Two Years Before the Book

Although the ship pictured above is not a brig like Dana sailed on, you can click on the image to see its description in AAS's Drawings Collection Inventory

In April 1836, the future attorney and activist Richard Henry Dana was busy binding books aboard the brig Alert.  Yes, binding books, not reading them.  Dana might have been reading had a bad case of the measles and an even worse case of myopia not forced him to leave Harvard for a couple of years.  To broaden his vision, Dana spent two years sailing to California, working as a “common sailor” in the merchant service, and experiencing the hide trade firsthand.

But Dana’s attempt to recuperate from illness by “taking a long absence from books and study” was a dismal failure.  It seems as though books, real and metaphorical, had informed Dana’s life and perception of the world so much so that he simply couldn’t escape from them: he began to ransack fellow sailors’ chests for books, devour the latest newspapers aboard ship, trade old books for new in Santa Barbara, and read Scott aloud to his fellow sailors.  As he prepared for his return trip home, Dana even helped to bind hides, the ship’s goods, into “books.”  He describes the process as such:

“[A] large ‘book’ was made of from twenty-five to fifty hides, doubled at the backs, and put into one another, like the leaves of a book.  An opening was then made between two hides in the pile, and the back of the outside hide of the book inserted.  Two long, heavy spars, called steeves, made of the strongest wood…were placed with their wedge ends into the inside of the hide which was the centre of the book, and to the other end of each, straps were fitted….”

Dana’s two worlds had become one, the physical labor of the jack-tar necessitating the very books he had so longed to leave behind and even producing a few in the process.

While AAS is not known for any special emphasis on maritime history, its collections nevertheless feature some significant Dana holdings.  Dana’s legal papers are housed in AAS manuscripts collections (the AAS catalog record and finding aid with a complete contents list are available online).  Featuring files on over 600 of Dana’s cases, this cache of understudied material was discovered by Scott Sandage at the Worcester Law Library during Sandage’s 1993-94 AAS Peterson fellowship.  Some may also be pleased to learn that our Reserve Collection, a restricted collection that houses one of only several extant copies of the Bay Psalm Book, contains both the first and second printing of Dana’s own book, Two Years Before the Mast.

Just for fun, see if you can spot the difference between the two printings from their copyright pages below before reading the online record that describes AAS’s copies of Two Years Before the Mast.

Copy 1

Copy 2

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