Richard Henry Dana Jr. told no one that he was turning 28 because, he wrote on Aug. 1, 1843, “birthdays are not pleasant occasions for hilarity with me and friends always feel bound to make them so.” Nevertheless, I trust Dana would have been delighted to know that friends of his classic “Two Years Before the Mast” would celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth Saturday at the place he once described as “the only romantic spot in California.”
Dana could not have foreseen that the promontory he first glimpsed as a young sailor in 1835 would one day be named Dana Point. But he would not have been surprised to learn that he is still remembered for his account of the harrowing voyage around Cape Horn to the western edge of the North American continent. First published in 1840, the book was an instant success. Even Herman Melville recognized that his recommendation to get “my friend Dana’s unmatchable ‘Two Years Before the Mast’” was redundant: “But you can read so you must have read it.” In 175 years, the book has never been out of print.
Given a choice, however, Dana might have exchanged the acclaim he received as a writer (he once described “Two Years Before the Mast” as “a boy’s work done before I came to the Bar”) for greater recognition of his life as a lawyer in Boston.
FOR THE RECORD:
Dana: The byline on a Friday op-ed about Richard Henry Dana misspelled the last name of writer Jeffrey L. Amestoy as Amnestoy. —
Dana’s fame as an author eclipsed a remarkable career that placed him at the center of some of the most consequential cases in U.S. history: defending fugitive slave Anthony Burns, justifying President Lincoln’s war powers, and prosecuting Jefferson Davis for treason.
“Dana was counsel for the sailor and slave,” wrote Charles Francis Adams Jr., “courageous, skillful but still the advocate of the poor and unpopular.... In the mind of wealthy and respectable Boston, almost anyone was to be preferred to him.”
America’s most exclusive and powerful society — the Brahmin Boston in which he had been born and bred — sought to intimidate Dana for representing fugitive slaves and their “rescuers.” Dana was ostracized, boycotted and assaulted for his advocacy.
Yet Dana always remained infused with the buoyant spirit that had prompted him, as a 19-year-old Harvard dropout, to sail from the suffocating atmosphere of Cambridge to the unknown adventure of California. He periodically alarmed proper Boston and his pious wife by disappearing into the Maine woods or sailing its coast.
In 1859, suffering from a breakdown from overwork, Dana was advised by a doctor that only a prolonged rest could restore his health. Of the various plans proposed, “nothing suited me so well as a voyage around the world.” His journey took him back to California.
In San Francisco, where there had been only a shanty of rough boards when he entered the bay in 1835, there was now the “emporium of a new world.”
Dana was delighted by the changes in individuals as well. A church deacon he knew in Boston was now a deacon in San Francisco: “What a change! ... Gone was ... the watchful gait stepping as if he felt responsible for the balance of the moral universe ... he had put off the New England deacon and become a human being.”
Sailing along the coast, Dana again gazed upon the cliff where he had hung precariously by a rope to retrieve cattle hides: “a boy who could not be prudential, and who caught at every chance for adventure.”
There was always as much of new California as old Cambridge in Dana, a fact worth celebrating — with or without hilarity — on the 200th anniversary of his birth.
Jeffrey L. Amestoy is the author of “Slavish Shore: The Odyssey of Richard Henry Dana, Jr.,” the first biography of Dana in more than 50 years.