Richard Henry Dana Sr. entered Harvard after several years of scrambling among the rocks at his grandfather’s Newport, Rhode Island home. Dana was born into prestigious family—his father had served as the Chief Justice of Massachusetts and his grandfather had signed the Declaration of Independence—and yet his experiences along the seacoast were some of the most formative, eventually contributing to his best-known poem, “The Buccaneer,” and his lifelong interest in the natural world. Upon leaving Harvard, Dana studied to be a lawyer, as was the family profession, but worked in a law office for only a few years before leaving to pursue his passion—literature.
Dana thereafter joined the Anthology Club and aided in the publication of the North American Review, considered the first literary journal in the US. There, he began writing critical reviews of contemporary literary trends, most notably, American romanticism and transcendentalism. He championed the work of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and was disdainful toward Ralph Waldo Emerson and Alexander Pope. Eventually, these opinions—though unpopular at the time of their publication—were more widely adopted.
Dana also earned a literary reputation of his own, writing and publishing both poetry and fiction. Today, his most notable work is the 1822 novel (or “novelette”) Paul Felton, an early example of gothic literature in the US. Originally serialized in Dana’s own literary journal, Paul Felton tells the story of the titular character’s jealous drive to murder his wife. The work is notable for its naturalism and for the detailed and realistic portrayal of madness; it has since been suggested that Edgar Allan Poe was influenced by Dana’s work.
Though Dana was never able to make a living from his writing, his contribution to American letters has been substantial. It continued with his son, Richard Henry Dana Jr., who was similarly a lawyer, seaman, and author, most notably of the memoir Two Years Before the Mast.