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Time, at Sea: Temporality and Two Years Before the Mast
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Richard Henry Dana, Jr. was preparing for his third year at Harvard when he came down with a case of the measles that left his eyes so badly damaged that he could not return to school. Seeking hard work and fresh air that might restore his vision, Dana decided to take to sea as a common sailor on board the Pilgrim. When he moved from the classroom in Cambridge to a tiny berth in the forecastle of a merchant ship, Dana replaced the upper-class world he had long inhabited for a two-year voyage around Cape Horn to the California coast. Dana’s experiences of physical and psychological dislocation, his navigation of new challenges, and his forays into new social worlds make up the bulk of his narrative of the voyage: Two Years Before the Mast (1840). Two Years follows the young man along a predictable path: From a naïve, seasick, white-gloved student to a full-grown man with perfect vision and a strong resolution to re-enter the social world he left behind. This neat narrative of physical regeneration and personal development suggests that Dana’s entry into (and emergence from) the space “before the mast” transformed him into an adult fitted for the challenges of life on land, but I will argue that this progressive narrative looks quite different if we attend to the “two years” that Dana spent at sea.

The significance of those two years becomes apparent at a key moment in his narrative when Dana recalls his feelings upon learning that he might have to spend a third year on board ship. He believed that another year at sea “would settle the matter” and render him a “sailor for life.” Dana’s fears at this moment were born of a disconnect between his shipboard experience and his hopes for future success in resuming the life he was raised to live. And Dana, who would write that “the contemplated future solves and shapes the progressing present,” considered his years at sea to be anything but “the progressing present.” Dana was not alone, either. Like his sister, brother, and former teacher, all of whom wrote to Dana and begged him to return to Boston as soon as he could, Richard Henry Dana Sr. reminded his son that he needed to quit the sea because the young man had “no time to lose in preparing for [his] after life,” that is, life after sailing. As his family and friends understood, Dana’s decision to become a sailor, even for a short while, imperiled the “contemplated future” that shaped so many of his early choices, a future befitting a member of a well-known and well-connected Massachusetts family. Dana’s anxiety over the disconnect between his present experiences and his “contemplated future” drove him back to Boston (without spending that extra year on board ship), and it reemerges in his public and private writings about the sea.

In this essay, I argue that Dana’s maritime writings—Two Years Before the Mast and the epilogue “Twenty-Four Years After” (1869)—showcase non-linear, non-progressive temporalities in Dana’s detailed descriptions of what I call “sailor time,” a term that encompasses sailors’ experience of time and the ways that their experience differed from those of men and women on land. Indeed, the mix of temporal orientations in maritime writings like Dana’s Two Years undermines John L. O’Sullivan’s 1839 description of the United States as “the great nation of futurity.” When O’ Sullivan coined this term, he imagined a future for the US that would be unfettered by the historical burdens that plagued other nations and invoked a teleological view of history that Thomas Allen denominates as a “utopian horizon.” During the same year that O’ Sullivan imagined himself living in “the nation of human progress,” though, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. was at work on the sea narrative that described a way of being in time that conflicted with O’ Sullivan’s vision of linear and certain development. In this respect, Dana’s Two Years is one of many antebellum texts that showcase the heterogeneous ways that nineteenth-century Americans experienced time. And...

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