Thursday, August 1, 2013

Dana, Melville share birthday, love of the sea

Richard Henry Dana, Jr. and Herman Melville
It is the birthday of writers Richard Henry Dana, Jr. (1815) and Herman Melville (1819), who were contemporaries. They not only shared a birthday but also a love of the sea.

Dana, though born into an educated, upper class New England family, decided to take time off from his studies at Harvard to sign on as an able-bodied seaman on a merchant vessel bound for California. He returned to Boston, finished school and became a lawyer. He published Two Years Before the Mast (1840) and then wrote a handbook for seafarers, The Seaman's Friend (1841). Dana pursued a lucrative career as a lawyer.

Melville, who was four years younger, was enthralled with Dana's book, though scholars doubt that he was spurred to go to sea because of it. Melville spent much longer time at sea. He was born in New York City to an established family with Boston roots, but his father went bankrupt and then died when Herman was 12. As a youth, he first worked on a ship bound for Liverpool. Later he worked aboard a whaler, jumped ship in the South Pacific, lived among island natives, became a beachcomber, worked on other ships, lived in Hawaii and eventually returned to Boston and wrote about his adventures.

In 1850, he wrote to Dana that he was halfway through writing Moby-Dick (1851). They exchanged letters but scholars say the younger Melville was much more open and detailed in his. Dana seemed stilted and reserved, though he did apparently help Melville find a publisher in London. Melville was a far more prolific writer, and critics say, a far better one. Moby-Dick is considered to be among the greatest American novels and a fine example of world literature.



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