Friday, July 31, 2009

Whatever happened to the world of yesterday?

I've kind of kept quiet about this, but we're two weeks away from the 175th anniversary of the sailing of the brig Pilgrim for the coast of California, then a part of Mexico. Aboard this tiny trading vessel was a Harvard student, Richard Henry Dana, traveling as a common sailor.

His journal, Two Years Before The Mast, was a landmark not only in journalism but in human rights. To this day, most stories of the sea are told from the point of view of the officers, who tend to depict poor Jack as a brute, a comic figure or simply an interchangeable part in the greater drama. Dana's best-seller did for sailors what Jacob Riis's "How the Other Half Lives" did for poor slum-dwellers, but, unlike Riis, Dana was a participant and not simply an observer.

Not only did it inspire reform in the merchant fleet, but it inspired Herman Melville, who wrote, "if you want the best idea of Cape Horn, get my friend Dana's unmatchable Two Years Before the Mast. But you can read, and so you must have read it. His chapters describing Cape Horn must have been written with an icicle."

My own knowledge of the book came when I had a rare visit alone with my grandfather, a very wise man whom I generally shared with others. On this occasion, I was visiting his Pennsylvania home from Colorado and we went out to dinner and then talked for several hours about a variety of things. Before he went to bed, he went into his library and took down his copy of Two Years Before the Mast, handing it to me and saying that it was one of the most wise and formative books he had ever read.

I cannot imagine that I devoured the entire book that night, but I didn't take it with me and yet I read it, so perhaps I really did take it all in in a single setting. I think, however, that I had a second day before I had to catch a plane to a wedding in New York.

Whatever the case, I devoured it in the sense that I digested it and it became part of my body in a way few books have. While the events and sights he describes are rooted in the early 19th century, his observations are utterly timeless and I have quoted him and thought of him as often as any other author, philosopher or personal acquaintance I have ever known.

So, the blog: I intend, over the next two years, to post his writings in real time, but delayed 175 years, so that readers can enjoy his voyage in a blog format. I have added some backgrounders to the rail so that people can find the vocabulary and diagrams they need to fill in the gaps in their knowledge of seamanship, and I intend to add a map or two before the launch, but I hope folks won't fret over the difference between a jib boom and a marline spike, because the point is that Dana was a wonderful writer who would truly have made a great blogger -- engaging, insightful, inspirational and with a wit that remains sharp nearly 200 years later.

Please bookmark it and join me!

PS -- Shortly after posting, I discovered a problem with the URL and had to change it. If you have already visited, check the current links. The correct URL is


ronnie said...

I remember when, in a response to a blog post I wrote just before my implant activation, you sent me a long quote from the book about the strange, melancholic sense of apathy and inertia that sometimes comes when long-awaited and desired thing finally arrives. (In Dana's case, it was returning home after his journey.)

"There is probably so much of excitement in prolonged expectation that the quiet realizing of it produces a momentary stagnation of feeling as well as of effort. It was a good deal so with me."

I don't think I ever told you how much the passage in its entirety reassured and comforted me.

Mike said...

ronnie, it absolutely is a brilliant and wonderful book. One of maybe three to five top resources for me.

Of course, we won't get to that particular passage until September 18, 2011 ... I hope you'll find a few other unforgettable nuggets between now and then.

Mike said...

(And you did tell me. And I was pleased and touched.)

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

LOL: "No fair reading ahead."

Jean said...

You have introduced some very beautiful writing through your blog, Mike. In fact, the reason I am here every time you post is because the first post I read here (through one of Sandra's posts) hooked me forever!

I have bookmarked "Dana's blog" at my blogroll so that I know whenever a new chapter appears.