How else could the author allow Silver, that jovial hypocrite who protests loyalty to his employers even as he plots their destruction, a pirate-brigand for whom a crutch is a deadly weapon and who does not hesitate to murder in cold blood an honest sailor unwilling to join his dreadful scheme, how else, I say, could Stevenson allow such a man to gain his freedom, taking along both his beloved bird and a sack of gold coins, thereby ending his life in modest comfort in the loving arms of his mulatto wife?
Scott, to whom Stevenson owed an explicit debt, would have had none of that, and would have left Silver with the remnant of his pirate band on the island as a suitably Levitical fate of the kind the barrister author favored, or perhaps he would have abandoned him in the empty treasure pit, futilely clawing the sandy walls around him as his parrot, safe in a tree high above, cries out his litany to the empty air. Nor would Ballantyne, an evangelical Christian of the highest moral caliber, to say nothing of Cooper, for whom of fiction virtue was the root, have forgiven Silver his sins.
It is this amorality that lends especial interest to Treasure Island for adult readers, given that Stevenson wrote during a time when Victorianism was in full funereal flower, for his “lovable rascals,” as one friendly American critic wrote at the time, were a large part of the secret of his success. Silver hearkens back to Falstaff surely, and recalls as well more recent examples of attractive outlaws associated with the stories of Bret Harte. But Harte’s muse in this regard was Charles Dickens, and Stevenson’s pirate somewhat resembles the Artful Dodger, who like Long John Silver is allowed to escape the gallows by being deported to a very large island in the South Seas. None of this indebtedness detracts from Stevenson’s romance; indeed, it provides keys to his genius, as we shall see.
Stevenson was certainly good at what he did, which was to write stories of adventure that hold the reader to the very end; but having reached that termination, we look back and wonder what it was really all about, if anything, beyond considerable miching mallecho. Much as there is no moral lesson to be learned, other than the assertion of the traditional British value placed on physical courage in the face of psychic terrors, neither is there the subtextual matter so prized by modern readers, the sort of thing that makes Moby-Dick something more than a rattling good whaling yarn or Heart of Darkness greater than an adventuresome voyage up and back down the Congo River. Stevenson, it is widely admitted, was a great entertainer, and it was that reputation that caused his champions to mourn the promise of the unfinished Weir of Hermiston, which would have proved he was more than that.
But then there are far worse things to be remembered for than a gift for entertaining readers, and if Stevenson was no Henry James, well, James is on record as having observed wryly of Treasure Island that as a boy he had dreamt no dreams of finding pirate treasure, which suggests that though James had undoubtedly been a boy, he was not such a boy as Treasure Island was written for, nor a boy who having come into man’s estate could write such a book had he wanted to, that not being, as Cooper’s Leatherstocking would have observed, his “natur’.” Closer to the mark was Twain, who let Stevenson know how much he admired Treasure Island, and Stevenson in his turn declared that he admired Huckleberry Finn, a mutual admiration society that strengthened its bond by that flattery we call imitation.
But here again we have the troublesome issue of subsurface matter, of which Twain’s novel contains virtually as much as the river on which the heroes’ raft floats, and Huckleberry Finn is likewise hardly empty of moral considerations, for the boy’s conscience, though warped by society, is overridden by his inner conviction of pure and unabstract righteousness, which convinces him that his friendship with a slave means more than any laws written by men. And yet Twain’s greatest novel bears the telltale signs of Stevenson’s influence: among lovable rascals there is no more memorable pair than the phony Duke and Dauphin, the last of whom has a distinctly Falstaffian profile, and whose iron grip on Huck’s arm at a critical graveside moment suggests as well Long John Silver’s possessive hold on Jim Hawkins.
But then Treasure Island seems in its turn to borrow from Tom Sawyer, the famous scene in which Jim crouches in the apple barrel being reminiscent of the moment when Tom and Huck, hiding upstairs in the haunted house, witness Injun Joe’s discovery of the treasure the two boys have been seeking, and are very nearly discovered by Joe’s accomplice. Nor is Joe as a fearsome specter, whether murdering the doctor in the graveyard scene or glimpsed holding a candle by Tom in a near-fatal meeting in the cave, too far distant from the same Dickensian influence that inspired Blind Pew. Finally, like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the adventures of Jim Hawkins are abstracted from boyhood games, much as Stevenson himself observed in “Child’s Play” that the “well-spring of romance” was the ancient ritual of childhood called “hide-and-seek,” in which (we might add) the basis for Scott’s famous trinitarian formula of pursuit-capture-escape may be found.
We must, however, be careful not to insist on these correspondences as matters of specific indebtedness, and though the apple-barrel episode certainly resembles the situation in the haunted house in Tom Sawyer, it has another and much more likely source. Virtually on his deathbed, Stevenson wrote a family memoir, chiefly about his grandfather and namesake, Robert Stevenson, a civil engineer famous for having built lighthouses under the most dangerous conditions. In passing, the author described a sailor named Soutar, who worked for his grandfather as captain of the cutter in which the elder Stevenson surveyed the Scottish coast. Though “active, admirably skilled in his trade, and a man incapable of fear,” Soutar was a notorious hypocrite, “courting” his employer shamelessly:
He used to come down daily after dinner for a glass of port or whisky, often in his full rig of sou’-wester, oilskins, and long boots; and I have often heard it described how insinuatingly he carried himself on these appearances, artfully combining the extreme of deference with a blunt and seamanlike demeanour. My father and uncles, with the devilish penetration of the boy, were far from being deceived, and my father indeed, was favoured with an object-lesson not to be mistaken. He had crept one rainy night into an apple-barrel on deck, and from this place of ambush overheard Soutar and a comrade conversing in their oilskins. The smooth sycophant of the cabin had wholly disappeared, and the boy listened with wonder to a vulgar and truculent ruffian.
Who can doubt that here is the original not only of the apple-barrel incident but of Long John Silver’s character as well? Stevenson ends his anecdote by telling how as a boy he had himself met the old sailor in full hypocritical fig, and that “he abounded in the praises of my grandfather, encouraged me (in the most admirable manner) to pursue his footprints, and left impressed for ever on my memory the image of his own Bardolphian nose. He died not long after.” None of this rules out the inspiration derived from Stevenson’s friend Henley, nor does it mean that the apple-barrel episode was not in part influenced by the similar incident in Tom Sawyer, but it does suggest that we need to be careful in compiling sources, aside from those instances the author himself admitted to.
And yet it is his use of American material, I think, that provides Stevenson’s tale with considerably more complexity than it has been given credit for, even the kind that ends with a question we can go on forever attempting to answer, and which I intend to spend the following section asking. Simply put, Why is a tale of adventure that is so palpably British in character and situation not only derived from a number of American stories and novels, but given a setting that can be nothing but American, indeed quintessentially so? But that is simply put; what follows is an extended diagram of the complex ways in which Stevenson wove together a romantic fabric from materials derived from American stories and scenes.
If, as Hemingway famously declared, modern American literature begins with a novel by Mark Twain, then nineteenth-century American literature begins with the writings of Washington Irving, especially The Sketch Book, but also a number of humorous stories wri
tten immediately after that collection first appeared. That Stevenson was familiar with Irving’s writing is testified to by his admitted indebtedness to Tales of a Traveller. Although not generally considered one of Irving’s most successful works, this collection does include the well-known ghost story “The Devil and Tom Walker” among the tales randomly gathered in the concluding section, called “The Money-Diggers,” as well as the description of the bullying old pirate that was the inspiration for Billy Bones. Since Treasure Island starts with that episode, then it too may be said to have begun with Washington Irving. But the American connection, as I have already suggested, is strengthened by Cooper’s The Sea Lions, and Cooper was not only Irving’s contemporary, but is an acknowledged giant of American literature, having successfully translated Scott’s romance formulas to the landscape of the rapidly expanding United States.
The plot of The Sea Lions is not familiar to most readers, so I begin with a brief synopsis of the opening chapters, which contain those elements that seem to have caught Stevenson’s presumably youthful attention. The story begins in Oyster Pond, near Sag Harbor, a Yankee stronghold on Long Island, and centers on a courageous young sea captain, Roswell Gardiner, and his pious sweetheart, Mary Pratt, who is niece and ward of her greedy old uncle, Deacon Pratt, a compound of the nastiest characteristics that New Yorkers such as Cooper associated with the latter-day Puritan character. Following one of those interminable first chapters by means of which Cooper establishes his detailed settings, the story begins with the arrival at Oyster Pond of “a worn-out and battered seaman,” a native of Martha’s Vineyard named Tom Daggett, en route from the West Indies to his birthplace.
Elderly, ill, and without friends, Daggett is also without apparent means, though like Billy Bones and Irving’s pirate he carries with him “a substantial sea-chest,” which, “from its appearance, had made almost as many voyages as its owner.” While waiting for chance transportation to the Vineyard, Daggett (like Bones) takes up residence with a widow, and pays her for his lodging with various articles scavenged from his massive chest: a sailmaker’s needles and protective leather “palm,” a fid, seashells salvaged from tropical beaches, and a carved whale’s tooth. Captain Gardiner is charged with selling Daggett’s property, piece by piece, in Sag Harbor, and Gardiner’s aid in fetching a doctor is also enlisted when it becomes apparent that the old sailor’s health is failing fast.
But in the meantime a conversation between Daggett and the greedy Deacon reveals that the dying sailor has in his chest a chart and a journal that pinpoint the location of certain unknown islands near the Antarctic Circle where an abundance of fur-bearing seals (sea lions) can be found. Unaware that he is close to death, Daggett refuses to give up the chart and journal, having sworn a mutual oath with a band of other sailors not to reveal the location of the islands until 1820, a date still a year away. He is willing, however, to ship on the Deacon’s newly built sloop, the Sea-Lion, and to direct Captain Gardiner to the place where the seals may be found. Also mentioned is a “key,” a tiny island in the West Indies, where a treasure is buried, a chart of which is also kept in the locked sea chest. Daggett is supposed to have been given this information by a pirate with whom he briefly shared a jail cell before being cleared of any complicity with the brigand, who was subsequently hanged.
The Deacon attempts to wheedle at least a glance at the chart and journal, but Daggett sticks by his oath, claiming that it “was none of your custom-house oaths, of which a chap might take a dozen of a morning, and all should be false; but it was an oath that put a seaman on his honor, since it was a good-fellowship affair, all round.” Though the Deacon is interested in the potential profits from a successful voyage after seal pelts, his avarice is chiefly aroused by the prospect of securing the pirate treasure. Daggett plays on this greed, using language anticipating that of Stevenson’s rascally sea dogs: “Ay, ay, sir, gold is gold; and any of it good enough for me, though doubloons is my favorites. When a fellow has got half-a-dozen doubloons alongside of his ribs, he can look the landlord full in the eye; and no one thinks of saying to sich as he, ‘It’s time to think of shipping ag’in.’”
Neither the Deacon nor Daggett has an idea how close the old sailor is to death, until the doctor fetched by Roswell Gardiner announces, “This poor man … [is] in the last stages of a decline … and medicine can do him no good. He may live a month; though it would not surprise me to hear of his death in an hour.” A firm opinion expressed “coolly,” it looks forward to Dr. Livesey’s diagnosis of Billy Bones’s condition. Unlike Bones, Daggett dies a peaceful death, but not before repeating his description of the islands where a great wealth of seal pelts may be harvested, further arousing the Deacon’s cupidity but without revealing the islands’ exact latitude and longitude. No sooner has he learned of Daggett’s death than the Deacon has the sailor’s chest removed to his own-house, where at the first opportunity he pillages it of the “two old, dirty, and ragged charts.” After transferring the valuable information regarding latitude and longitude to a memorandum book, he scratches off the data from the original charts, returns them to the chest, and records the information on charts of his own. The rest of the sea romance concerns the efforts of Captain Gardiner to locate both the seals and the treasure, and need not concern us here, though there are other, minor points of tangency with Treasure Island.
It should be noted that The Sea Lions as a maritime romance is of interest today chiefly to historians of the genre, while Treasure Island remains a classic of its kind. Indeed, what is of interest to us here is less the similarities than the differences between Cooper’s use of an old sailor’s chest and Stevenson’s. Daggett is a garrulous but peaceable man, a plain sailor not a pirate, who has come by his valuable information honestly; but in emulating Deacon Pratt by transferring the critical contents of Daggett’s chest to the mysterious one owned by the bona fide pirate in Irving’s sketch, Stevenson began his story with some very skillful and imaginative pilfering of his own.
We need not dismiss Stevenson’s crediting the contents of Billy Bones’s chest to his father, for to the slim inventory of Daggett’s property are added a number of other items suggesting Bones’s successful piratical career, including compasses, a quadrant, and “two brace of very handsome pistols,” along with bars of silver and the sack of gold coins buried deep in the chest. This last not only hints at treasure but provides a typical touch of transforming genius: For surely one of the great moments in the story is the stubborn and painstaking effort that Jim’s mother makes in counting out from the bewildering assortment of coins the exact sum due her, a meticulous rendering that she insists on continuing even as the “tap-tapping” of Blind Pew’s cane is heard outside. And when in terror she gives up the count and flees, it is in lieu of the balance as yet unreckoned that Jim seizes the fabulous oilskin packet which will turn out to be the most valuable item in the chest by far, t
he very thing sought by Pew and his men, and equivalent to the charts found among Daggett’s belongings.
As for Stevenson’s other, acknowledged borrowings, such as the parrot from Robinson Crusoe, the stockade from Marryat, and the pointing skeleton from Poe’s “The Gold-Bug,” these are perhaps best regarded as tributes to authors Stevenson admired. To them we can add the device of Ben Gunn’s ghostly singing to terrify the superstitious pirates, taken most likely from Crusoe’s use of Friday to bewilder the mutineers who have landed on his island, or from Prospero’s equivalent use of Ariel in The Tempest. They are of a class with the parallel between Jim’s receiving valuable information while hiding in the apple barrel and the episode in the haunted house in Tom Sawyer, which brings closure by the way to the boy hero’s own search for buried treasure, the “rules” for which are also borrowed from Poe’s “The Gold-Bug.”
And so it goes, that joint interweaving between texts that is not only essential to the notion of genre but suggests the larger kinship, the DNA as it were, that joins the various members of the great family of adventure fiction in one common blood bond. Thus the diminished treasure that provides an ironic ending to Cooper’s novel becomes the empty pit that turns the plot in Stevenson’s book which in turn was borrowed by Edgar Rice Burroughs for a decisive moment in Tarzan, as his wild man of the African jungle plays the same trick on pirates that Ben Gunn, the wild man of Treasure Island, plays on Long John Silver. The world of literature is assuredly very large, but it is also very small, much as Stevenson takes us from England to his tropical island in a bound, even while, with Cooper, leaving out the exact longitude and latitude of that place where much of Flint’s treasure still remains, left behind with the remnant pirates when the Hispaniola heads for home.