Category Archives: Novels

Robert Louis Stevenson “Talks Like a Pirate”

A portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent.

A portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent.

Yes, it’s that time of year again — Talk Like a Pirate Day is coming soon.  Brush up on your sailor slang, pirate patois and buccaneer bravado.

My first thought when I saw the 1950 movie “Treasure Island” wasn’t “Hey, me hearties, I love how those pirates talk.”  I had a school girl crush on one of the actors — Bobby Driscoll, the boy who plays Jim Hawkins, and I swooned over his more upper crust accent. (By the way, I’m not that old. The 1950 movie was many years old when I saw it.)  I became smitten with the fantasy of finding treasure, of treasure maps, of being a stole-away.

I have Robert Louis Stevenson to thank for my adventure fantasies. Stevenson published “Treasure Island” in 1883. Since then, more than fifty movies and television shows have been made adapted from the book. No wonder there’s a “Talk Like a Pirate Day,” which is September 19. (See the link at the bottom to my post on “Avast, Me Hearty! It’s Talk Like a Pirate Day!”) A National Geographic story throws cold seawater on the concept of pirate speech, claiming that most of what we think of pirate speech came from the 1950 movie, as spoken by the Long John Silver actor who spoke in his native dialect from southwestern England, which is where Silver came from. So it’s not a stretch to think pirates, many from southwestern England, did speak that way. I’ve linked the NatGeo spoilsport article at the very bottom of this post. Argggh!

Sailboats anchor in Frank Bay, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. The dark sailboat looks a little like the fictional pirate sailboats that sailed the Caribbean Sea waters in the movies. Caribbean pirates are said to be the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.”

I didn’t make a plan to follow Stevenson’s literary footsteps, but I have stumbled onto a few “Treasure Island” locations. On a trip to Savannah, Georgia, my husband and I visited “The Pirates House,” now a restaurant. This charming old building is reported to be where some of the characters of “Treasure Island” got together to plan and plot, and where Captain Flint is claimed to have spent his last days.  Legend says that Captain Flint’s ghost haunts the property.  We didn’t see old Captain Flint, but we got out of the building before nightfall!

Pirates from long ago have achieved a romantic patina, but they were ruthless murderers and thieves.  We identify with the adventure and the hunt for treasure rather than the pirates themselves.

“The effect of Treasure Island on our perception of pirates cannot be overestimated,” wrote David Cordingly in his book Under a Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates: “Robert Louis Stevenson “linked pirates forever with maps, black schooners, tropical islands, and one-legged seamen with parrots on their shoulders.  The treasure map with an X marking the location of the buried treasure is one of the most familiar pirate props.”  Stevenson popularized the nautical slang “Shiver My Timbers,” an oath that Stevenson’s archetypal pirate Long John Silver exclaimed.  Characters in other works, such as Popeye, changed the phrase to “Shiver me timbers.”

Robert Louis Stevenson visited northern California, the Hawaiian Islands and died in Samoa, but I haven’t found any evidence he visited Catalina Island. A 1918 “Treasure Island” movie was filmed on Catalina Island, which has its own history of a treasure map and hidden gold.

At a theater production I attended of “Treasure Island,” the playbill noted that “Shiver My Timbers” and other such oaths were child-friendly substitutions for more salty language.   Child-friendly or not, “Shiver My Timbers” was an actual nautical exclamation, describing the shivering or splintering of the ship’s boards, either from storms or battle.

On a trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands, I found a history of Treasure Island in one of the tourist brochures, which led me to the story of Owen Lloyd. Treasure Island — The Untold Story Other areas have claimed to have inspired Stevenson, included Napa, California, where he honeymooned with Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne, after their wedding in San Francisco.  A park there is named after him, which I’ll be visiting soon.

Stevenson was the son and grandson of lighthouse engineers, but he preferred to leave the safety of shore behind him when he became an adult.  He was a frail person, who spent much of his youth in the “land of the counterpane (bedspread)”  Despite his poor health, he traveled widely, spending a lot of time on sailing ships, saying “I wish to die in my boots…..”  He got his wish, dying too young at age 44 in Samoa where he had made his home.  Stevenson is ranked the 25th most translated author in the world, ahead of fellow Victorians Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe.

Savannah, Georgia, is mentioned several times in Robert Louis Stevenson’s book, “Treasure Island.” Some of the book’s action was said to take place in “The Pirates House,” one of Georgia’s most historic buildings. The building is now a restaurant, where meals are served in a multitude of charmingly ramshackle rooms, and tales of ghosts and pirates add to the atmosphere. My husband and I ate lunch there on a cheerful sunny autumn afternoon, so it took a little more imagination to conjure up menacing pirate spirits.

About Robert Louis Stevenson.   About “Treasure Island.”

The history of “The Pirates House” in Savannah, Georgia.  Shiver My Timbers.

Here’s a card I designed in honor of “Talk Like a Pirate Day.” I made a stab at a little Pirate Talk in the inside text.

Robert Louis Stevenson — Napa Valley’s First Tourist
A post I wrote in 2008: “Avast, Me Hearty! It’s Talk Like a Pirate Day!”

“Talk Like a Pirate Day” Busted: Not Even Pirates Spoke Pirate

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Intellectual Property Rights

Classic Books postcard

As a writer and photographer, I’m often territorial about my words and images, so I can understand any creative person getting huffy or even litigious when their intellectual property is used without permission. If I want some pithy quotes, I use the words of a long-dead people, always crediting them, of course.

I designed a greeting card using a photograph I took of old books my mother has collected. I added some quotes from five long-dead authors and philosophers about books and then posted the card on a Print on Demand (POD) site where I have many products. The card is to be a small gift for my fellow book club members (Shhh, don’t tell them.)

A few days later, I received an email from the POD site informing me that my “design contains an image or text that infringes on intellectual
property rights. We have been contacted by the intellectual property right holder and at their request we will be removing your product from …’s Marketplace due to intellectual property claims.”

There was no clue which element might have offended, so I pressed the POD site to find out. Was it one of the publishers listed on the book spines in the photograph? I couldn’t imagine that it would be any of the people I quoted. They’d all been dead at least seventy-five years, when copyrights expire. I realize that copyright issues are much more complicated than that (after all, lawyers are involved) and some copyrights can be renewed. I’ve recently learned that even many versions of the Bible are copyrighted. The King James version, however, is in the public domain.

A plaque featuring Mark Twain's words about Australia is on Writers Walk on Circular Quay of Sydney Harbor in Sydney, Australia. Somehow I must have known I'd meet up with Mark Twain again when I took this photograph.

This was the advice I’d been given about Fair Use. “Public domain works are works whose copyrights were issued before 1923. Many authors choose to use quotes only from people who have been dead more than seventy-five years because their quotes are now considered “Fair Use” under the public domain. Copyrights are good for the duration of the author’s life and for seventy-five years beyond their death. It is generally safe to use quotes from authors who died 1936 or before.”

The POD site fingered the complainer: Mark Twain, or, more accurately, the representatives of Mark Twain. “We have been contacted by the licensing company (I won’t name them) who represent Mark Twain, and at their request, have removed the product from the …  Marketplace.”

I went to the Mark Twain Rep site where I read: “We work with companies around the world who wish to use the name or likeness of Mark Twain in any commercial fashion. The words and the signature “Mark Twain” are trademarks owned and protected by the Estate of Mark Twain. In addition, the image, name, and voice of Mark Twain is a protectable property right owned by the Estate of Mark Twain. Any use of the above, without the express written consent of the Estate of Mark Twain is strictly prohibited.”

Since I make no money from this blog, I hope Twain’s representatives don’t hunt me down here. I’m not even putting Mark Twain or his real name Samuel Clemons in the tags.

Mark Twain was very concerned about protecting his work from pirates, even though he also fussed over nitpicking copyright laws. He wanted the profits from his works — and he was sure there would be plenty of them — to continue to go to his daughters after his death. In Twain’s day, copyright protection expired after 42 years.

Twain is one of the most widely known authors in the world and is still kicking up a fuss today. A publisher recently republished  a politically correct version of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by substituting the word slave for the N word, which provoked a lot of discussion — and more sales.

In November 2010, the first of three volumes of Twain’s autobiography were published complete and unexpurgated for the first time by the Mark Twain Project a hundred years after Twain’s death. Twain had said that he wanted to suppress the publication of some of his more biting comments for a hundred years, but Twain shrewdly also knew that this new version would start the clock ticking on new copyright protection.

Here are two discussions about Twain and copyright:
Mark Twain’s plans to compete with copyright “pirates” (in 1906)

The Mark Twain Project’s Discussion of Copyright and Permissions.

About the Politically Correct Version of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

Here’s a link to the revised greeting card minus the Mark Twain quote.   I did use a quote from Abraham Lincoln and another from Kenkō Yoshida (or Yoshida Kenkō), a Japanese Buddhist monk, who died around 1350.  I think I’m safe there, but you never know.

Love of Books Card.

“A day is coming, when, in the eye of the law, literary property will be as sacred as whisky, or any other of the necessaries of life.” ~ Mark Twain ~

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We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

 

Original Wizard of Oz book.

Actually, I am in Kansas right now, but I couldn’t resist that statement, and I’m not alone.  It’s a very popular phrase to explain wonderment when entering a fantastic new environment.  Recently I saw a version of the phrase in the New York Times Coming-of-Age Filmgoers: You’re Not in Kansas Anymore, which had nothing to do with the movie or the book.

(Judy Garland’s line as Dorothy Gale in the film The Wizard of Oz was “Toto, I have the feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”)

Growing up in Kansas, I was always fascinated by The Wizard of Oz movie, even though it didn’t show our state in a very favorable light.  However, as black and white, dusty and tornado-prone as Kansas was shown in the movie,  Dorothy couldn’t wait to get home!  L. Frank Baum, the author, never visited Kansas but fashioned the Kansas in his book, published in 1900, after the drought years  he experienced when he lived in Aberdeen, South Dakota.

I didn’t interpret the movie (I hadn’t read the book) as anything more than a fantasy, until I got to college.  There, I learned that like most fairy tales, there is a deeper interpretation, usually something sinister or despotic.

L. Frank Baum, 1901.

In these times of great economic uncertainty, I thought it might be helpful to take you back to the good old days of the 1890s, depicted as allegory in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”   The “Gay Nineties” period was really a time of widespread economic depression in the United States, set off by the Panic of 1893.  The depression lasted until 1896, when the Republican Party took control of the White House. Full prosperity didn’t return until 1899, which didn’t last, of course.  Boom and bust times continue, most notably The Great Depression.

Henry M. Littlefield wrote an essay in 1964 called “The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism,” which showed that the people and events in the book were metaphors for actual people and events in the 1890s. 

Dorothy meets the Cowardly Lion in an illustration from the first edition.

Dorothy represents Everyman.  How wonderful that Everyman is a woman!  Here’s  an excerpt from the wikipedia version:

 “Many of the events and characters of the book resemble the actual political personalities, events and ideas of the 1890s.  The 1902 stage adaptation mentioned, by name, President Theodore Roosevelt, oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, and other political celebrities. (No real people are mentioned by name in the book.) Even the title has been interpreted as alluding to a political reality: “oz.” is an abbreviation for ounce, a unit familiar to those who fought for a 16 to 1 ounce ratio of silver to gold in the name of bimetallism In the play and in later books Baum mentions contemporary figures by name and takes blatantly political stances without the benefit of allegory including a condemnation in no uncertain terms of Standard Oil. The book opens not in an imaginary place but in real life Kansas, which, in the 1890s as well as today, was well known for the hardships of rural life, and for destructive tornadoes.  

The Panic of 1893 caused widespread distress in the rural United States. Dorothy is swept away to a colorful land of unlimited resources that nevertheless has serious political problems. This utopia is ruled in part by wicked witches. Dorothy and her house are swept up by the tornado and upon landing in Oz, thehouse falls on the Wicked Witch of the East, destroying the tyrant and freeing the ordinary people—little people or Munchkins. The Witch had previously controlled the all-powerful silver slippers (which were changed to ruby in the 1939 film to take advantage of the new technicolor film). The slippers will in the end liberate Dorothy but first she must walk in them down the golden yellow brick road, i.e. she must take silver down the path of gold, the path of free coinage (free silver). Following the road of gold leads eventually only to the Emerald City, which may symbolize the fraudulent world of greenback paper money that only pretends to have value, or may symbolize the greenback value that is placed on gold (and for silver, possibly).  Henry Littleton’s Essay about “The Wizard of Oz.”

Political Interpretations of “The Wizard of Oz.”   About L. Frank Baum, author of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”    About the “Gay Nineties.”

About “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

1903 poster of Dave Montgomery as the Tin Man in Hamlin's musical stage version.

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Avast, Me Hearty! It’s Talk Like a Pirate Day!

Robert Newton as Long John Silver.

Robert Newton as Long John Silver.

Arrgh!  Get ready to walk the plank if you don’t talk like a pirate on September 19 — the  annual International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

No one talked more like a pirate than Robert Newton in his role as Long John Silver in the Walt Disney production of “Treasure Island” (1950).  The scene in the video above is when Jim Hawkins first meets Long John Silver.  Of course, Robert Louis Stevenson put these words into Newton’s mouth.  (See “Shiver My Timbers” link at the bottom of this post.)

Newton created the theatrical Pirate patois and is considered the “patron saint” of International Talk Like a Pirate Day.  Because of Newton’s iconic performance as Long John Silver, nearly every actor playing a pirate has adopted some version of the same faux Cornish accent that Newton invented.  Even the voice of Captain McAllister in the cartoon series “The Simpsons” is based on Newton’s portrayal of Long John Silver.  Newton successfully used his pirate persona in several later movies, too, such “Blackbeard, the Pirate,” “Return to Treasure Island” and “Long John Silver.”  The Who drummer Keith Moon considered Newton a role model. (Not a very good role model, I’m afraid.  Both Newton and Moon died early.)

Walk the Plank!

“Walk the Plank!” if you don’t want to talk like a pirate.

Johnny Depp with his swishy pirate stylings as Captain Jack Sparrow in “The Pirates of the Caribbean” may be one actor who strayed from the Newton mold and fold.  Depp credited Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards as his muse, but you can see a little of Newton in Depp’s version of a comically genial pirate hiding a devious heart.

The Walt Disney version of “Treasure Island” was one of my favorite childhood movies.  It was one of the first Disney movies to be shown on television when it was first broadcast in 1955.  I saw the movie when “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” re-broadcast it in the 1960s.  I remember it best, though, when it was one of the free movies shown on Friday nights during the summer at our small town’s football stadium.  I fell in love with Bobby Driscoll, the young boy who played Jim Hawkins.  I think I was more in love with the idea of adventure and tropical islands and hidden treasure.

I’m a committed landlubber, but there’s something insanely exciting about jumping on a creaking, swaying little ship and heading off into the unknown on the vast and treacherous ocean.  I can live vicariously through the sailors’ adventures without the risks and claustrophia.   I’ve gone into a replica of The Mayflower and can’t even imagine being trapped below deck for months. I’m getting off topic here…..

Shiver My Timbers!  It's fun to play a pirate.

Shiver My Timbers! It’s fun to play a pirate!

I did get over my sailing ship phobia long enough to sail on the wooden sailing ship, Lavengro, off of Maui to watch humpback whales and snorkel near the sunken volcano Molokini.  I learned a little sailor lingo there, like “lowering the boom” and what that actually means. “Watch out or you’ll get knocked overboard!”

International Talk Like a Pirate Day was started in 1995 by John Baur (Ol’ Chumbucket) and Mark Summers (Cap’n Slappy) to be celebrated on September 19, the birthday of Summers’ ex-wife so it would be easier for him to remember.   To find out more go to International Talk Like A Pirate Day which has links to everywhere you could possible want to go in the Pirate realm, including the official site, Robert Newton’s sites, Treasure Island.

Ol' Chumbucket and Cap'n Slappy, founders of International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Ol’ Chumbucket and Cap’n Slappy, founders of International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

The link also provides some tongue-twisting Pirate jargon, some of which comes from Robert Louis Stevenson’s book, “Treasure Island.”  Stevenson invented many so-called pirate sayings, such as “Shiver My Timbers,” so that they would sound menacing but wouldn’t actually be obscene to his young readers.

Other seafaring movies I liked were “The Bounty” starring Mel Gibson (1984) and “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (2003) starring Russell Crowe.  I also enjoyed the eight Horatio Hornblower made-for-television movies (1998-2003).

About “Shiver my timbers.”

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Philadelphia and Baltimore Fight Over Edgar Allan Poe’s Body

Edgar Allan Poe in a daguerreotype taken in 1848, age 39, the year before he died under strange circumstances.

It’s almost like a scene from one of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories –Philadelphia is trying to claim Poe’s body from Baltimore.  Actually, I may have exaggerated.  It’s only one person,  but he makes a good case.  Edward Pettit, a Poe scholar in Philadelphia, argues that Poe wrote most of his best work in Philadelphia, which was a violent place in the mid-19th century when Poe lived there.  Pettit says the city’s sinister atmosphere inspired Poe’s work. This may not do much for Philadelphia’s public relations, however. 

Many cities could make a claim on Poe. He was born in Boston, lived in The Bronx in New York City and died in Baltimore. He even courted a woman in Providence, Rhode Island.  Poe described himself as a Virginian.  He spent much time in Richmond, including his early years, and always planned to return there.  Relatives wanted to bury him in Brooklyn.  

January 19, 2009 will mark the bicentennial of Poe’s birth. Pettit will debate an opponent from Baltimore on January 13 in the Philadelphia Free Library over where Poe’s remains should finally be at peace, if that’s possible. Here’s a link to a story about the “controversy” in the New York Times: Baltimore Has Poe; Philadelphia Wants Him

Edgar Allan Poe's grave in Baltimore, Maryland.

Edgar Allan Poe's grave in Baltimore, Maryland.

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