The Confession of a Lover of Romance
ONE half the world does not know what the other half reads ; but good people are now taught that the first requisite of sociological virtue is to interest themselves in the other half. I therefore venture to call attention to a book that has pleased me, though my delight in it may at once class me with the “ submerged tenth ” of the reading public. It is The Pirate’s Own Book.
By way of preface to a discussion of this volume, let me make a personal explanation of the causes which led me to its perusal. My reading of such a book cannot be traced to early habit. In my boyhood I had no opportunity to study the careers of pirates, for I was confined to another variety of literature. On Sunday afternoons I read aloud a book called The Afflicted Man’s Companion. The unfortunate gentleman portrayed in this work had a large assortment of afflictions, — if I remember rightly, one for each day of the month, — but among them was nothing so exciting as being marooned in the South Seas. Indeed, his afflictions were of a generalized and abstract kind, which he could have borne with great cheerfulness had it not been for the consolations which were remorselessly administered to him.
If I have become addicted to tales of piracy, I must attribute it to the literary criticisms of too strenuous realists. Before I read them, I took an innocent pleasure in romantic fiction. Without any compunction of conscience I rejoiced in Walter Scott; and when he failed I was pleased even with his imitators. My heart leaped up when I beheld a solitary horseman on the first page, and I did not forsake the horseman, even though I knew he was to be personally conducted through his journey by Mr. G. P. R. James. Fenimore Cooper, in those days, before I was awakened to the nature of literary sin, I found altogether pleasant. The cares of the world faded away, and a soothing conviction of the essential rightness of things came over me, as the pioneers and Indians discussed in deliberate fashion the deepest questions of the universe, between shots. As for stories of the sea, I never thought of being critical. I was ready to take thankfully anything with a salty flavor, from Sindbad the Sailor to Mr. Clark Russell. I had no inconvenient knowledge to interfere with my enjoyment. All nautical language was alike impressive, and all nautical manœuvres were to me alike perilous. It would have been a poor Ancient Mariner who could not have enthralled me, when
“ There was a ship,” quoth he.
And if the ship had raking masts and no satisfactory clearance papers, that was enough ; as to what should happen, I left that altogether to the author. That the laws of probability held on the Spanish Main as on dry land, I never dreamed.
But after being awakened to the sin of romance, I saw that to read a novel merely for recreation is not permissible. The reader must be put upon oath, and before he allows himself to enjoy any incident must swear that everything is exactly true to life as he has seen it. All vagabonds and sturdy vagrants who have no visible means of support, in the present order of things, are to be driven out of the realm of well-regulated fiction. Among these are included all knights in armor; all rightful heirs with a strawberry mark ; all horsemen, solitary or otherwise ; all princes in disguise ; all persons who are in the habit of saying “prithee,” or “ Odzooks,” or “by my halidome; ” all fair ladies who have no irregularities of feature and no realistic incoherencies of speech ; all lovers who fall in love at first sight, and who are married at the end of the book and live happily ever after ; all witches, fortunetellers, and gypsies ; all spotless heroes and deep-dyed villains ; all pirates, buccaneers, North American Indians with a taste for metaphysics; all scouts, hunters, trappers, and other individuals who do not wear store clothes. According to this decree, all readers are forbidden to aid and abet these persons, or to give them shelter in their imagination. A reader who should incite a writer of fiction to romance would be held as an accessory before the fact.
After duly repenting of my sins and renouncing my old acquaintances, I felt a preëminent virtue. Had I met the Three Guardsmen, one at a time or all together, I should have passed them by without stopping for a moment’s converse. I should have recognized them for the impudent Gascons that they were, and should have known that there was not a word of truth in all their adventures. As for Stevenson’s fine old pirate, with his contemptible song about a “ dead men’s chest and a bottle of rum,” I should not have tolerated him for an instant. Instead, I should have turned eagerly to some neutral-tinted person who never had any adventure greater than missing the train to Dedham, and I should have analyzed his character, and agitated myself in the attempt to get at his feelings, and I should have verified his story by a careful reference to the railway guide. I should have treated that neutral-tinted character as a problem, and I should have noted all the delicate shades in the futility of his conduct. When, on any occasion that called for action, he did not know his own mind, I should have admired him for his resemblance to so many of my acquaintances who do not know their own minds. After studying the problem until I came to the last chapter, I should suddenly have given it up, and agreed with the writer that it had no solution. In my self-righteousness, I despised the old-fashioned reader who had been lured on in the expectation that at the last moment something thrilling might happen.
But temptations come at the unguarded point. I had hardened myself against romance in fiction, but I had not been sufficiently warned against romance in the guise of fact. When in a bookstall I came upon The Pirate’s Own Book, it seemed to answer a felt want. Here at least, outside the boundaries of strict fiction, I could be sure of finding adventure, and feel again with Sancho Panza “ how pleasant it is to go about in expectation of accidents.”
I am well aware that good literature — to use Matthew Arnold’s phrase — is a criticism of life. But the criticism of life, with its discriminations between things which look very much alike, is pretty serious business. We cannot keep on criticising life without getting tired after a while, and longing for something a little simpler. There is a much-admired passage in Ferishtah’s Fancies, in which, after mixing up the beans in his hands and speculating on their color, Ferishtah is not able to tell black from white. Ferishtah, living in a soothing climate, could stand an indefinite amount of this sort of thing ; and, moreover, we must remember that he was a dervish, and dervishry, although a steady occupation, is not exacting in its requirements. In our more stimulating climate, we should bring on nervous prostration if we gave ourselves unremittingly to the discrimination between all the possible variations of blackishness and whitishness. We must relieve our minds by occasionally finding something about which there can be no doubt. When my eyes rested on the woodcut that adorns the first page of The Pirate’s Own Book, I felt the rest that comes from perfect certainty in my own moral judgment. Ferishtah himself could not have mixed me up. Here was black without a redeeming spot. On looking upon this pirate, I felt relieved from any criticism of life ; here was something beneath criticism. I was no longer tossed about on a chop sea, with its conflicting waves of feeling and judgment, but was borne along triumphantly on a bounding billow of moral reprobation.
As I looked over the headings of the chapters I was struck by their straightforward and undisguised character. When I read the chapter entitled The Savage Appearance of the Pirates, and compared this with the illustrations, I said, “ How true ! ” Then there was a chapter on The Deceitful Character of the Malays. I had always suspected that the Malays were deceitful, and here I found my impressions justified by competent authority. Then I dipped into the preface, and found the same transparent candor. “ A piratical crew,” says the author, “ is generally formed of the desperadoes and renegades of every clime and nation.” Again I said, “Just, what I should have expected. The writer is evidently one who ‘ nothing extenuates.’ ” Then follows a further description of the pirate : “The pirate, from the perilous nature of his occupation, when not cruising on the ocean, that great highway of nations, selects the most lonely isles of the sea for his retreat, or secretes himself near the shores of bays and lagoons of thickly wooded and uninhabited countries.” Just the places where I should have expected him to settle.
“ The pirate, when not engaged in robbing, passes his time in singing old songs with choruses like,
Let the world wag as it will;
Let the heavens growl, let the devil howl,
Drain, drain the deep bowl and fill! ’
Thus his hours of relaxation are passed in wild and extravagant frolics, amongst the lofty forests and spicy groves of the torrid zone, and amidst the aromatic and beautiful flowering vegetable products of that region.”
Again : “ With the name of pirate is also associated ideas of rich plunder, — caskets of buried jewels, chests of gold ingots, bags of outlandish coins, secreted in lonely out-of-the-way places, or buried about the wild shores of rivers and unexplored seacoasts, near rocks and trees bearing mysterious marks, indicating where the treasure is hid.” “As it is his invariable practice to secrete and bury his booty, and from the perilous life he lives being often killed, he can never revisit the spot again, immense sums remaining buried in these places are irrevocably lost.” Is it any wonder that, with such an introduction, I became interested ?
After a perusal of the book, I am inclined to think that a pirate may be a better person to read about than some persons who stand higher in the moral scale. Compare, if you will, a pirate and a pessimist. As a citizen and neighbor I should prefer the pessimist. A pessimist is an excellent and highly educated gentleman, who has been so unfortunate as to be born into a world which is inadequate to his expectations. Naturally he feels that he has a grievance, and in airing his grievance he makes himself unpopular ; but it is certainly not his fault that the universe is no better than it is. On the other hand, a pirate is a bad character ; yet as a subject of biography he is more inspiring than the pessimist. In one case, we have the impression of one good man in a totally depraved world ; in the other case, we have a totally depraved man in what but for him would be a very good world. I know of nothing that gives one a more genial appreciation of average human nature, or a greater tolerance for the foibles of one’s acquaintances, than the contrast with an unmitigated pirate.
My copy of The Pirate’s Own Book belongs to the edition of 1837. On the fly-leaf it bore in prim handwriting the name of a lady who for many years must have treasured it. I like to think of this unknown lady in connection with the book. I know that she must have been an excellent soul, and I have no doubt that her New England conscience pointed to the moral law as the needle to the pole; but she was a wise woman, and knew that if she was to keep her conscience in good repair she must give it some reasonable relaxation. I am sure that she was a woman of versatile philanthropy, and that every moment she had the ability to make two duties grow where only one had grown before. After, however, attending the requisite number of lectures to improve her mind, and considering in committees plans to improve other people’s minds forcibly, and going to meetings to lament over the condition of those who had no minds to improve, this good lady would feel that she had earned a right to a few minutes’ respite. So she would take up The Pirate’s Own Book, and feel a creepy sensation that would be an effectual counter irritant to all her anxieties for the welfare of the race. Things might be going slowly, and there were not half as many societies as there ought to be, and the world might be in a bad way; but then it was not so bad as it was in the days of Black-Beard ; and the poor people who did not have any societies to belong to were, after all, not so badly off as the sailors whom the atrocious Nicola left on a desert island, with nothing but a blunderbuss and Mr. Brooks’s Family Prayer Book. In fact, it is expressly stated that the pirates refused to give them a cake of soap. To be on a desert island destitute of soap made the common evils of life appear trifling. She had been worried about the wicked people who would not do their duty, however faithfully they had been prodded up to it, who would not be life members on payment of fifty dollars, and who would not be annual members on payment of a dollar and signing the constitution, and who in their hard and impenitent hearts would not even sit on the platform at the annual meeting; but somehow their guilt seemed less extreme after she had studied again the picture of Captain Kidd burying his Bible in the sands near Plymouth. A man who would bury his Bible, using a spade several times too large for him, and who would strike such a world-defying attitude while doing it, made the sin of not joining the society appear almost venial. In this manner she gained a certain moral perspective ; even after days when the public was unusually dilatory about reforms, and the wheels of progress had begun to squeak, she would get a good night’s sleep. Contrasting the public with the black background of absolute piracy, she grew tolerant of its shortcomings, and learned the truth of George Herbert’s saying, that “ pleasantness of disposition is a great key to do good.”
Not only is a pirate a more comfortable person to read about than a pessimist, but in many respects he is a more comfortable person to read about than a philanthropist. The minute the philanthropist is introduced, the author begins to show his own cleverness by discovering flaws in his motives. You begin to see that the poor man has his limitations. Perhaps his philanthropies are of a different kind from yours, and that irritates you. Musical people, whom I have heard criticise other musical people, seem more offended when some one flats just a little than when he makes a big ear-splitting discord ; and moralists are apt to have the same fastidiousness. The philanthropist is made the victim of the most cruel kind of vivisection, — a characterstudy.
Here is a fragment of conversation from a study of character : “ ‘ That was really heroic,’ said Felix. ‘That was what he wanted to do,’ Gertrude went on. ' He wanted to be magnanimous ; he wanted to have a fine moral pleasure ; he made up his mind to do his duty ; he felt sublime, — that’s how he likes to feel.’ ”
This leaves the mind in a painful state of suspense. The first instinct of the unsophisticated reader is that if the person has done a good deed, we ought not to begrudge him a little innocent pleasure in it. If he is magnanimous, why not let him feel magnanimous ? But after Gertrude has made these subtle suggestions we begin to experience something like antipathy for a man who is capable of having a fine moral pleasure ; who not only does his duty, but really likes to do it. There is something wrong about him, and it is all the more aggravating because we are not sure just what it is. There is no trouble of that kind in reading about pirates. You cannot make a characterstudy out of a pirate, —he has no character. You know just where to place him. You do not expect anything good of him, and when you find a sporadic virtue you are correspondingly elated.
For example, I am pleased to read of the pirate Gibbs that he was “ affable and communicative, and when he smiled he exhibited a mild and gentle countenance. His conversation was concise and pertinent, and his style of illustration quite original.” If Gibbs had been a philanthropist, it is doubtful whether these social and literary graces would have been so highly appreciated.
So our author feels a righteous glow when speaking of the natives of the Malabar coasts, and accounting for their truthfulness: “ For as they had been used to deal with pirates, they always found them men of honor in the way of trade, — a people enemies of deceit, and that scorned to rob but in their own way.”
He is a very literal-minded person, and takes all his pirates seriously, but often we are surprised by some touch of nature that makes the whole world kin. There was the ferocious Benevedes, who flourished on the west coast of South America, and who, not content with sea power, attempted to gather an army. It is said that " a more finished picture of a pirate cannot be conceived,” and the description that follows certainly bears out this assertion. Yet he had his own ideas of civilization, and a power of adaptation that reminds us of the excellent and ingenious Swiss Family Robinson. When he captures the American whaling-ship Herculia, we are prepared for a wild scene of carnage ; but instead we are told that Benevedes immediately dismantled the ship, and “ out of the sails made trousers for half his army.” After the trousers had been distributed, Benevedes remarked that his army was complete except in one essential particular, — he had no trumpets for the cavalry : whereupon, at the suggestion of the New Bedford skipper, he ripped off the copper sheets of the vessel, out of which a great variety of copper trumpets were quickly manufactured, and soon “ the whole camp resounded with the warlike blasts.” While the delighted pirates were enjoying their instrumental music, the skipper and nine of the crew took occasion to escape in a boat which had been imprudently concealed on the riverbank.
Most of the pirates seem to have conducted their lives on a highly romantic, not to say sensational plan. This reprehensible practice, of course, must shut them off from the sympathy of all realists of the stricter school, who hold that there should be no dramatic situations, and that even when a story is well begun it should not be brought to a finish, but should “ peter out ” in the last chapters, no one knows how or why. Sometimes, however, a pirate manages to come to an end sufficiently commonplace to make a plot for a most irreproachable novel. There was Captain Avery. He commenced the practice of his profession very auspiciously by running away with a ship of thirty guns from Bristol. In the Indian Ocean he captured a treasure-ship of the Great Mogul. In this ship, it is said, “ there were several of the greatest persons of the court.” There was also on board the daughter of the Great Mogul, who was on a pilgrimage to Mecca. The painstaking historian comments on this very justly: “It is well known that the people of the East travel with great magnificence, so that they had along with them all their slaves, with a large quantity of vessels of gold and silver and immense sums of money. The spoil, therefore, that Avery received from that ship was almost incalculable.” To capture the treasure-ship of the Great Mogul under such circumstances would have turned the head of any ordinary pirate who had weakened his mind by reading works tinged with romanticism. His companions, when the treasure was on board, wished to sail to Madagascar, and there build a small fort; but “ Avery disconcerted the plan and rendered it altogether unnecessary.” We know perfectly well what these wretches would have done if they had been allowed to have their own way: they would have gathered in one of the spicy groves, and would have taken up vociferously their song, —
Let the world wag as it will.”
Avery would have none of this, so when most of the men were away from the ship he sailed off with the treasure, leaving them to their evil ways and to a salutary poverty. Here begins the realism of the story. With the treasures of the Great Mogul in his hold, he did not follow the illusive course of Captain Kidd, “as he sailed, as he sailed.” He did not even lay his course for the “coasts of Coromandel.” Instead of that he made a bee-line for America, with the laudable intention of living there “ in affluence and honor.” When he got to America, however, he did not know what to do with himself, and still less what to do with the inestimable pearls and diamonds of the Great Mogul. An ordinary pirate of romance would have escaped to the Spanish Main, but Avery did just what any realistic gentleman would do : after he had spent a short time in other cities —he concluded to go to Boston. The chronicler adds, “ Arriving at Boston, he almost resolved to settle there.” It was in the time of the Mathers. But in spite of its educational and religious advantages, Boston furnished no market for the gems of the Orient, so Captain Avery went to England. If he had in his youth read a few detective stories, he might have known how to get his jewels exchanged for the current coin of the realm; but his early education had been neglected, and he was of a singularly confiding and unsophisticated nature —when on land. After suffering from poverty he made the acquaintance of some wealthy merchants of Bristol, who took his gems on commission, on condition that they need not inquire how he came by them. That was the last Avery saw of the gems of the Great Mogul. A plain pirate was no match for financiers. Remittances were scanty, though promises were frequent. What came of it all ? Nothing came of it; things simply dragged along. Avery was not hanged, neither did he get his money. At last, on a journey to Bristol to urge the merchants to a settlement, he fell sick and died. What became of the gems ? Nobody knows. What became of those merchants of Bristol ? Nobody cares. A novelist might, out of such material, make an ending quite clever and dreary.
To this realistic school of pirates belongs Thomas Veal, known in our history as the “ Pirate of Lynn.” To turn from the chapter on the Life, Atrocities, and Bloody Death of Black-Beard to the chapter on the Lynn Pirate, is a relief to the overstrained sensibilities. Lynn is in the temperate zone, and we should naturally reason that its piracies would be more calm and equable than those of the tropics, and so they were. “ On one pleasant evening, a little after sunset, a small vessel was seen to anchor near the mouth of the Saugus River. A boat was presently lowered from her side, into which four men descended and moved up the river.” It is needless to say that these men were pirates. In the morning the vessel had disappeared, but a man found a paper whereon was a statement that if a quantity of shackles, handcuffs, and hatchets were placed in a certain nook, silver would be deposited near by to pay for them. The people of Lynn in those days were thrifty folk, and the hardware was duly placed in the spot designated, and the silver was found as promised. After some months four pirates came and settled in the woods. The historian declares it to be his opinion (and he speaks as an expert) that it would be impossible to select a place more convenient for a gang of pirates. He draws particular attention to the fact that the “ ground was well selected for the cultivation of potatoes and common vegetables.” This shows that the New England environment gave an industrial and agricultural cast to piracy which it has not had elsewhere. In fact, after reading the whole chapter, I am struck by the pacific and highly moral character of these pirates. The last of them — Thomas Veal — took up his abode in what is described as a “ spacious cavern,” about two miles from Lynn. “ There the fugitive fixed his residence, and practiced the trade of a shoemaker, occasionally coming down to the village to obtain articles of sustenance.” By uniting the occupations of market-gardening, shoemaking, and piracy, Thomas Veal managed to satisfy the demands of a frugal nature, and to live respected by his neighbors in Lynn. It must have been a great alleviation in the lot of the small boys, when now and then they escaped from the eyes of the tithing-men, and in the cave listened to Mr. Veal singing his pirate’s songs. Of course a solo could give only a faint conception of what the full chorus would have been in the tropical forests, but still it must have curdled the blood to a very considerable extent. There is, I must confess, a certain air of vagueness about this interesting narration. No overt act of piracy is mentioned. Indeed, the evidence in regard to the piratical character of Mr. Veal, so far as it is given in this book, is largely circumstantial.
There is, first, the geographical argument. The Saugus River, being a winding stream, was admirably adapted for the resort of pirates who wished to prey upon the commerce of Boston and Salem. This establishes the opportunity and motive, and renders it antecedently probable that piracy was practiced. The river, it is said, was a good place in which to secrete boats. This we know from our reading was the invariable practice of pirates.
Another argument is drawn from the umbrageous character of the Lynn woods. We are told with nice particularity that in this tract of country “ there were many thick pines, hemlocks, and cedars, and places where the rays of the sun at noon could not penetrate.” Such a place would be just the spot in which astute pirates would be likely to bury their treasure, confident that it would never be discovered. The fact that nothing ever has been discovered here seems to confirm this supposition.
The third argument is that while a small cave still remains, the " spacious cavern ” in which Thomas Veal, the piratical shoemaker, is said to have dwelt no longer exists. This clinches the evidence. For there was an earthquake in 1658. What more likely than that, in the earthquake, “the top of the rock was loosened and crushed down into the mouth of the cavern, inclosing the unfortunate inmate in its unyielding prison”? At any rate, there is no record of Mr. Veal or of his spacious cavern after that earthquake.
No one deserves to be called an antiquarian who cannot put two and two together, and reconstruct from these data a more or less elaborate history of the piracies of Mr. Thomas Veal. The only other explanation of the facts presented, that I can think of as having any degree of plausibility, is that possibly Mr. Veal may have been an Anabaptist, escaped from Boston, who imposed upon the people of Lynn by making them believe that he was only a pirate.
I must in candor admit that the Plutarch of piracy is sometimes more edifying than entertaining. He can never resist the temptation to draw a moral, and his dogmatic bias in favor of the doctrine of total depravity is only too evident. But his book has the great advantage that it is not devoid of incident. Take it all in all, there are worse books to read — after one is tired of reading books that are better.
I am inclined to think that our novelists must make home happy, or they may drive many of their readers to The Pirate’s Own Book. The policy of the absolute prohibition of romance, while excellent in theory, has practical difficulties in the way of enforcement. Perhaps, under certain restrictions, license might be issued to proper persons to furnish stimulants to the imagination. Of course the romancer should not be allowed to sell to minors, nor within a certain distance of a schoolhouse, nor to habitual readers. My position is the conservative one that commended itself to the judicious Rollo.
“ ‘Well, Rollo,’ said Dorothy, ‘shall I tell you a true story, or one that is not true ? ’
“ ‘I think, on the whole, Dorothy, I would rather have it true.’ ”
But there must have been times — though none are recorded—when Rollo tired even of the admirable clear thinking and precise information of Jonas. At such times he might have tolerated a story that was not so very true, if only it were interesting. There are main thoroughfares paved with hard facts where the intellectual traffic must go on continually. There are tracks on which, if a heedless child of romance should stray, he is in danger of being run down by the realists, those grim motor-men of the literary world. But outside the congested districts there should be some roadways leading out into the open country where all things are still possible. At the entrance to each of these roads there ought to be displayed the notice, “ For pleasure only. No heavy teaming allowed.” I should not permit any modern improvements in this district, but I should preserve all its natural features. There should be not only a feudal castle with moat and drawbridge, but also a pirate’s cave.