Sunday, July 31, 2011

For Men Only

Black Dog the pirate. The Admiral Benbow inn. Mad Ben Gunn. Long John Silver. Billy Bones. Captain Flint. Young Jim Hawkins. Doctor Livesey. Captain Smollett. Israel Hands. Old Blind Pew. Muskets afire and cutlasses a'swiping. Bodies falling. Maps and blood. Ghosts and terror. Dark duplicity. Evil hearts. Honor. Respect. Trust. Betrayal. Bravery. Victory.

Treasure Island (1883)

This is a book for boys who would be men and men who would be boys.

Everything Johnny Depp hoped to portray in Pirates of the Caribbean was concocted by Robert Louis Stevenson in Treasure Island.

There is one woman in the entire book, the mother of young Jim. She lasts about three pages.

The rest is a tale of men, of power and sweat and cowardly acts. Of fighting on the rigging and sneaking through the jungle at night.  Of guts and glory and standing man to man. Of death. Of life.

Long John Silver is a one-legged pirate, the ship's cook by day, the leader of cutthroat pirates the rest of the time. "Barbeque" is his handle. Captain Flint is his parrot.

Jim Hawkins is the young hero of the story, a boy turned man by murder and treachery. The treachery of Long John Silver. But Silver's fortunes hang by a thread, for he will hang from the yardarm for piracy if he cannot get off the island where the treasure is buried. He captures Jim and holds him for ransom. But his fortunes are snapped on the discovery of an empty hole where the treasure was supposed to be:

There never was such an overturn in this world. Each of these six men was as though he had been struck. But with Silver the blow passed almost instantly. Every thought of his soul had been set full-stretch, like a racer, on that money; well, he was brought up in a single second, dead; and he kept his head, found his temper, and changed his plan before the others had had time to realise the disappointment.

'Jim,' he whispered, 'take that, and stand by for trouble.'

And he passed me a double-barrelled pistol.

And speaking of islands.

Robinson Crusoe (1719)

When you spend 28 years alone on an island visited by savage man-eating cannibals who come only to feast from their grisly menu, you don't have a lot of dates. Women are not relevant. A fortress of live trees is relevant, and clothes of animal skin. Goats are relevant. Man Friday is relevant, a voice to talk to, whether intelligible at first or not. Connections are made of the heart, not words.

We meet Robinson's benevolent widow caretaker at the outset and end, warm, loyal, loving bookends. Robinson marries when he gets off the island. But his  wife is  dismissed in one sentence, a small punctuation mark, a comma, in the rich adventure  that was his life:

In the meantime, I in part settled myself here; for first of all I married, and that not either to my disadvantage or dissatisfaction, and had three children, two sons and one daughter. But my wife dying, and my nephew . . .

That's it. So much for married life, cast against adventure.

You read this book to enter the secret mind of every boy, not to read of squishy romance and lilac perfume and horny sex. Robinson Crusoe draws the dreams of youthful men to one place, and it is an island. 

A rebellious boy goes against the advice of his father and sets out to sea. He can't help it. He is driven to explore, to risk, to discover.

Aren't we all? We guys, that is?

Alas, the fortunes are not in his favor. He is shipwrecked and is the only survivor. But he has his brain and his ingenuity and his muscles, and he outlasts the sorrows and fears and cannibals that nearly defeat him.  It is a story of weakness as well as strength.

When I was come down the hill to the shore, as I said above, being the southwest point of the island, I was perfectly confounded and amazed; nor is it possible for me to express the horror of my mind at seeing the shore spread with skulls, hands, feet and other bones of human bodies; and particularly, I observed a place where there had been a fire made, and a circle dug in the earth, like a cockpit, where it is supposed the savage wretches had sat down to their inhuman feastings upon the bodies of their fellow creatures.

And then we have the novel about which Ernest Hemmingway wrote,

"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. . . . There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since."

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)

Jackson Island is where Huck sets up camp after escaping from his brutal father. He masterminds his own death to break free. It is on Jackson Island that he meets his nigger, the escaped slave, Jim. They share adventures on the smallest of islands, a raft flowing down the swollen Mississippi River. From the misty darkness of haunted nights in the middle of the river to the wild carousings of the Duke of Bridgewater and the King of France before the two royal thieves are tarred, feathered and ridden out of town on a rail, these two souls are joined.

By and by, when they was asleep and snoring, Jim says:

'Don't it s'prise you, de way dem kings carries on, Huck?'

'No,' I says, 'it don't.'

'Why don't it, Huck?'

'Well, it don't, because it's in the breed. I reckon they're all alike.'

'But, Huck, dese kings o' ourn is reglar rapscallions; dat's jist what dey is; dey's reglar rapscallions.'

'Well, that's what I'm a-saying; all kings is mostly rapscallions, as fur as I can make out."

'Is dat so?'

'You read about them once - you'll see. Look at Henry the Eight; this'n 's a Sunday-school Superintendent to him. And look at Charles Second, and Louis Fourteen, and Louis Fifteen, and James Second, and Edward Second, and Richard Third and forty more; besides all them Saxon heptarchies that used to rip around so in old times and raise Cain. My, you ought to seen old Henry the Eight when he was in bloom. He was a blossom. He used to marry a new wife every day, and chop off her head next morning."Fetch up Nell Gwynn," he says. They fetch her up. Next morning, "Chop off her head!" And they chop it off. "Fetch up Jane Shore," . . .

The relationship between Huck and Jim is the relationship between white and black America. Superiority and inferiority at the outset. Reliance in the middle. Appreciation. Respect a'buildin'. Union. Equality. Freedom.

Huck's simple background belies a remarkable wisdom uttered in badly spoken English. Huck, Like Robinson Crusoe and Jim Hawkins, is born to explore. He can't be tied down, even when he becomes rich.

Jim gives honor to the word nigger. Loyal, loving, kind, steadfast. His is the heart of Black America; it is not gangs and drug pushers. It is hard work and music and honor.

Mark Twain was one of the most ardent critics of those who waged the Philippine-American War.

For Men Only

In Jim Hawkins, Robinson Crusoe and Huck Finn we find the heart of man. These boys turned man can't be tied down. They must explore, risk, know and grow. They face the worst dangers imaginable. They thrive. They defy fathers and convention. They seek honor, and find it.

Woman is but an asterisk.

In these books. Of course. Only in these books.

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