The Sea Cook: Fit of Pique, or Peak?

As with many revisitations to the past, my decision to review the subject of this week’s investigation seemed like a good idea – until Barnaby Conrad introduced a worm of doubt into the apple. “Are you sure you want to risk the time necessary to reread?” he said. “If this is your Golden Oldies week, you could always settle for Trollope – The Eustace Diamonds or if you had time, The Way We Live Now. Either one is fish in a barrel.”

True enough about the Trollope titles, particularly since we both consider them to be his best. But I felt the pull of nostalgia for my current choice, tugging me toward the bookstore whence I purchased a new edition without so much as turning an investigatory page. Although it was a paperback, the N.C. Wyeth illustrations from my boyhood bore vividly in my mind and already Mr. Conrad’s cautionary voice had begun its waning arc.

And so I set forth, beyond the familiar dedication and the author’s seemingly modest recognition that all who picked up the work might not remain on board to the dramatic betrayal and exciting denouement.

Chapter One – chapters often had titles in those days – was titled “The Old Sea Dog at the Admiral Benbow.” Dipping toes of expectation into the waters of reality, I read on:

“Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17- and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow Inn and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under our roof.

“I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow – a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remember him looking round the cover and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:

“Fifteen men on the dead man's chest – Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!”

From that moment until Jim Hawkins, years later, is apt to awaken from a sound sleep with the “sharp voice of Captain Flint ringing in my [his] ears. ‘Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!’” I was, to coin a phrase, as fixed in purpose as a lady astronaut driving cross country.

The book is “Treasure Island,” first published in 1883, originally titled “The Sea Cook,” in homage to its lead character; that is, until the publisher presented a more convincing and intriguing title. A rousing success at the time and in continuous print ever since, “Treasure Island” is to adventure what Jung is to archetype. The author, Robert Louis Stevenson, is well known for a number of things, such as having died at the young age of 44 at his estate at Samoa, of being a quintessential writer for boys, of having gone off on some moody rant wherein he wrote the anomalous “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” He is also known for having written “Kidnapped,” “The Master of Ballantrae” and “A Child’s Garden of Verse.”

What to make of such a writer? Why, a “boys’” or romance writer, a popular fizz of a presence rather than what he was. Robert Louis Stevenson was no more a boys’ writer than his contemporary, Mark Twain. True enough, both wrote boys’ books, but it is better said that they wrote books about boys in which adults recognized something iconic. To consider Stevenson as merely a boys’ book writer is of a piece with positing that Vladimir Nabokov wrote books about nasty old men, or that William Faulkner was not to be trusted with a corn cob.

Thus emerge urban myths. The fact is that Stevenson’s popularity was merited because of his deft hand at technique and his thematic restraint. Sir Walter Scott, who died a few years before Twain was born and 18 before Stevenson, was the then equivalent of Tom Clancy, a position he shared jealously with James Fennimore Cooper, who died the same year as Stevenson. Unlike Stevenson, Twain was driven by an irascible temper, which he directed with some notable effect at Scott and Cooper. Stevenson simply kept producing one masterpiece after another. A look at these four contemporaries is instructive. Scott and Cooper, however iconic, are almost unreadable today. Stevenson and Twain – “boys’ book writers” – are iconic in another set of senses. They knew story. They knew language. They knew people.

The outer landscape of Jim Hawkins, through his job at the Admiral Benbow Inn to his acquisition of the treasure map and his engagement in the quest for the treasure is the stuff on which adventures then and since have hinged. The betrayal Jim Hawkins experiences – don’t worry, I’m not spoiling the plot line – was somewhat approximated by Mark Twain in “Huckleberry Finn,” but not again to that degree until D. H. Lawrence’s memorable short story, “The Rocking Horse Winner,” and Graham Green’s memorable, “The Basement Room.”

In addition to “Treasure Island” being a splendid romp of a plot, Stevenson also demonstrated in it the use of subordinate characters to a delicious level of variety. Among this ensemble cast, Stevenson included Bill Bones, who comes aboard early in the first chapter to trigger the events that lead us to Treasure Island. Not only does he arrive, in the best Aristotelian sense of being a messenger, he is rendered in such a way as to bring forth an air of suspense and apprehension about his motives. Early on, we are firmly with Jim Hawkins, as much in this reading as back in those more naïve days of first reading, seat-buckled in for the glorious up-and-down ride to the very end. Bill Bones brings a lovely symmetry in that he had already been to Treasure Island, and now, in the immediate present, has a preternatural fear of a man with a peg-leg, a man we will come to know as the adventure thickens and Robert Louis Stevenson once again directs our fates.

When all is said and done, Mr. Conrad, “Treasure Island” was a pure and multi-dimensional delight, with none of the embarrassing excesses of Scott or Cooper, and just possible equal to the task of keeping you – and me – from looking to Anthony Trollope for help.