Richard Henry Dana – Two Years Before the Mast

Richard Henry Dana, Jr. describing California Girls in 1836:

“The fondness for dress among the women is excessive, and is often the ruin of many of them.  A present of a fine mantle, or of a necklace or pair of ear-rings, gains the favor of the greater part of them.  Nothing is more common than to see a woman living in a house of only two rooms, and the ground for a floor, dressed in spangled satin shoes, silk gown, high comb, and gilt, if not gold, ear-rings and necklace.  If their husbands do not dress them well enough, they will soon receive presents from others.  They used to spend whole days on board our vessels, examining he fine clothes and ornaments, and frequently making purchases at a rate which would have made a seamstress or waiting-maid in Boston open her eyes.” [ed. Scher, p.81]
Just for the historical record, it’s worth noting that the first thing Richard Henry Dana, Jr did when he reached San Diego was go surfing (and get heckled by locals).
“I shall never forget the impression which our first landing on the beach of California made upon me.  The sun had just gone down; it was getting dusky; the damp night wind was beginning to blow, and the heavy swell of the Pacific was setting in, and breaking in loud and high “combers” upon the beach.  We lay on our oars in the swell, just outside of the surf, waiting for a good chance to run in, when a boat, which had put off from the Ayacucho just after us, came alongside of us, with a crew of dusky Sandwich Islanders, talking and halooing in their outlandish tongue.  They knew that we were novices in this kind of boating, and waited to see us go in.  The second mate, however, who steered our boat, determined to have the advantage of their experience, and would not go in first.  Finding, at length, how matters stood, they gave out a shout, and taking advantage of a great comber which came swelling in, rearing its head, and lifting up the stern of our boat nearly perpendicular, and again dropping it in the trough, they gave three or four long and strong pulls, and went in on top of the great wave, throwing their oars overboard, and as far from the boat as they could throw them, and jumping out the instant the boat touched the beach, and then seizing hold of her and running her up high and dry upon the sand.  We saw, at once, how it was to be done, and also the necessity of keeping the boat ‘stern on’ to the sea; for the instant the sea should strike upon her broad-side or quarter, she would be driven up broadside-on, and capsized.  WE pulled strongly in, and as soon as we felt that the sea had got hold of us and was carrying us in with the speed of a race horse, we threw the oars as far from the boat as we could and took hold of the gunwale, ready to spring out and seize her when she struck, the officer using his utmost strength to keep her stern on.  We were shot up upon the beach like an arrow from a bow, and seizing the boat, ran her up high and dry, and soon picked up our oars, and stood by her, ready for the captain to come down.”
The whole book is worth it for the descriptions of San Diego and San Francisco alone (aka Yerba Buena, “good herb,” SF before SF was SF.).
As an added bonus, here is my catty review of the annotated edition I wrote on Amazon when I was procrastinating studying for my general exams.  I was clearly in a bad mood (Sorry Rod Scher):

Rod Scher’s annotations are excessive and distracting. About 1/3 of the outer margin of every single page of this book is dedicated to annotation. Rather than annotate when necessary, helpful, or worthwhile, Scher seems to have got it into his head that he ought to fill every margin to the brim, even if the information used to fill that space is redundant, tangential, or downright irrelevant. A tremendous portion of the annotations is literally just paraphrasing of what Dana has written perfectly clearly.

For example, take the following sidenote on p. 310 as indicative, which — I assure you — has nothing to do with Dana’s plot whatsoever:

“In the news
July, 1836
The exact date is unknown, but the unfortunately named plumber and inventor Thomas Crapper was probably born this month. (He as baptized in September of 1836.) Crapper was a sanitary engineer operating in London. Contrary to myth, he did no invent the flush toilet, although he did popularize and improve on it. In a perhaps odd coincidence, the word “crap” (meaning “excrement”) did not derive from Crapper’s name; rather, it is [sic] comes form Middle English, having originally been combined form two even older Dutch and Old French words. Thus, the word predates Mr. Crapper by a long while.”

The only page where Scher does not do his utmost to fill every bit of the margin with whatever randomness he can think of is on p.285 where — somehow — Scher didn’t feel a need to add some bit of tangential or redundant information. I have no idea why he left this margin blank, given his consistency and dedication to fill every other page of this book. Reaching this page came like a merciful breath of fresh air where; at long last, Scher allowed his reader a little space to include his/her own annotation!

It is as if Scher, in his indiscriminate effort to fill every margin of his book, added every single bit of information he could regardless of its relevance. My guess is this is the result of an over-excited Scher becoming so Dana-brained that he couldn’t stop himself from gushing on and on and on in his enthusiasm. Not only are many of his sidenotes patently redundant, many more of them are complete guesses and opinions — several of them directly spoil the coming story. The number of times Scher points out Dana’s class commentary is mindnumbingly frequent.

If Scher had ever once asked himself “is this necessary?” he would have reduced his footnotes by half and left us with a brilliantly annotated edition. As it stands, many of his annotations are incredibly helpful — but only if you have the patience to find them amid all the drivel. With so many annotations, one gets the feeling one is reading every page twice: once for Dana, and then once for Scher’s prolix musings — one reads this edition of Dana with the feeling that one is trying to complete a regatta while sailing with the anchor still down.

In short, if you want an excessively annotated edition of Richard Henry Dana’s classic, this edition effectively doubles the length of the original with annotation that is absolutely superfluous at least half of the time.

I would like to, at this point, take a moment to say that Scher’s intentions were good (I give him a star for his intentions, and a star for his effort) — he obviously loves Dana and this book is a labor of love. But he has effectively smothered Dana with his affection. Our editor Scher was in sore need of editing.

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