Literary Nonfiction Assessment

Two Years before the Mast

While an undergraduate at Harvard College, Dana had an attack of the measles which affected his vision. Thinking it might help his sight, Dana left Harvard to enlist as a common sailor on a voyage around Cape Horn on the brig Pilgrim. He returned to Massachusetts two years later, aboard the Alert (which left California sooner than the Pilgrim).  He kept a diary throughout the voyage, and, after returning, he wrote a recognized American classic, Two Years Before the Mast, published in 1840 (from

Two Years Before the Mast Assessments 


Sailing Alone Around the World

Joshua Slocum’s autobiographical account of his solo trip around the world is one of the most remarkable – and entertaining – travel narratives of all time. Setting off alone from Boston aboard the thirty-six-foot wooden sloop Spray in April 1895, Captain Slocum went on to join the ranks of the world’s great circumnavigators – Magellan, Drake, and Cook. But by circling the globe without crew or consorts, Slocum would outdo them all: his three-year solo voyage of more than 46,000 miles remains unmatched in maritime history for its courage, skill, and determination (from

Sailing Alone Around the World Assessments



The ordeal of the whaleship Essex was an event as mythic in the nineteenth century as the sinking of the Titanic was in the twentieth. In 1819, the Essex left Nantucket for the South Pacific with twenty crew members aboard. In the middle of the South Pacific the ship was rammed and sunk by an angry sperm whale. The crew drifted for more than ninety days in three tiny whaleboats, succumbing to weather, hunger, disease, and ultimately turning to drastic measures in the fight for survival. Nathaniel Philbrick uses little–known documents-including a long–lost account written by the ship’s cabin boy-and penetrating details about whaling and the Nantucket community to reveal the chilling events surrounding this epic maritime disaster. An intense and mesmerizing read, In the Heart of the Sea is a monumental work of history forever placing the Essex tragedy in the American historical canon (from

In the Heart of the Sea Assessments


Secret Life of Lobsters

Corson worked for two years as a sternman aboard a lobster boat out of Little Cranberry Island, Maine. From the slippery deck of the F/V Double Trouble, he witnessed firsthand the lives and work of a crusty band of lifelong lobstermen and a new breed of ecologists whose unconventional methods include underwater vacuum cleaners, robots, lasers, scent electrodes—and superglue. Combing science, history, and folk wisdom, he explores the confounding reasons behind the fact that Maine’s lobster catch has tripled over the past fifteen years despite the general decimation of New England waters by overfishing. Part popular science, part social history, The Secret Life of Lobsters provides a glimpse into the quirkiness of scientific endeavors and fosters an awareness of how our oceans can be harvested sustainably despite questionable big-government solutions to environmental problems. It also offers an intimate portrait of an island lobstering community bound by tradition but confronting change (from

The Secret Life of Lobsters Assessments


The Edge of the Sea

The Edge of the Sea was a book Carson had always wanted to write. Her idea for it began while she still worked at the US Fish and Wildlife Service. She thought of it as a “field guide,” and Houghton Mifflin editor-in-chief Paul Brooks had a similar idea in mind when the two first met after Carson achieved literary fame with The Sea Around Us. But as Carson visited each coastal area and began writing, the book became much more than any typical “guide book.” It has all the hallmarks we now associate with Rachel Carson’s prose. Once again a scientifically accurate exploration of the ecology of Atlantic seashore, but also a hauntingly beautiful account of what one can find at the edge of the sea. She explores a tide pool, and an inaccessible cave, and watches a lone crab on the shore at midnight. Each is a memorable encounter (from

Edge of the Sea Assessments