Wednesday, February 7, 2018
Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
From the two mini-posts of the last week a faithful reader will know that I spent some of it traveling by car with my granddaughter Sophia over a somewhat erratic course from Little Rock in Arkansas to Murfreesboro in Tennessee. It was a wonderful experience, worthy of an extended essay of its own, did I not feel obliged to return to more professorial pastures. Thus I mention only its one down-side. I left Princeton with a mildly infected tooth, which abandoned the mildness part on my way to the airport. I would not have believed that it is possible crave root canal work “like as the hart panteth after the water brooks," but I did, and achieved it within hours of my return. This seamless segue brings me to today’s real subject, and that is Richard Henry Dana’s wonderful book, Two Years Before the Mast.
I always travel with some book or another, even when I know that the opportunities for actual reading will be few and brief. And I want a real book, not an electronic device. I grabbed my Library of America edition of Dana mainly on the basis of its comparative slimness. Dana (born in 1815) was a Harvard undergraduate in 1834 when he fell dangerously ill with an attack of measles that threatened his eyesight. The recommended therapy of the day was fresh air and travel. What the medicos had in mind was probably something like a cossetted visit to Baden-Baden, but Dana, thinking outside the box, instead signed up as a common merchant sailor on a boat sailing to California to gather a vast load of cowhides to bring back to Boston. His account of his experiences is not merely one of the world’s greatest sea stories; it has deservedly achieved the status of a literary classic. No less is it precious as a witness of social history.
On the return journey, as the crew faced the daunting prospect of rounding Cape Horn in terrible winter storms, Dana was attacked by an infected tooth, facial swelling that seemed to double the size of his head, and agonizing pain. There was no root canal for him, nor palliative medicaments of any kind. The few drops of laudanum in the medicine chest had to be saved in case something “serious” arose. He just had to tough it out. Wooden ships and iron men, indeed! This narrative episode was naturally of special interest to me under the circumstances, but it was not what struck me most forcibly about Dana’s book.
Dana was among the first Americans (meaning here, as it generally did in his time, citizens of the U.S.) to visit and describe California, then a Mexican backwater, though destined to be the great dynamo of western expansion and to this day a beckoning American mythscape. Dana never got far inland. He spent a year coasting back and forth between San Francisco and San Diego, stopping at the few sleepy mission settlements for periods of back-breaking labor required by the cowhide trade. But he was a sharp observer and a plain speaker, and his judgments of the californios (Hispanic Californians) are arresting.
The heroic version of the “Turner thesis” that was the stuff of my primary schooling—rugged, aspirational Anglo-Saxons and other European pioneers manifesting national destiny with yoked oxen, plowshares, and pickaxes—had already been supplanted, by the time of my children’s schooling by a grimmer, racialized legend featuring distilled greed, rapine, and genocide. Anyone who has watched Ken Burns’s “The West” will be familiar with its drift. Dana’s description of Californian society fifteen years before the Gold Rush is from this point of view fascinating. He sees a sparsely populated, backward and culturally desolate colonial outpost abandoned to political corruption and misgovernment by a distant and ineffective Mexican capital. It is riven with race-based social inequities, with the mission Indians oppressed in de facto servitude. The social dynamic, if one can call it that, is the privileged indolence of Castilian blood. Here we have a country, writes Dana, “embracing four or five hundred miles of sea-coast, 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; free from all manner of diseases, whether epidemic or endemic; and with a soil in which corn yields from seventy to eighty fold. In the hands of an enterprising people, what a country this might be!” But, alas, according to Dana, the whole land seems subject to “the ‘California fever’ (laziness).”
At the time of the Gold Rush there were precious few real American authorities on California. Two Years Before the Mast sold like hotcakes among the rushers eager for any authentic information, even the incidental musings of a seafaring Harvard undergraduate, about the new land of their dreams. And they doubtless thought of themselves as “an enterprising people”. Dana himself was very far from a jingoist or a money-grubber. Indeed he was a man of high principles and admirably progressive opinions. Before the Civil War he was an ardent abolitionist. After the War he was a civil rights activist. His major cause was the amelioration of the state of the working classes, especially the merchant mariners whose life he had shared and permanently memorialized in a literary masterpiece.