THIS FALL the New American Library is republishing its paperback editions of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island and Kidnapped, combining the two, selling the package for $2.75, and throwing in an introduction by this reviewer in the bargain. The market they are aiming at, clearly, is schools, especially students in college courses in children's literature. A plain book, serviceably printed and bound.
At the same time Scribners is publishing a new edition of Treasure Island based on its spectacularly successful edition of 1911, which introduced their justly famous Scribners Illustrated Classics series that was the way many people now over 30 first learned about many great works of children's fiction. This is a real book, splendidly bound hard covers, good thick paper, as well printed as the original, which was one of the landmarks of America's golden age of children's bookmaking. The illustrations have been made from new transparencies of the N.C. Wyeth paintings. It is aimed at a totally different market from the NAL paperback, one that perhaps is nostalgic but which in any event might be willing to pay $17.95 for a treasure.
Alas, despite its beautiful appearance, this book does not do justice to Scribners' aims and hopes. For some reason, Wyeth's date of birth is given on the jacket as 1892 (it was 1882). For some reason, the illustration "Preparing for the Mutiny" is reversed from Wyeth's painting. Worse, though perhaps less avoidable, a number of the illustrations come through extremely and crudely dark in the shadowed areas. Presumably the paintings themselves have become dirty, though they were reproduced much better than here in the definitive collection of Wyeth paintings that Douglas Allen and Douglas Allen Jr. did less than 10 years ago. But if the paintings have dirtied, they either should have been cleaned or this new edition should not have been done. "Old Pew" is too much like a black blob on a black landscape; "Jim Hawkins Leaves Home" has whites that have yellowed and shadows so dark it seems Jim is leaving not for Bristol but the executioner; "Long John Silver and Hawkins" loses the crucial lower half of Silver's face in dirty gloom. So, since the illustrations are so much what one loves and remembers in the old Scrib- ners Classics, it must be said that this book is not a treasure at all, but a sad dignified attempt at one.
Wyeth's genius corresponded beautifully to Stevenson's. Both loved adventure and action rather than heroism or suspense; in almost all his illustrations Wyeth liked to absorb his figures into a setting and to let a significant portion of his background be unexpressively blank, so as to make it clear that the figures move and feel in a world they cannot command. So too Stevenson. Everyone on Treasure Island is a pirate, and if anything the gold is more rightfully Silvers' than Captain Smollett's. The difference between the "loyal" and the "mutinous" is a matter not of morality but of class; the "mutineers" talk rough and drink lots of rum, but are otherwise no better, no worse, no different. Of course the boy Hawkins is frightened of his enemies, but the real thrills there come early, when the wonderful collection of brigands, Billy Bones, Black Dog, and Old Pew converge on the Admiral Benbow inn. And Long John Silver is the star of the show because he can talk like a gent, or a ruffian, at will, and because he loves stories of piracy as much as any lad might.
Treasure Island is less than a fully realized masterpiece because it loses a good deal of its energy when Silver is simplified into a villain halfway through. Nonetheless, its actions are crisp and often excitingly economic, and in Wyeth the book found an illustrator whose instinct for situations was always human and never fantastic or superhuman.