American Scriveners of the Sea: Dana and Melville

August 1 is a banner day for great American sea novels as we celebrate the birthdays of Richard Henry Dana, Jr. and Herman Melville. Both men provided important source information for the nautical aspects of The Relentless Harvest. Melville for his bold American, turn-of-the-century voice and Dana for his remarkable day-to-day accounts of a sailor’s life aboard ship. Both men also raised important questions about the powerless and disenfranchised that are echoed in The Relentless Harvest.

Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

Richard Henry Dana, Jr. was an interesting person at an early age. He studied under Ralph Waldo Emerson and was a classmate of poet and diplomat, James Russell Lowell. He was a person of privilege, born in 1815 in Cambridge, MA to a landed family. His father, Richard Sr., was a noted poet and critic.

Richard Henry Dana, 1842 [Public domain]

Failing vision caused by a bout with measles motivated Dana to put his Harvard education on hold in 1834 to take voyage. Despite his pedigree, he chose to enlist as a seaman aboard the merchant ship Pilgrim on a voyage to what was then Mexico’s Alta California. He kept a detailed journal of his experience and published it as Two Years Before the Mast in 1840. The book not only described a sailor’s life, it was also an important chronicle of life in what would soon become California. In one particularly prescient entry from December 1835, Dana describes San Francisco Bay:

“We sailed down this magnificent bay with a light wind, the tide, which was running out, carrying us at the rate of four or five knots. It was a fine day; the first of entire sunshine we had had for more than a month. We passed directly under the high cliff on which the presidio is built, and stood into the middle of the bay, from whence we could see small bays making up into the interior, large and beautifully wooded islands, and the mouths of several small rivers. If California ever becomes a prosperous country, this bay will be the centre of its prosperity. The abundance of wood and water; the extreme fertility of its shores; the excellence of its climate, which is as near to being perfect as any in the world; and its facilities for navigation, affording the best anchoring-grounds in the whole western coast of America,— all fit it for a place of great importance.”

Dana returned to Cambridge in September of 1836 but he maintained a lifelong connection to his merchant seaman experience and the plight of the average sailor that he’d observed first hand. Conditions were cramped and often squalid, the food was usually foul and insufficient, and the ships’ masters were often brutal. For each voyage or term of service, sailors signed a contract with the ship’s master called Articles of Agreement that listed in detail the terms of service, the pay, and the provisions the sailor would receive. It was not unusual for a ship’s master to violate these agreements and withhold rations or mete out unusually harsh punishments. However, any sailor violating the agreement, particularly jumping ship, would be severely punished, usually through imprisonment.

Articles of Agreement, 1786

Articles of Agreement, 1786 [Public domain]

Dana specialized in maritime law and often represented sailors who had been exploited or mistreated. In 1841, he published The Seaman’s Friend, a seminal text on the rights and responsibilities of sailors.

Dana’s conviction to the oppressed and underserved didn’t stop with seamen, however. He later became a fervent abolitionist, serving as a United States Attorney in a number of cases, including the trial of Jefferson Davis.

Herman Melville

Melville was born in Manhattan exactly four years later than Dana and, in 1841, was inspired by Two Years Before the Mast to enlist as a crew member of the whaling ship Acushnet.

1846 Paining of Herman Melville by Asa Twitchell [Public domain]

Dana and Melville were different in many ways. Melville had sailed aboard a whaler prior to serving on the Acushnet, though he was listed as a “green hand” in the ship’s log. Dana was undoubtedly classified as a completely unskilled “landsman.” Unlike his nautical muse, Melville kept few notes about his sailing experience or else none survived the voyage. Most of his accounts in Moby Dick and his other sailing stories were reconstructed from memory or invented. Whereas Dana fulfilled his two year term of service, Melville jumped ship after 18 months. One common thread between the two men, however, was their willingness to leave a life of luxury for one of hardship, if only for a while. Melville corresponded with Dana while working on Moby Dick and in his later novel, White Jacket, makes a direct reference to Two Years Before the Mast:

But 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.

While Dana stood against the injustices of the common sailor, Melville wrestled with the issues of race and slavery. After deserting the Acushnet, Melville worked his way to the South Pacific. His time in Polynesia and his encounters with slavery are reflected in several stories but it’s in Typee, “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and “Benito Cereno” that he takes on these topics full tilt. While there have been both positive and negative assessments of Melville’s handling of race, it is certain that he was sensitive to racial discrimination, that he abhorred slavery, and that he made an earnest attempt to address those issues directly.



2 Replies to “American Scriveners of the Sea: Dana and Melville”

    • Thanks, Arletta. For anyone interested in the life at sea in the 19th century, I can’t recommend Two Years Before the Mast enough. As for Melville, I love the man’s narrative voice and he wrote some timeless prose, but he can go on at times. I used Typee along with Mark Twain’s work as source material for writers focusing on race in the mid-19th century. As I mentioned in the post, some people have problems with Melville but I found it not only sympathetic but informative.

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