Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children's Literature

By Marah Gubar | Go to book overview

2
COLLABORATING WITH THE ENEMY
Treasure Island as Anti-Adventure Story

Nineteenth-century adventure stories often invite their audience to admire and emulate the figure George Santayana has dubbed “the schoolboy master of the world” (quoted in Richards 74). The Victorians themselves recognized that Robinson Crusoe (1719) inspired a cascade of texts that set authoritative boys loose on unsuspecting islands. In his 1888 survey Juvenile Literature as It Is, Edward Salmon opens his chapter on boys’ books by mentioning Defoe’s tale, and attempts to unpack the secret of its appeal in his conclusion. “The chief charm of a supreme figure, like that of Robinson Crusoe,” he opines, “is that it constitutes an ideal. Unless the hero dominates every situation, the story loses for boys its directness…. The whole body of successful boys’ literature cannot be more concisely described than as a vast system of hero-worship” (217). Anticipating Rose, Salmon suggests that the appealing autonomy of the plucky boy adventurer is often enhanced by the fact that he is allowed to tell his own tale. Master of his fate, unchallenged narrator of his own life story: the spectacular potency of characters like R. M. Ballantyne’s Ralph Rover and W. H. G. Kingston’s Mark Seaworth encourages boy readers to believe that a juvenile crewmate—however young and inexperienced he may be—can function as an invaluable collaborator in the important work of taming the unruly world outside England.

It has long been taken for granted that Treasure Island stands as an exemplar of this sort of story. For those who admire the genre, Treasure Island is not just a typical boys’ book but “the best of boys’ books” (Meredith 730), not just an adventure yarn but “one of the most satisfying adventure stories ever told” (Kiely 68). Those who object to the imperialistic tendencies of the Robinsonade likewise consider Treasure Island a classic specimen. Joseph Bristow asserts that

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