"Besides the interest which everyone must feel in exhibitions of life in those forms in which he himself has never experienced it; there has been, of late years, a great deal of attention directed toward common seamen, and a strong sympathy awakened in their behalf. Yet I believe that, with the single exception which I have mentioned, there has not been a book written, professing to their life and experiences, by one who has been of them, and can know what their life really is. A voice from the forecastle has hardly yet been heard."
Written by R.H. Dana in 1840 "Two Years Before the Mast" is a journal from the author's more than two years as a lowly sailor working the shores of California. His journey begins on August 14th, 1834, when his ship, the brig "Pilgrim" leaves Boston for California, and ends on September 19th or 20th, 1836, when he lands in Boston once again, returning on the good ship "Alert".
Dana's aim, as he explains in the introduction, is to tell the real story about the seamen and their lives before the mast. And he does promise that there will be a definite lack of romantic and/or breathtaking adventures involving pirates and sea shanties. Instead there will be reports about long days and nights filled with hard work and not much else - most of the time seven days a week. Because that was what the seaman's life was about. And Dana makes no effort to paint it pretty or soften the edges.
The author goes to great lengths to explain about each crew member's duties, and how the ranks relate to each other, from captain down to the newest and most inexperienced seamen. He also describes, in minute detail, the different tasks that have to be done every day, from readying new sails to replace torn ones down to how the seamen repair or craft clothes and boots from rags or worn out garments. It might sound like tedious reading (and, truth be told, it sometimes is), but most of the time the flow of the narrative just kept me reading. One exception was the long paragraphs dedicated to the Californian coasts; after half a page telling how the sunset made him feel inside I admit to skipping lightly along the sentences for a while, waiting for him to get back to the proverbial action.
As opposed to the in-depth accounts of almost all menial tasks on board there is one "thing" Dana does not explain: the rigging. Throughout the book you get bombarded with words like "reef-point", "fore-topsail", "larboard", "halyards", "weather earing" and so on. And you never get told what is what. But it's of no consequence to the story, and I agree with Dana who, in his foreword says:
"There may be in some parts a good deal that is unintelligible to the general reader; but I have found from my own experience, and from what I have heard from others, that plain matters of fact in relation to customs and habits of life under new aspects, act upon the inexperienced through the imagination, so that we are hardly aware of our want of technical knowledge."
Since this is a travel journal (or a work journal) there is no plot. The story begins and ends, and what comes in between are events as they unfold. No discernible thread, no build ups, no climaxes - which, to my mind, often is what makes journal kind of stories so delightfully unpredictable. Injustice is not always punished, and the "good guys" don't necessarily win in the end. For example the captain on board the "Pilgrim" comes across as a right bastard as the book progresses, but instead of suffering some ignominious punishment for his sins he goes on to get a better and larger ship, namely "Alert". And Dana only barely succeeds in getting permission to return home on that ship, after being more or less double-crossed and blackmailed into paying someone else to take his place on "Pilgrim" - all this due to the all-powerful captains' whims. I wanted something to happen to make everything "right", but, this being real life, well...
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The fact that I was unable to get my hands on an English copy turned out to be a good thing: my Danish translation, translated by Kris Winther and printed in 1947, was still in the older style of Danish writing, which, among other things, means that all nouns are capitalised, and the letter "å" is written "aa". This gave my reading a nice old tone to it, which fit perfectly with the language - and the time in which the events took place. I have since read big chunks of the book online on google books in English, and I found that the original text lacked the charm the old Danish spelling and style of printing gave my copy.