Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Shiver my timbers

An essay in last week's TLS (Times Literary Supplement) reveals a new source that Robert Louis Stevenson almost certainly drew upon when writing Treasure Island -- a earlier pirate story by C. E. Pearce called Billy Bo'swain. It has long been recognized that Stevenson borrowed widely for his famous novel; he admitted as much. He did not, apparently, acknowledge Pearce. Innocent filching or plagiarism? The author of the TLS essay, John Sutherland, makes it a close call.

Anyway, the TLS essay pushed lots of memory buttons. Treasure Island was the first novel I ever read, from cover to cover, by myself, even before I went on to the Hardy Boys and Red Randall. I remember almost nothing about the latter books; I remember almost everything about Treasure Island.

"Fifteen men on a dead man's chest -- Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum." Blind Pew. Long John Silver. Missing leg. Parrot on the shoulder. X marks the spot. Spy-glass Hill. A glistening pile of minted gelt. And, of course, Jim Hawkins, a hero who makes Frank Hardy seem like a cardboard cut-out. That's Jim above, taking leave of his mother to go seeking treasure.

I remember, too, each and every one of N. C. Wyeth's illustrations -- luminous, muscular, bristling with menace. What Tenniel is to Alice and Shepard is to Pooh, Wyeth is to Treasure Island.

How explain the book's tenacity on the fading circuits of my brain? I fetched it from the shelf here in the college library and gave it a read.

It is good. It is uncommonly good. Stevenson may have been a borrower, but he was a terrific storyteller. The writers he borrowed from are mostly forgotten; Treasure Island is still with us.

Or is it? I suspect mine was the last generation of boys to read the book. Boys don't seem to read any more, and girls are in thrall to the likes of Harry Potter, which, from a literary point of view, is a cut below Treasure Island.

I greatly enjoyed re-reading the book, at age 75. Maybe I'm reverting to boyhood. But maybe too I appreciated the moral ambiguities, the conflicted loyalties, the nuanced shadings of good and evil. Treasure Island is a subversive book, a ripping yarn that leads a young reader by the hand into a world where dogmatic simplicities are of little use.