Picture this: it's the late 19th century and you're Robert Louis Stevenson, a struggling Scottish author who's written a number of books about traveling through Europe and the United States. Your parents kind of hate you because, in this conservative day and age (the late 1870s), you've fallen in love with a married woman who is ten years older than you. Her name is Fanny Osbourne, and you are carrying on an adulterous relationship in her hometown of San Francisco. Not only are your folks shocked and horrified by your behavior, but you are sick (you've had a severe lung disease, tuberculosis, for most of your life) and really, really poor. So you need a miracle. That miracle comes in the form of one terrific idea: you decide to write a book about pirates. And fortunately, your girlfriend's son can help you with it.
The idea for Treasure Island came from a map of an imaginary island Stevenson drew with Fanny's son, Lloyd Osbourne. Stevenson took this map and decided to write "a story for boys; no need of psychology or fine writing" (source). Stevenson focuses almost entirely on plot in this book, with very little direct exploration of character's psychology or motivations. We don't know what makes Long John Silver a pirate, we just know that he is one – a darned good one – and that's enough to keep the book going.
This lack of psychological depth makes Treasure Island really different from another of Stevenson's famous books, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde . But it's also a sign of the audience Stevenson is looking for. He's aiming Treasure Island at kids, who are more interested in cool stuff happening than in intense descriptions of characters' inner selves. Still, even if Stevenson is trying to avoid "fine writing," Treasure Island remains full of observations about human nature and interaction that keep the reader interested in the characters as well as in the story's many twists and turns.
Stevenson originally published Treasure Island under the title The Sea-Cook (referring, of course, to that fabulously tricky pirate Long John Silver) in the magazine Young Folks over a period of several months from 1881 to 1882. It didn't do that well as a series of episodes, possibly because the title is so boring (seriously, who wants to read about a chef on the ocean?). But then Stevenson repackaged the story as a book, Treasure Island, in 1883, and it became a bestseller (source). Stevenson still wasn't exactly a lucky guy (he died young of tuberculosis), but Treasure Island made him famous in both his lifetime and long after his death – not bad for a book that developed out of an idle afternoon's sketching with his girlfriend's son.
We all know what pirates are like: we've seen Captain Hook in Peter Pan and Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. Maybe we've even eaten at chain seafood restaurant Long John Silver's. Pirates sing drunkenly: "Fifteen men on a dead man's chest, yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!" Pirates keelhaul and force their enemies to walk the plank, sending them to the depths of the ocean: "Davy Jones's locker." And pirates shout things like, "Avast!" and "Shiver me timbers." They show nothing but contempt for land-dwellers – "lubbers" and "swabs," the lot of them.
The guy who invented pretty much everything we know about pirates is Robert Louis Stevenson, in a little book called Treasure Island. Oh sure, Stevenson mixes in a lot of real sea language, with his boatswains and coxswains and jibs and bowsprits. But Treasure Island was also key in popularizing a certain idea of how pirates talk – and look, too. Peg-legged, parrot-touting Long John Silver has become everyone's image of a pirate, and we owe it all to Stevenson's gift for language, suspense, and invention. Stevenson is even the one who wrote that song, "Dead Man's Chest" – the title of the second Pirates of the Caribbean flick. So obviously Treasure Island has left fingerprints all over our popular understanding of pirate culture.
Even though Stevenson is writing over two centuries after the so-called Golden Age of Piracy (the era of the most famous real-life pirate ever, Blackbeard and a hundred years after the setting of Treasure Island itself, he still manages to give us a world of pirates that feels real, filled with greed, desperation, cynicism, strange alliances, and charismatic sea-cooks. Over hundred and thirty years after the publication of Treasure Island, Stevenson's fictional world of piracy seems more real than any factual analysis of crime on the high seas. If you've ever spent even a minute dreaming of sailing the ocean blue and digging up gold doubloons, trust us, Treasure Island is the book for you.
Treasure Island (1909)
This online edition of Treasure Island also includes reviews and responses to the novel from some of Robert Louis Stevenson's peers.
Robert Louis Stevenson, 1850 – 1894
This exhibition of Stevenson editions and papers appeared in 1994, the centennial anniversary of his death. The online catalog has a lot of neat pictures of different editions and illustrations of Stevenson's many, many works.
"How Pirates Work"
If Treasure Island has got you thirsting for more pirates, check out this fabulous article on real-life pirates through the ages, from the Caribbean in the Age of Sail to today's Somalia.
Treasure Island (1934)
Classic movie production with Wallace Beery as "lovable" Long John Silver. Lovable...really?
Treasure Island (1972)
We haven't seen this one, but we're dying to. Orson Welles plays Long John Silver! You may remember him from such insanely important films as Citizen Kane and The Third Man.
Treasure Island (1990)
We've seen and loved this one: Long John Silver is played by a hale, hearty Charlton Heston, and young Jim Hawkins is…Christian Bale of Batman fame! Crazy.
A Collection of Stevenson Documents from the Thomas Cooper Library
This collection is located at the University of South Carolina; it includes an original copy of both The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Treasure Island.
The opening of the 1990 film starring Christian Bale and Charlton Heston.
Muppet Treasure Island
O.M.G., we are so excited. We know what we're going to be watching this afternoon!
Project Gutenberg audio book, thankfully read by a human being.
So Helpful: A Map of Treasure Island
This is a relatively large, clear version of the map of Treasure Island. We don't know about you, but our paperback edition's map is practically invisible.
Embarrassing Baby Pictures Are Apparently A Tradition
Robert Louis Stevenson's mother kept a complete diary of everything young Stevenson did and (as was the tradition in Victorian times) dressed him in drag to have his photograph taken.
Stevenson's scandalous older lover and, eventually, wife. She was also the mother of Stevenson's stepson and collaborator on the original map of Treasure Island, Lloyd Osbourne
The Stevensons' house in Samoa, where Robert Louis Stevenson passed away.