Two Years Before the Mast and Twenty-Four Years After (Harvard Classics, #23) - Richard Henry Dana Jr., Charles William Eliot

In 1834, the Harvard student Richard Henry Dana decided that he needed to improve his health by fresh air and exercise, and therefore shipped as a common sailor aboard a brig bound for California. Thus was the origin of one of the most readable and informative sea memoirs ever written. A good part of its charm comes from the enthusiasm with which Dana describes his experiences: though he does not fail to emphasize the terribly hard work, miserable discomfort, and monotony involved, nonetheless his youth allowed him to keep in good spirits, appreciate novelties, and be satisfied with the work he did. Another appealing aspect is that he paid a lot of attention to depicting the characters and interactions of the people on board; many of them actually stand out as personalities in a way that few memoirists can accomplish.

Dana was an example of the legendary Yankee propensity for thrifty industry, puritanical habits, and religious punctilio. He unquestionably disapproved of blaspheming and Sabbath-breaking, and had great faith in the power of pious tracts to reform sailors' morals. Yet he was saved from priggishness by his human sympathy and his sense of humor. Tolerance was necessary to live in the ship's close quarters, and it shines through the writing that he had plenty of it.