The Man Who Dropped Out Of Harvard To Become A Sailor


One of the best pleasures of books is to discover one that turns out to be unexpectedly great.  I had just this experience recently with the old sea classic Two Years Before the Mast.  If you think a book about a sea voyage published in 1840 has got nothing to teach you, think again.  Fully expecting a dated and boring read, I was shocked at how readable, gripping, and relevant this book was.  It’s packed with knowledge that denizens of the manosphere will find appealing and applicable to their lives.

Richard Henry Dana was a prim and proper New Englander who dropped out of Harvard in the 1830s because of failing eyesight and unspecified health problems.  Today, we would probably diagnose his crisis as just the restlessness of a healthy intellect, but in those days being a rebel was not so easy.  He detested the constrictive, humdrum banality of his life.  He itched to get away.  To experience the beyond.  The Great Other.  Why did he have to do this?  Well, because he had to.

Dana decided to go to sea as a common sailor on a merchant vessel from 1834 to 1836.  It’s hard today to wrap our minds around just how radical this decision was at the time.  Seamanship in those days was backbreaking and dangerous work.  It was simply not something that Harvard students or Boston bluebloods did.  Dana spent two years aboard this vessel as it sailed to South America, around Cape Horn, and eventually put ashore in California, which in those days was a wild part of Mexico.

He kept a diary of his experiences, which formed the nucleus of his later published work.  The book is filled with awe-inspiring accounts of storms, conflicts aboard ship, brutal labor, the agonies of scurvy, and harrowing escapes from death.  (Melville once said that his description of the frigid passage through Cape Horn must have been “written with an icicle”).  We owe him a great debt, for his book is a great and timeless account of danger, struggle, courage, and perseverance.  These are the major things I took away from the book:

1.  You can’t idealize brute labor.

Some people who have never actually done hard physical work for extended periods of time like to idealize the peasant, the proletarian, or the laborer.  And it never works.  You can try to idealize labor, you can talk yourself into it, and you can almost succeed.  But in the end you just can’t.  The sea, like the soil, is a cruel, impersonal and brutal force; there is nothing idealistic about it, just as there’s nothing idealistic about a snarling tiger.  It has to be grappled and fought with, and is never mastered.  Work aboard ship is a constant life-and-death struggle to stay one step ahead of cruel Nature, who would just as soon destroy you.

2.  Men must endure physical struggle to realize their true selves.

Dana knew, deep in his bones when he left mother and apple pie in Boston, that he needed to prove his mettle as a man.  He needed to fight, to struggle, to slay his own dragons, on his own terms.  This is the most elemental desire of man:  to gain mastery over himself through conquest.  You will never be a great man until you seek out and put yourself through some intense physical challenge.

3.  Men who go through a life-changing, intense experience are elevated from normal society.

Dana lived out this great experience, then went on to become a lawyer and have a relatively uneventful life.  But it was all worth it.  Because he knew.  He just knew.  He had seen beyond.  He had experienced life in a way that none of his peers had, and he could die with the knowledge that he had truly touched the acme of human existence.  Life-changing experiences change you utterly, elevate you above the masses, and at the same time isolate you from them.  You will never be able to go back to who you once were.  Maybe the British writer D.H. Lawrence said it best in his own mystical way:  “We know enough.  We know too much.  We know nothing.  Let us smash something.  Ourselves included.  But the machine above all.”

4.  To be a leader of men, you must when necessary act with ruthlessness.

There is a scene in the book where a chronic malingerer aboard ship is to be flogged by the captain.  Dana describes the scene with empathy and disgust, even vomiting over the side as the seaman is whipped.  Another sailor who tries to protest the flogging to the captain is himself tied up and lashed.  Dana wants us to be horrified by all this.  But I wasn’t, if truth be told.  I thought that the slouching sailor got what he deserved.  Long sea voyages can have a corrosive effect on morale and discipline.  Anarchy and mutiny can threaten at any time if problems are not nipped in the bud when they start.  This sluggard sailor upset the balance aboard ship and something had to be done to set things right again.

Leaders sometimes have to act with speed and decision to put everyone on notice.  And besides all that, there are worse things than being flogged.  Losing your self-respect, your honor, your dignity, is worse.

All told, Two Years Before The Mast is a forgotten classic of masculine virtue and adventure, and deserves more recognition than it has received in the past few decades.  Check it out and see for yourself.


Read More:  16 Things I Learned From Mark Twain

21 thoughts on “The Man Who Dropped Out Of Harvard To Become A Sailor”

  1. its a great book and should be required reading in hs. Also has a lot of historical detail on early california if you happen to live there

  2. The closest equivalent today of such an experience is to find a job on an oil rig in the north sea or alaska, or gas pipeline camps in North/South Dakota. I once visited a 18th century trading vessel turned into a museum in Dundee, Scotland. What you saw regarding the sailors sleeping & eating quarters was not for the faint of heart. Everything was always damp and cold, sleeping on ropes. Skin infection a common fact of life. Todays typical military navy is a 5 star hotel at sea by comparison. I felt like a punk twink when I left that museum. Those guys had to be partially mentally insane alphas to survive that life.

  3. This is a GREAT book! I gave copies to the younger males in my family already.
    The points about testing oneself against the world are well taken. Dana did that and survived and became a man because of it.
    However, some background is missing. First, his family were part-owners in the ship he sailed on so he had some pull, as when he was allowed to change ships in California. He visited his cousins in California, the Danas of Nipomo on their ranch in central California who were large land owners and leading merchants. The Dana family is still there and I met the current patriarch at some political affairs in San Luis Obispo.
    Dana’s observations of the Californios (Mexicans in California) were telling. He was pretty harsh in his judgments of their energy and culture. For example, he ridiculed the fact that New Englanders sailed around the Horn to buy the raw hides from the Californios, took the leather back to New England to make shoes, then sailed the shoes BACK to California for sale/trade. How come, he asked, the Californios can’t make their own stupid shoes?
    He did learn to dance the fandango at the fiestas and admired the hospitality. When he returned to Boston and began his lawyering, he became a strong advocate for legislation protecting seaman and something of a political figure.
    By all means, read this book. It is at once a coming of age and manhood saga, a fascinating travelogue, and a great sea yarn.

    1. I’m pretty sure that Dana also found himself a great Mexicana mistress in California. Just as Melville frolicked and copulated happily with the South Sea islanders. Going to the ends of the earth to fight, struggle, and inseminate is the quintessence of the masculine spirit. So, Roosh’s “A Dead Bat in Paraguay” truly has a distinguished lineage.

      1. Dana was very discreet on the Californio females but they did have a reputation for being warmly friendly.

  4. Another great book from that era was “History of the Conquest of Mexico”, which is more fantastic than any fiction, by William J. Prescott, also a Harvard student, who was nearly blinded when a fellow student hit him in the eye with a crust of bread during a food fight.
    Also in the 19th century line-up you might include “The Devil Soldier” by Caleb Carr (a modern author), and biographies of Richard Francis Burton, adventurer and translator of “The Arabian Nights”.

    1. Great recommendations. Prescott’s history is a great work. So is the first-hand account of Cortes’s expedition, the memoirs of Bernal Diaz, who was one of Cortes’s soldiers. And as for Burton: an astonishing linguist and amazing personality….very little known now, but the best of the old school British adventurer-explorers. I recently discovered a great British explorer who wrote some great stuff in the 1950s: Wilfred Thesiger. His “Arabian Sands” and “Marsh Arabs” are great travel works.

        1. I might add guys, that many of these fine books are available for free at your local library.

  5. I read this a couple of years ago. I agree, it is a great book. After I read it, I wanted to get out of my comfortable existence and do something rough, manly, and out-of-doors. We really forget how comfortable and luxurious our own lives are.

  6. also read Conrads 3 part series “Youth/Heart of Darkness/End of the Tether”.

  7. The job is still not easy, though the business has come a long way. I started my career at sea working 12+ hour days in the lightless double-bottoms (little spaces between the engine room bilge and the outer hull) of an oil tanker, chipping rust, shoveling mud out and painting. My captain at the time made me read “2 years” because I was doing brutal work even though I had a master’s in the hard sciences. 20 years later I became a tanker captain, and “2 years” is still among my favorites.
    At any level, a career in the merchant marines today is a lucrative endeavor. As such, discipline is mostly a matter or hitting someone in the wallet or sending them ashore- it’s far more important for officers to manage their own comportment under stress and to expect respect as a result than to manage subordinates’ behavior and give them influence beyond the scope of their job.
    I can’t flog anyone, though I wish I could at times.

  8. This sounds amazing. Quick question, from someone for which English is a second language, how hard is it to read? I read Moby Dick last year and it took me a while with all the religious / navy / old English vocabulary.

    1. Good question. Compared to other writing of the period, it is very readable. Not old-fashioned or boring or dated…it reads a lot like journalism.

    2. Mortecouille: Just to let you know, your mention of “religious/navy/old English vocabulary” should read “religious/maritime/antiquated vocabulary”. Moby-Dick is about maritime matters, but it’s not about any navy or navies. And Old English is a medieval language, almost unrecognizably different from modern English, that was spoken in parts of what are now England and Scotland from around 450 to around 1100–not in Melville’s time!

  9. Try carrier decks if you want to see beyond. Fast motorcycles. A trip out of a perfectly good airplane with only a chute and your wits. Toughen up your spirits, Laddies, it’s a blast and broads will seem like child’s play afterward.

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