poetry and romance I ever had in me, had not been entirely deadened by the laborious and frittering life I had led.” 

At the time of discovering the isolated beauty of this particular spot on the California Coast, Dana was nineteen years old, working as a sailor aboard an 86-foot brig called Pilgrim, engaged in the hide and tallow trade. A student at Harvard and a member of Boston’s upper class, he had undertaken a short-term career at sea after a case of measles left him with a painful eye condition. Not being able to read for any length of time and with nothing to do at home, he was filled with restlessness. Rather than simply sail around the world, or travel as supercargo to Calcutta and back—two options that were open to him—he signed on as a foremasthand, a common sailor, and set off from Boston around Cape Horn to the coast of California. 

His adventures, published in 1840 under the title Two Years Before the Mast, became a world-wide best-seller in 1849 with the discovery of gold. Dana’s book was one of the few available in English that described California—the country the whole world wanted to get to. 

One hundred sixty years later, Two Years Before the Mast continues to appeal to modern sensibilities. In this coming-of age book, a young man discovers the arbitrary nature of life and death, the ironies of human aspirations, and the universal potential for cruelty. Dana’s writing captures the paradox of California, a multicultural society living in abundant sunshine and natural beauty, a paradise somehow wanting to be improved by Yankee ingenuity and the American work ethic.  

Aboard ship, Dana discovers that to sail is to tread the line between life and death. As early as Chapter 6, the crew experiences the loss of a crew member overboard. Later, Dana comments on the casual way crew members reach out for one another in times of foot slips and lost grips, shaking off the temptation to express their fear or react to the surge of adrenaline that may have saved their lives.

Dana comments on the hard physical labor performed in the face of begrudging nature. Sailing around Cape Hope is itself a test of the will to endure. But the motivation to do so in pursuit of animal hides to be made into leather goods is not without its ironies. Dana tells us that the hides the crew is sent to gather must be soaked in sea water, pickled in brine, dried, scraped, dried again, and beaten. “Here ends their history. except that they are taken out again when the vessel is ready to go home, beaten, stowed away on board, carried to Boston, tanned, made into shoes and other articles…; and many of them, very probably, in the end, brought back to California in the shape of shoes, and worn out in pursuit of other bullocks, or in the curing of other hides.”  

Dana, who had been the subject of harsh corporal punishment during his school days, discovers himself under the command of a captain who not only administers beatings but enjoys them. “Nobody shall open his mouth aboard this vessel, but myself,” shouts the captain. Dana describes his reaction at hearing the blows struck and the cries of the man being flogged, watching the captain’s passion increase: “If you want to know what I flog you for, I’ll tell you. It’s because I like to do it!—because I like to do it!—It suits me! That’s what I do it for!”  

Now, in the year 2000, Californians can experience Dana’s story in any number of new editions of his book, as well as a theatrical presentation of “Two Years Before the Mast” performed by Jeffrey Paul Whitman. In this 90-minute show, Whitman represents the middle-aged Dana who returned to San Francisco 24 years later to find that city transformed from the site of a dilapidated mission and a single shack into a hub of civilization. Whitman swiftly “becomes” the younger Dana who, at age nineteen, sailed into a completely empty San Francisco harbor watched only by herd of deer from the water’s edge. Whitman performs up and down the coast, often at Maritime museums such as those in San Francisco and Dana Point itself.  

At Dana Point, the Orange County Marine Institute, 24200 Dana Point Harbor Drive, gives berth to a full-sized replica of the Pilgrim. The Institute offers an overnight program for fourth and fifth graders to learn about life aboard sailing vessels in Dana’s time. (Call 949/496-2274 for information and reservations.) Also to be found at the harbor, a statue of the youthful Dana, book in hand, looks hopefully toward the land from the intersection of Dana Drive and Island Way. Visitors to Dana Point, now a town of 32,000, can also hike or drive to Heritage Park, atop the cliffs that characterize this stretch of the coast. A marvelously kinetic statue from 1990 commemorates the work of the droghers, or hide slingers, who sailed the hides from the cliffs to the beach. To get to the drogher statue, continue along the hilltop from Heritage Park for about two blocks, keeping to the ocean side in front of the houses and condominiums that now fill the neighborhood.  

Dana returned to Boston, graduated from Harvard with the class of 1837, entered law school and wrote Two Years Before the Mast from memory, a small notebook and letters home, for his journal disappeared along with his sea chest when he disembarked in Boston Harbor in 1836. In his work as an attorney, he became a prominent authority on admiralty and international law.

His book, published in 1840 at 45 cents a copy, eventually earned $50,000 for its publisher, Harper’s, but only $250 for the author, who had declined a royalty arrangement and accepted a flat sum in that amount. Small compensation—but who can measure his other rewards: to have seen the coast of California from the water at a time when not a lighthouse existed, to have rediscovered his better nature on an empty beach, accompanied only by the pulsations of the great Pacific.

Keepers of the good ship Pilgrim, Dana Point

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