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Two Years Before the Mast
A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea
Two years before the mast were but an episode in the life of Richard Henry Dana, Jr.; yet the narrative in which he details the experiences of that period is, perhaps, his chief claim to a wide remembrance. His services in other than literary fields occupied the greater part of his life, but they brought him comparatively small recognition and many disappointments. His happiest associations were literary, his pleasantest acquaintanceships those which arose through his fame as the author of one book. The story of his life is one of honest and competent effort, of sincere purpose, of many thwarted hopes.
It is remarkable that, having written one successful book, Dana did not seek further reward as a man of letters. Two Years before the Mast appeared in 1840, while its author was still a law student. Though at the time it created no great stir in the United States, it was most favorably received in England, where it paved the way for many pleasant and valuable acquaintanceships. The following year, Dana produced a small volume on seamanship, entitled The Seaman's Friend. This, and a short account of a trip to Cuba in 1859, constitute the sole additions to his early venture. He was a copious letter-writer and kept full journals of his various travels; but he never elaborated them for publication. Yet, long before his death, he had seen the narrative of his sailor days recognized as an American classic. Time has not diminished its reputation. We read it to-day not merely for its simple, unpretentious style; but for its clear picture of sea life previous to the era of steam navigation, and for its graphic description of conditions in California before visions of gold sent the long lines of "prairie schooners" drifting across the plains to unfold the hidden destiny of the West.
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