Dana's father first approached Harper and Brothers as they were his publishers, though the Danas rejected the original offer for 10 percent in royalties after the first 1,000 sold. The manuscript, originally titled Journal, was rejected by four publishing houses after that offer from Harpers in 1839. Two Years Before the Mast was finally published in September 1840 in two versions, without credit to Dana on the title page. Dana had asked for assistance from the poet William Cullen Bryant, whose poem "Thanatopsis" was praised by Dana's father. Bryant again brought the manuscript to Harper's, hoping they would pay $500 to its author, though they ultimately paid Dana only $250 along with 24 complimentary copies. Though the book sold 10,000 copies during its first year, Dana did not receive any royalties from sales of this edition of the book.
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