Monday, January 13, 2014

Dana, Starr, and "the land of knives and forks and tea-cups"

"The territory of Alta California, a network of scattered settlements on the lower edge of an empty American West, had a number of visitors during the Spanish and Mexican period." 
— Kevin Starr, Americans and the California Dream: 1850-1915
"F——— went forward into the forecastle as a common sailor, and lost the handle to his name, while young foremast Jim became Mr. Hall, and took up his quarters in the land of knives and forks and tea-cups." 
— Richard Henry Dana Jr., Two Years Before the Mast
*
Today's selections are not just not crime, they're not even fiction. But they are taken from works of great imaginative power (Starr's preface invokes the imagination, a wonderful thing for a  historian to do), and they would not be out of place in a kind of crime novel I especially like to read—hard-boiled with a humorous edge.

Starr's first. The sentence above is not just the first in his book, but the first in his multivolume history of California. Read the sentence, and I hope you'll agree that "had a number of visitors" is a delightfully understated way to begin a history, particularly of an area so dominated by people who arrived from elsewhere.

And can you think of a more entertaining way to portray the difference between living conditions of a ship's officers and its ordinary sailors than Dana's reference to officers' quarters as "the land of knives and forks and tea-cups"? The description is not just amusing, it's supremely economical. Its eight (or nine) words tell you all you need to know about how both classes live.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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7 Comments:

Blogger R.T. said...

Wow! What a surprising posting. It has been a long time since I read Dana. And your comment reminds me of my U.S. Navy career. Half of my twenty-five years, I was enlisted. Then, in the second half, I was able to move up to the "land of knives and forks and tea-cups." It was a wonderful sea-change. And your posting has provoked some wonderful memories. Thanks.

January 13, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thank the excellent Kevin Starr, who cites Dana with approval in his (Starr's) one-volume history of California. Starr was interested in what Dana had to say once he got to California, but getting there was probably at least half the fun.

Having recently taken two days to get from Chicago to Los Angeles by train and six hours from Los Angeles to Philadelphia by plane, I have found myself turning from Dana's narrative to look with amazement at his route from Boston south and around to Cape Horn and back north.

January 13, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm just a few chapters in, but, spurred my the knowledge that Dana became an agitator for sailors' rights, I jumped ahead to a chapter in which the captain flogs two of the men.

I trust much had changed by the time you were in the Navy. Interesting, though, that Dana should still bring your career to mind.

Two of my colleagues who served in the military did so in the Navy, though neither made it a career. I should send them my Dana post.

January 13, 2014  
Blogger R.T. said...

I was never flogged, but it was a close call a couple of times. When I was an officer doing courts martial, I did send people to the brig. That must count for something.

January 13, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suspect I'll at least shudder instead of laughing the text time some slapstick pirate character says: "I'll keel-haul ye!" or "Tie that scurvy dog to the yard arm."

Thanks to the glossary of nautical terms included in my edition, I now know what a yard arm is, though.

January 13, 2014  
Blogger R.T. said...

A "yard arm" is any sailor's arm that is 36 inches long. Right?

January 13, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Avast there. No crappy jokes or bad puns on my ship. You'd have keel-hauled in the old days, if not made to walk the plank.

One might never guess Dana was a Harvard undergraduate landlubber. Or rather, one would, but by God, he assimilated lots of knowledge quickly, was a fast learner and a graceful writer, did a lot of editorial polishing on his book, had a good editor, or some combination of all of the above. I have read that Herman Melville was a fan of his, which speaks well for Dana.

January 13, 2014  

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