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Good Time Charlies

Reading two books at the moment, for the same purpose, though it’s hard to see from the titles what they could possibly have in common.

One is Charles Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast. I had started it years ago, then put it down; now I’ve gotten back into it from a “Classics Club” edition printed by Walter J. Black, Inc. They are handsome hardcovers, with the titles printed in gold, on a red band across the spine. You’d recognize them right away by sight. The other is Thomas Molnar, The Counter-Revolution.

Dana was a Harvard graduate who straightaway signed up to be a seaman on a merchant ship out of Boston, sailing around Cape Horn to the Juan Fernandez islands, then on to the few ports of upper California, still ruled by Mexico: San Diego, San Juan Capistrano, San Pedro, Santa Barbara, and San Francisco. Dana is not 200 years away from us, and yet the world he describes might as well come from another planet, for the now unimaginable physical effort and danger to life and limb, required to procure, in the case of his ship, something rather ordinary — some thousands of leather hides for transport back east. The voyage he committed to was supposed to last eighteen months; he returned to Boston by a different and much better captained ship, two years later. Had he remained on the original ship, he’d have been out for another year at least. If feminists want to make a deal, I’d say we should trade Charlies: we men will read the sentimental utopian dreams of Charlotte Gilman, and feminist women will read Charles Dana’s unsentimental account of what it is like to do filthy, strenuous, monotonous, and life-risking labor on a ship for 100-120 hours a week, and often in horrible weather, like the icy storms you get around the Horn. We will read about how male and female bodies will magically converge if only we had the right social conditions, and they can read about the pleasure, unjustly denied to feminist women, of watching the slightest of your shipmates, a lively teenage boy, swept off the deck with a hundred pounds of tackle on him, to drown in the Straits of Magellan, just like that.

Dana went on his voyage in 1834, and when he published his memoirs it was an instant sensation; everybody read the book. My edition includes a retrospective, written in 1859, when Dana went to San Francisco to see what had happened there in the meantime. What happened was this: the Gold Rush; and a city of 100,000 people — the figure is his — sprang up, burned to the ground twice and was rebuilt twice; and of course it no longer belonged to Mexico, but to the United States. In that retrospective he drops the name of a Robert E. Lee, who, as he informs the reader, distinguished himself in the Mexican War. Dana was not sympathetic to the slave business, but he shows no sign of supposing that the country would soon be plunged into a civil war. Another aside: he met a lot of kinds of people on the voyage, as sailors do, and the ones he liked the best, for their generosity and their quick intelligence, were the “Sandwich Islanders.” He records some of their language — all sailors become practical polyglots — and notes that they call one another “Kanaka,” while everybody else is a “Haole.” Phone your office, Steve McGarrett!

Thomas Molnar’s work is remarkable for its clarity, breadth of vision, historical care, and insight into the motives and the shortcomings of men. It was published in 1969, but it might have been published yesterday, without much alteration beyond bringing the matter up to date. Nothing has changed. It’s one of those books, too, that leads you to other authors and other books: Donoso Cortes, De Bonald, De Maistre, Spengler, Taine, the letters of Metternich, and, most interesting for his strength of mind and his unfortunate secularism, Charles Maurras, of Action Francaise.

Dana up on the mast could see for fifty miles in all directions. Molnar on his mast can see for centuries.