Off the Bookshelf
But Who on Earth Is Richard Henry Dana Jr.?
Candide's Notebooks/December 8, 2005
On this one we plead ignorance. Our loss, which the latest from the Library of America could salvage. It arrived a few days ago, bound in deep blue. A hint. Dana wasn’t the earthly sort. He made his name partly at sea with Two Years Before the Mast, with To Cuba and Back and with Journal of a Voyage Round the World, 1859-1860. He was a correspondent of Melville’s, who once wrote to him that writing Redburn and White-Jacket (two of Melville’s unjustly dusky books) was done “almost entirely for lucre,” something Dana didn’t have to worry about much. He made money, books, politics and a name for himself, but not enough to buy him a box seat in posterity’s coliseum. Goes to show how many faces in that crowd are so much more than they seem.
Dana was the son of a man of letters, somewhat of a rabble-rouser—he was suspended for six months from Harvard for protesting, during prayer assembly, “against what he considered the unfair disciplining of a fellow student,” the volume’s biography tells us—and therefore a born lawyer: He became an abolitionist and helped steer (not found, as the Wikipedia entry on him has it) the Free soil Party in 1848, which for the four years of its brief life opposed slavery’s sprawl. He hung out with Melville, Emerson, Dickens, Thackeray, Longfellow, Lowell. (His son married Longfellow’s daughter, and his grandson was named Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana.) He had five children by 1851, when he was 36, and while traveling by train and reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, noticed that “four persons were reading this book, each unconnected with the other, in one car.” (When has any of us seen four people read the same newspaper in a 100-yard radius of mass transit, let alone the same book? That detail alone speaks loads about the fragmenting of the United States. Even when it was about to fragment politically and ideologically in the 1850s, it was doing so along coherent battle lines. One remembers the days in the early 80s when the subway cars on the 7 or the 6 lines in Manhattan were littered with the Post or the News, but more recently the litter has been less literate, the News and the Post less newsworthy, the attention-grabbers more frilly. Public immersions in Uncle Tom-like literature of the engaged sort are stow-aways.)
Dana became a Clarence Darrow of sorts, defending seamen and famous manslaughterers and hopping ships between court sessions to discover worlds neither Massachusetts nor literature could provide. This from To Cuba and Back: “The Cubans have a taste for prodigality in grandiloquent or pretty names. Every shop, the most humble, has its name. They name the shops after the sun and moon and stars; after gods and goddesses, demi-gods and heroes; after fruits and flowers, gems and precious stones; after favorite names of women, with pretty, fanciful additions; and after all alluring qualities, all delights of the senses, and all pleasing affections of the mind.” (Cubans have their grandiloquent and pretty names, Americans have their antique shops; Dana’s sentence, like a fragrance triggering inexplicable memories, reminded us of what Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley: “I can never get used to the thousands of antique shops along the roads, all bulging with authentic and attested trash from an earlier time. I believe the population of the thirteen colonies was less than four million souls, and every one of them must have been frantically turning out tables, chairs, china, glass, candle molds, and oddly shaped bits of iron, copper, and brass for future sale to twentieth-century tourists. There are enough antiques for sale along the roads of New England alone to furnish the houses of a population of fifty million.”)
Dana became a legislator in the latter part of his life, and knew what to anticipate with savvy political acumen: He opposed the impeachment of President Johnson, joins counsel in the treason proceedings against Jefferson Davis but opposes prosecution, and in 1877 he published an article calling for the abolition of the electoral college. But he wasn’t perfect. He supported Grant over Greeley in 1872, became rich on real estate holdings, got accused of plagiarism for an added chapter to a later edition of TwoYears Before the Mast (included in the Library of America edition), died of pneumonia, and was buried in Rome. He’d been touring Italy, for kicks and Mediterranean air, and what he called “a dream of life.” He’d have made an interesting columnist. As it is, he is a realist writing in a romantic tradition, a literary columnist of the seas in journal form, a social observer from on high who preferred to tell it as it was rather than make it up as it ought to be. His style is direct, rich, pressing “we hove up our anchor and stood out of the bay, with a fine starry heaven above us”: the real and the surreal setting a single sentence’s sails). His eyes have no horizons, though his journal entries from China and Japan are more clipped, more bullet-like, but no less grandiloquent in fact and feel: “And this is Nagasaki, famous in the history of the long attempted contact of East wioth West. Three hundred years ago, Nagasaki was solely a Christian city, its prince, its nobles, its people were all professed Catholics, & no other places of worship existed here. […] This was made the center of the persecutions, until, after a struggle of a century, & after the endurance of incredible trials and tortures, the Catholic religion was exterminated, & at the beginning of the 18 th century not a church nor college nor even the ruins of one could be seen, & even the graves & tombs of the Christians were dug up & their bones scattered, so that not a sign of them remained.”
[Talking of anticipation. Ian Buruma in a 1995 piece in the New York Review on The Bomb wrote: “ Nagasaki's most famous survivor was a Christian named Nagai Takashi. He became a symbol of his city's suffering, just as a schoolgirl, named Sasaki Sadako, became a symbol of Hiroshima. Sadako was two years old when the bomb exploded a mile from her home. She died of leukemia ten years later, but not before trying to fold one thousand paper cranes, as symbols of longevity. Her monument in Hiroshima Peace Park is covered in thousands of paper cranes, folded by schoolchildren from all over Japan. Dr. Nagai was a professor of radiology at the University of Nagasaki when the city was bombed. He had contracted leukemia before the war, perhaps as a result of his laboratory work, but radiation from the bomb cured the symptoms. Dr. Nagai was a devout Catholic and a Japanese patriot who exhorted his students to fight their hardest for the nation. He was devastated by Japan's defeat. But then, as he wrote in his best-selling book The Bells of Nagasaki, he had a flash of religious inspiration. The bomb, he decided, was "a great act of Divine Providence," for which Nagasaki "must give thanks to God." He declared that Nagasaki, "the only holy place in Japan," had been chosen as a sacrificial lamb "to be burned on the altar of sacrifice to expiate the sins committed by humanity in the Second World War." In this vision, Dr. Nagai added the Catholic victims of the bomb to the long list of Nagasaki martyrs. They were the spiritual heirs of believers who had been crucified for their faith.” And here’s how Takashi described the bombing: “How noble, how splendid was that holocaust of August 9, when flames soared up from the cathedral, dispelling the darkness of war and bringing the light of peace! In the very depth of our grief we reverently saw here something beautiful, something pure, something sublime. Eight thousand people, together with their priests, burning with pure smoke, entered into eternal life. All without exception were good people whom we deeply mourn.” It’s a long digression, but in time only, not in geography, and it’s exactly the sort of digression Dana indulged in, and would have appreciated.]
A spot on the Ocean in Orange County, California, which Dana visited when he was nineteen, is named after him ( Dana Point). “There was,” he wrote of the place, “a grandeur in everything around, which gave almost a solemnity to the scene: a silence and solitariness which affected everything! Not a human being but ourselves for miles; and no sound heard but the pulsations of the great Pacific!” We could quote him from here to the Pacific and back. But our ignorance so far as Dana is concerned has almost as long to go, and the new book begs page-turning.