Sometimes historic dates turn up some fun coincidences. Richard Dana Jr was born on this date in 1815 and Herman Melville in 1819. Both went to sea as young men and then wrote about their experiences – Dana in a straight factual account in Two Years Before the Mast and Melville in several novels, the most well known being Moby Dick. I read Dana when I was a teenager and was very impressed. That was in the days when I was in love with the sea. I had sailed around the world by the time I was 14, and had a fascination with 19th century ships and sailing. I also had a mind to join the Royal Navy after school, following in my father’s footsteps, but dreams change. I still travel, including by ship now and again, and still love sea tales. But, as an anthropologist, I am more interested in destinations than mode of travel. I came to Melville rather later (in my 30s) when I felt it an obligation to read him. I made it through, with an interest in the narrative passages, but not so much in the seemingly endless digressions.
It’s hard enough for me to condense one person or event into a nugget, let alone two. So I apologize ahead of time for my brevity here. The full texts of both Two Years Before the Mast and Moby Dick can be found here:
Dana was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts into a family that had settled in colonial America in 1640, counting Anne Bradstreet among its ancestors. His father was the poet and critic Richard Henry Dana, Sr. As a boy, Dana studied in Cambridgeport under a strict schoolmaster named Samuel Barrett, alongside fellow Cambridge native and future writer James Russell Lowell. Barrett was infamous as a disciplinarian who punished his students for any infraction by flogging. He also often pulled students by their ears and, on one such occasion, nearly pulled Dana’s ear off, causing the boy’s father to protest enough that the practice was abolished.
In 1825, Dana enrolled in a private school overseen by Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom Dana later mildly praised as “a very pleasant instructor”, though he lacked a “system or discipline enough to insure regular and vigorous study.” In July 1831, Dana enrolled at Harvard College, where in his freshman year his support of a student protest cost him a six-month suspension. In his junior year, he contracted measles, which in his case led to deterioration of his eyesight. His worsening vision inspired him to take a sea voyage. But rather than going on a fashionable Grand Tour of Europe he decided, despite his high birth, to enlist as a merchant seaman. On August 14, 1834 he departed Boston aboard the brig Pilgrim bound for Alta California, at that time still a part of Mexico. This voyage would bring Dana to a number of settlements in California (including Monterey, San Pedro, San Juan Capistrano, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara and San Francisco). After witnessing a flogging on board the ship, he vowed that he would try to help improve the lot of the common seaman. The Pilgrim collected hides for shipment to Boston, and Dana spent much of his time in California at San Diego’s Point Loma curing hides and loading them on to the ship.
To return home sooner, he was reassigned by the ship’s owners to a different ship: the Alert. Of the return trip around Cape Horn in the middle of the Antarctic winter, Dana gives a classic account. He describes terrifying storms and incredible beauty, giving vivid descriptions of icebergs, which he calls incomparable. The most incredible part perhaps is the weeks and weeks it took to negotiate passage against winds and storms—all the while having to race up and down the ice-covered rigging to furl and unfurl sails. At one point he had an infected tooth, and his face swelled up so badly that he was unable to work for several days, despite the need for all hands. After the Horn had been rounded he describes the scurvy that afflicted members of the crew. In White-Jacket, Herman Melville wrote, “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.”
On September 22, 1836, Dana arrived back in Massachusetts. He thereupon enrolled at what is now Harvard Law School, then called the Dane Law School. He graduated in 1837, was admitted to the bar in 1840, and went on to specialize in maritime law. In the October 1839 issue of a magazine, he took a local judge, one of his own instructors in law school, to task for letting off a ship’s captain and mate with a slap on the wrist for murdering the ship’s cook, beating him to death for not “laying hold” of a piece of equipment. The judge had sentenced the captain to ninety days in jail and the mate to thirty days.
In 1841 Dana published The Seaman’s Friend, which became a standard reference on the legal rights and responsibilities of sailors, He defended many common seamen in court. During his voyages he had kept a diary, and in 1840 (coinciding with his admission to the bar) he published it as Two Years Before the Mast. The term, “before the mast” refers to sailors’ quarters, which were located in the forecastle (the ship’s bow), officers’ quarters being near the stern. His writing evidences his later sympathy for the oppressed. With the California Gold Rush later in the decade, Two Years Before the Mast would become highly sought after as one of the few sources of information on California.
Dana became a prominent abolitionist, helping to found the anti-slavery Free Soil Party in 1848 and represented the fugitive slave Anthony Burns in Boston in 1854.
In 1853 Dana represented William T. G. Morton in Morton’s attempt to establish that he discovered the “anesthetic properties of ether.”
Dana died of influenza in Rome at the age of 67 and is buried in that city’s Protestant Cemetery (where Goethe, Keats, and SHelley are also buried). His son, Richard Henry Dana III, married Edith Longfellow, daughter of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Herman Melville’s life eerily parallels Dana’s. He was born Herman Melvill (I can’t discover when he got the final “e”) in New York City on August 1, 1819, to Allan Melvill (1782–1832) and Maria Gansevoort Melvill (1791–1872). He was the third of eight children born between 1815 and 1830. His siblings, played important roles in his career and his emotional life, especially Gansevoort (1815–1846).
Both Melville’s grandfathers were heroes of the Revolutionary War. Major Thomas Melvill (1751–1832) had taken part in the Boston Tea Party, and his maternal grandfather, General Peter Gansevoort (1749–1812), was famous for having commanded the defense of Fort Stanwix in 1777. During the 1820s Melville lived a privileged, opulent life, in a household with three or more servants at a time. Once every four years the family moved to more spacious and prestigious quarters, ending up on Broadway in New York in 1828. Allan Melvill lived well beyond his means, on large sums he borrowed from both his father and his wife’s widowed mother.
Herman was not a particularly good student. In May 1830 Allan wrote to Major Melvill, “. . . without being a bright Scholar, he maintains a respectable standing, & would proceed further, if he could only be induced to study more – being a most amiable & innocent child, I cannot find it in my heart to coerce him.” Allan died in December of that year and Major Melvill two years later leaving the family penniless and in debt. Herman took a job as a bank clerk and Gansevoort went into the fur business. Ultimately the two worked together but due to various problems, not their fault, the business ultimately failed.
On 31 May 1839 Gansevoort, then living in New York City, wrote that he was sure Melville could get a job on a whaler or merchant vessel if he would come to Manhattan. On June 2 Melville arrived from Albany by boat.He signed aboard the merchant ship St. Lawrence as a “boy” (a green hand) for a cruise from New York to Liverpool.
He returned on the same ship on October 1 after five weeks in England. Redburn: His First Voyage (1849) is partly based on his experiences of this journey. Probably inspired by his reading of Two Years Before the Mast, and by Jeremiah N. Reynolds’s account in the May 1839 issue of The Knickerbocker magazine of the hunt for a great white sperm whale named Mocha Dick, Herman and Gansevoort traveled to New Bedford, where Herman signed up for a whaling voyage aboard a new ship, the Acushnet. At less than 360 tons, this ship with two decks and three masts was smaller than the average whaler. The contract he signed on Christmas Day with the ship’s agent shows that he signed up as a “green hand,” for 1/175th of whatever profits the voyage would yield.
On January 3, 1841, he sailed from Fairhaven, Massachusetts, bound for the Pacific Ocean. He was later to comment that his life began that day. The vessel sailed around Cape Horn and traveled to the South Pacific. Melville left few direct accounts of the events of this 18-month voyage, although Moby-Dick probably describes many aspects of life on board the Acushnet. Melville deserted the Acushnet in the Marquesas Islands in July 1842. For three weeks he lived among the Typee, who were called cannibals by the two other tribal groups on the island—though they treated Melville very well. Typee, Melville’s first book, describes a brief love affair with a beautiful native girl, Fayaway, who generally “wore the garb of Eden” and came to epitomize the guileless “noble savage” in the popular imagination.
Melville did not seem to be concerned about the consequences of leaving the Acushnet. He boarded an Australian whale ship, the Lucy Ann, bound for Tahiti; took part in a mutiny and was briefly jailed in the native Calabooza Beretanee. After release, he spent several months as a beachcomber and island rover (‘omoo’ in Tahitian), eventually crossing over to Moorea. He signed articles on yet another whaler for a six-month cruise (November 1842 − April 1843), which terminated in Honolulu. After working as a clerk there for four months, he joined the crew of the frigate USS United States, which reached Boston in October 1844. He drew from these experiences in his books Typee, Omoo, and White-Jacket.
Melville died at his home in New York City early on the morning of September 28, 1891, at age 72. The doctor listed “cardiac dilation” on the death certificate. He was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York.
So, there it is. Two men from rich New England families, born on the same day four years apart, who gave up comfortable lives to become common seamen and sail the world, writing later of their experiences to enduring fame (although Melville was less well thought of in his lifetime, and Dana is less well known now). I’ve been pondering their lives as I look around now in China at rich U.S. youngsters who narcissistically call themselves “travelers” as they fly from place to place with the best of gear, thinking that staying in cheap hostels as “roughing it,” and who think that taking selfies with their expensive smart phones in front of ancient monuments, and getting drunk at night in local clubs, is a wild adventure. I don’t think they’d last long on a whaler rounding the Horn. I know I wouldn’t.
Neither Dana nor Melville write much about food, maybe because on board ship it was dreadful. They do both, in passing, say it was awful but give no details. Dana recalls that in port in California the crew ate mountains of fried steak and beans but that’s about it. So you could make up a steaming pot of Mexican beans with salt pork (or bacon) plus some onions, garlic, and cilantro. Works for me. But then there is this description of clam chowder taken from the opening of Moby Dick:
But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery [of delicious aromas] was delightfully explained. Oh, sweet friends! hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt.
There’s your recipe.
I’m a big fan of clams and can eat them raw (if they are small), in soups and chowders, and especially over linguine bathed in garlic and parsley. I’ve seen them in markets here but am a little leery of pollution, so have avoided them. Pity, because I miss them. I make both New England and Manhattan clam chowders and could conceivably take the plunge and make one tonight. I have all the ingredients to hand with the exception of the clams.
New England clam chowder is one of those dishes that people fight about endlessly concerning what is “authentic.” I find such debates pointless and tiresome. Melville’s description is as good as any. Make it the way you like. I note that Melville does not mention cream but that is now the norm. Some people cook the cream in with the chowder, while others serve the soup without it, serving it on the side for guests to add as they wish. Here’s how I do it.
New England Clam Chowder
Steam well scrubbed fresh clams in a large pot in a good fish stock until they open. Spoon them out and remove the clams from their shells. Set them aside. Let the broth cool and settle for about 30 minutes, then strain it through fine muslin or two thicknesses of cheesecloth, stopping pouring before you reach the bottom to avoid the grit. Clean out the pot, return the broth, and bring it to a simmer. Add diced potatoes (the size of the clams), some minced, lean back bacon, and finely chopped onions. Cook for about 20 minutes – until the potatoes are done but not mushy. Season with ground white pepper and salt. Add back in the clams and heavy cream to heat through. Serve in deep bowls with crusty bread.