American author and lawyer Richard Henry Dana, Jr. (1815-1882), wrote one of the most persistently popular nonfiction narratives in American letters, Two Years before the Mast. He was also an adviser in the formation and direction of the Free Soil party.
Son of Richard Henry Dana, Sr. (1787-1879), the Massachusetts poet and editor, the younger Dana distinguished himself in 1834, when he abruptly left the security of Harvard undergraduate life and shipped round Cape Horn to California on a tiny hide-trading brig. He returned 2 years later, completed his studies, and in 1840 was admitted to the bar. In the same year Two Years before the Mast was published by Harper and Brothers, and though the publisher had deftly lifted the copyright (paying Dana just $250), the author hoped that the book would at least bring him some law practice.
Dana's hopes were realized—indeed his office filled with sailors and he became known as the "Seaman's Champion"—and he eventually shaped an impressive legal career. Still, the fact that his publisher realized $50,000 from the book did at times move Dana to complaint. He comforted himself with the knowledge that if he had lost money he had gained fame. The book was embraced by all factions—reformers, temperance crusaders, and romantic lovers of the sea, who saw the oceans as at least comparable to the prairies when it came to charting a frontier to explore. Since the day of its publication the book has never been out of print.
Years later, however, Dana wrote to his son: "My life has been a failure compared with what I might and ought to have done. My great success—my book—was a boy's work, done before I came to the Bar." There were other books: The Seaman's Friend (1841), a manual and handbook for sailors; and To Cuba and Back (1859), an interesting account of a vacation voyage.
But Dana's real commitments were to the law, where he finally prospered, and to politics, where he finally failed. Celebrated as the legal champion of fugitive black slaves, Dana consistently missed opportunities for high public office, even within the Free Soil party he had helped create. In 1878 he packed up and left for Europe, furious that his appointment as minister to England had failed of approval in the Senate.
In Europe Dana joined some of the brilliant expatriate circles then dominating Rome and seemed to find some peace. He called it "a dream of life," but even the dream ended, in January 1882, and he was buried in the same Italian graveyard that contained the remains of John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Charles Francis Adams, Jr., Richard Henry Dana (1890), and Samuel Shapiro, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., 1815-1882 (1961), are recommended studies. Of interest also are two editions of Two Years before the Mast, one edited by Dana's son, R. H. Dana III (1911), and the other by John H. Kemble (1964). See also The Journal of Richard Henry Dana (3 vols., 1968). Background information is in D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (1923; repr. 1964).
Dana, Richard Henry, Two years before the mast: a personal narrative of life at sea, Pleasantville, N.Y.: Reader's Digest Association, 1995.