Vermont Bar Journal, Vol. 40, No. 2 - Page 39

BOOK REVIEW

SlaviSh Shore : The odySSey
of richard henry dana , Jr . by Jeffrey L . Amestoy Cambridge , MA : Harvard University Press , 2015
Reviewed by Paul S . Gillies , Esq .
Jeffrey Amestoy — Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court ( 1997-2003 ), Vermont Attorney General ( 1984-1997 ), Commissioner of Labor and Industry ( 1982- 1984 )— we thought we knew him , but after his public service was over , Jeff Amestoy became a biographer , and a good one . His subject is the writer of the classic Two Years Before the Mast , Richard Henry Dana , Jr . Richard Henry Dana , Jr . was a man who became a successful Boston attorney , abolitionist , and prominent citizen , and who enjoyed great success but suffered the troubles that come with success . The book is intriguing and provocative — a worthy read . The biography will give you a respite from the cares of your life , and will engage and entertain you for a few hours .
You might wish to read ( or reread ) Two Years Before the Mast to prepare for Mr . Amestoy ’ s own journey .
It all began with a sea voyage . Dana was 19 , had started at Harvard , but had taken a leave of absence due to ill health and bad eyesight , when he boarded the sailing brig , the Pilgrim out of Boston in 1834 . Two years later he disembarked . His sea chest was lost , containing his journal , but he recreated it and published his first book in 1840 , after graduating from Harvard Law School . Naturally , he practiced admiralty law , and wrote The Seaman ’ s Journal in 1841 , among other works . He became a leading abolitionist whose public opposition to slavery brought him both notoriety and opprobrium . Unfortunately , Dana spent his last years as a defendant in a suit that drained his ambition and distracted him from his career .
Biography is challenging , both to read and to write . Chronology — the timeline
of a full life — is a demanding structure to maintain . It is a true test of endurance and ethics to try to make sense of a person ’ s full years , while simultaneously resisting the temptation to judge or to contour the arc of the story into a meaningful pattern . Everybody ’ s life is interesting — but how much should be told , how much should be left out , how much must you elaborate ? These are the tough questions a biographer has to answer when writing , since nobody really knows the inner life of another person , always brimming with details .
So much of a life is prosaic . But in details , in incidents and scenes , a character is revealed . Dana was a dutiful husband , father , attorney , and citizen , who was raised to become another member of the elite , but who had the wisdom to choose an alternative course and the courage to defy the expectations of his class . His first and most daring choice was to become a common seaman . The experience of life on a sailing ship democratized Dana , who came aboard with neither privilege nor history of manual labor , and who climbed the rigging on his first day at sea to share the hard lot of sailors for a brace of years . He never got over it .
He was a good writer and a good , clear thinker . The sea held him in its grip for his whole life , and it pulled him away from his law practice and his family at regular intervals , when he would travel to foreign places for months at a time , alone , to keep his sanity and cure the wounds inflicted by the cold world of business .
In his story , as we bump into Daniel Webster , Emerson , Longfellow and Melville , the mid-nineteenth century world of politics , law , and literature never seemed so small or intimate a space . In his life , Dana had many trials , legal and personal . He won and lost big cases . He prosecuted Jefferson Davis on behalf of the government , for treason , and lost the motion to quash the indictment before the U . S . Supreme Court . He defended seamen in their claims against ship owners as well as fugitive slaves who sought their freedom .
Dana was a man who made mistakes , took the world too literally , believed too much in the goodness of men , and accumulated regrets over his working life . His literary fame was established before he was 24 , and from that time forward his life was a series of disappointments . Dana sold his rights to Two Years Before the Mast to Harper and Brothers for $ 250 and 25 copies , one of the worst business decisions ever made in the literary world . The book made the publishers a fortune , and Dana a lasting place in American literature .
His English publisher , feeling guilty at making so much money on the sales , sent Dana $ 500 , having paid nothing for the right to publish it under the laws of the time .
Dana failed at elective office in a quixotic race for Congress . He failed to attain the office of minister to England after President Grant nominated him , as the Senate failed to confirm his appointment . His life was complicated , and he was often disappointed , but his “ spirit was too buoyant to sink in self-pity ,” according to Amestoy , his first serious biographer .
Dana ’ s story , as told by the former Chief Justice of Vermont ’ s highest court , is worthy of a place in the library of American biography . You learn about two men in its reading , both Richard Henry Dana , Jr . and Jeffrey L . Amestoy . You can ’ t spend so many hours with an author without insights into the author ’ s character . Amestoy does not write this book as a judge or a lawyer , or even as an historian . He writes it as an act of faith and out of respect for his subject . He signed up for his voyage into biography with the same courage Dana displayed in 1834 when he walked onto the deck of the Pilgrim . Amestoy is a good man to have aboard .
You likely wouldn ’ t have known or cared about Dana if this book hadn ’ t been written . You might have seen that old worn copy of Two Years Before the Mast on a shelf , and vaguely remembered the pleasure of reading it . You might even have regarded it as everything you needed to know about Dana . Amestoy has brought him back to life for us delightfully , and that is no small achievement . ____________________ Paul S . Gillies , Esq ., is a partner in the Montpelier firm of Tarrant , Gillies & Richardson and is a regular contributor to the Vermont Bar Journal . A collection of his columns has been published under the title of Uncommon Law , Ancient Roads , and Other Ruminations on Vermont Legal History by the Vermont Historical Society .
www . vtbar . org THE VERMONT BAR JOURNAL • SUMMER 2016 39
BOOK REVIEW SlaviSh Shore: The odySSey richard henry dana, Jr. of by Jeffrey L. Amestoy Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015 Reviewed by Paul S. Gillies, Esq. Jeffrey Amestoy—Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court (1997-2003), Vermont Attorney General (1984-1997), Commissioner of Labor and Industry (19821984)—we thought we knew him, but after his public service was over, Jeff Amestoy became a biographer, and a good one. His subject is the writer of the classic Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. Richard Henry Dana, Jr. was a man who became a successful Boston attorney, abolitionist, and prominent citizen, and who enjoyed great success but suffered the troubles that come with success. The book is intriguing and provocative—a worthy read. The biography will give you a respite from the cares of your life, and will engage and entertain you for a few hours. You might wish to read (or reread) Two Years Before the Mast to prepare for Mr. Amestoy’s own journey. It all began with a sea voyage. Dana was 19, had started at Harvard, but had taken a leave of absence due to ill health and bad eyesight, when he boarded the sailing brig, the Pilgrim out of Boston in 1834. Two years later he disembarked. His sea chest was lost, containing his journal, but he recreated it and published his first book in 1840, after graduating from Harvard Law School. Naturally, he practiced admiralty law, and wrote The Seaman’s Journal in 1841, among other works. He became a leading abolitionist whose public opposition to slavery brought him both notoriety and opprobrium. Unfortunately, Dana spent his last years as a defendant in a suit that drained his ambition and distracted him from his career. Biography is challenging, both to read and to write. Chronology—the timeline www.vtbar.org of a full life—is a demanding structure to maintain. It is a true test of endurance and ethics to try to make sense of a person’s full years, while simultaneously resisting the temptation to judge or to contour the arc of the story into a meaningful pattern. Everybody’s life is interesting—but how much should be told, how much should be left out, how much must you elaborate? These are the tough questions a biographer has to answer when writing, since nobody really knows the inner life of another person, always brimming with details. So much of a life is prosaic. But in details, in incidents and scenes, a character is revealed. Dana was a dutiful husband, father, attorney, and citizen, who was raised to become another member of the elite, but who had the wisdom to choose an alternative course and the courage to defy the expectations of his class. His first and most daring choice was to become a common seaman. The experience of life on a sailing ship democratized Dana, who came aboard with neither privilege nor history of manual labor, and who climbed the rigging on his first day at sea to share the hard lot of sailors for a XHوYX\ˈH]\ݙ\] H\Hܚ]\[H X\[\HXH[[H[]ܚ\܈\HYK[][Y[H]^HH\›]XXH[\[Z[H]Y[\[\[[H[][ܙZYۈX\܈[۝]H[YK[ۙKY\\œ[]H[\HH[[XYHBܛو\[\˂[\ܞK\H[\[[Y[X\[Y\ۋۙٙ[[Y[[KBZY [[]Y[[\Hܛو]X][]\]\H]\Y[YYX[܈[[X]HHXK[\YK[HYX[HX[Y[[\ۘ[ Hۂ[Y\\ˈHX]YY\ۈ]\ۈZ[وHݙ\Y[ ܂X\ۋ[H[[ۈ]X\B[XY[YܙHHKˈ\[YH\ HY[YX[Y[[Z\Z[\YZ[\ۙ\\[\Y]]H]\œYZ\YYK[H\HX[XYHZ\Z\Hܛ]\[K[Y]Y›]X[H\وY[[X[][]YYܙ]ݙ\\ܚ[YK\›]\\H[YH\\X\YYܙHB\ [H][YHܝ\\YB\H\Y\و\\[Y[ˈ[B\YYX\YܙHBX\\\[\܈ L[HY\ۙHوHܜ\[\X\[ۜ]\XYH[H]\\Hܛ BXYHHX\\Hܝ[K[[HH\[XH[[Y\X[]\]\KHTSӕTTS8(SSQT M\[\X\\Y[[Z[H]XZ[]X[ۙ^HۈH[\[[B L ][ZY[܈HYœX\][\H]وH[YK[HZ[Y][X]HٙXH[H]Z^XXH܈ۙܙ\ˈHZ[Y]Z[HٙXHوZ[\\[[Y\\Y[ܘ[Z[]Y[K\H[]BZ[Yۙ\H\\[Y[ \YB\\X]Y [H\ٝ[\\[Y ]\8'\]\[X[œ[[[\]K8'HXܙ[[Y\K\™\\[\[ܘ\\[x&\ܞK\HHܛY\YY\XHو\[۝8&\Y\\ \ܝHوHXH[HX\Hو[Y\X[[ܘ\K[HX\X]Y[[]œXY[X\[H[K[Y^H [Y\K[H[&][›X[H\][]]܈]][Yš[H]]ܸ&\\X\[Y\H\›ܚ]H\\HYH܈H]Y\܈][\[\ܚX[Hܚ]\]\[XوZ][]و\X܈\XX HYۙY\܈\XYH[[ܘ\H]H[YH\YH[H\^YY[ N [H[Y۝BXوH[ܚ[K[Y\H\HX[]HX\ [HZ[H[&]]Hۛۈ܈\YX][HY\Y&]Y[ܚ][[HZY]HY[]ܛHوYX\YܙHHX\ۈB[[YY[H[Y[X\YHX\\HوXY[] [HZY][]BY\Y]\]\][[HYYYšۛX][K[Y\H\Y[HXYH܈\[Y[K[]\X[XY][Y[ ”][ˈ[Y\\K\H\\[B[۝[Y\\Hو\[ [Y\ X\ۈ[\HY[\۝X]܈B\[۝\\[ HX[ۈو\˜[[\Y[X\Y[\H]Hو[[[ۈ][Y[Y[\[Z[][ۜۈ\[۝Y[\ܞHHH\[۝\ܚX[Y]KB