The Dudley papers contain 83 letters written by Dudley to his young sister, Fanny, during the Caribbean cruises of the Powhatan in 1852 and Perry's expedition to Japan, 1853-1854, plus a 219 page memoir of his experiences during the Japan expedition written in 1855. Dudley's letters are long, well-written and highly informative, and provide a fascinating insight into the personality of young American sailor who finds himself in a foreign land for the first time.
Dudley's letters contain valuable information on the U.S. Naval Expedition to Japan, written from the perspective of a common sailor. His accounts cover every facet of the expedition from embarkation and port calls, to the meeting with the Japanese delegation at Yokohama and the return from Asia. Dudley provides clear and concise, frequently lengthy accounts of even the most mundane aspects of naval life. Whether discussing shipboard accommodations, phosphorescent plankton, or the shellbacks ceremony, his letters are always entertaining and packed with detail. His letters from the Caribbean, and from Madeira, Saint Helena, South Africa, southeast Asia and China provide abundant "local color" and create a fleshed out vision of the racial (pre)conceptions of a middle class northerner shortly before the Civil War and some interesting insight into one of the early attempts at the projection of American imperial power abroad.
The true heart of the collection relates to the Naval Expedition itself, particularly from the time of its arrival at the Ryukyu Islands in August, 1853, through its departure from Japan one year later. Dudley assiduously records his impressions of Japanese culture, language, and products, and the fascination with the performative aspects of the political negotiations from both sides. His letters are also a valuable resource for studying shipboard dynamics during the expedition, and they include discussions of everything from entertainment to the disdain with which Perry was held by the crew.
The memoir is a thoughtful piece, written in a consciously literary style, apparently with an eye toward publication. It appears, in fact, to be two separate narratives pieced together, the two being distinguished by the type of paper on which they are written, blue versus white. Though it is clear that there are breaks between the two narratives, they are paginated in a single, continuous sequence. It is possible that the narrative written on blue paper represents the journal as actually maintained by Dudley during the Japan expedition, however the narrative written on white paper was clearly written after the fact. The "blue narrative," like Dudley's letters, is written in a more personal style in epistolary form, addressed to "you" (Fanny?), with letters bearing dates November, 1853; 31 December 1853; 30 January 1854; 3 February 1854; 12 February 1854; 19 February 1854; 26 February 1854; 24 March 1854; 7 April 1854; and 23 [May] 1854. In contrast, the "white narrative" is more polished and more clearly literary in tone. In any circumstance, it is also clear that the narrative as a whole is incomplete. The last page, numbered 219, ends in the middle of a sentence, and the context would suggest either that several pages of the narrative have been lost, or that Dudley never managed to complete his work.
Dudley was also an accomplished artist who decorated his letters with small, delicate pen and ink sketches. There are seven illustrations in all, four by Dudley, two by a shipmate, Mac, and the last a collage.