As a child I read a few of what must have been considered classics for boys–this would be when I was 8 or 9, before I had become absorbed in my older siblings’ copies of The Godfather and Fear of Flying. I wondder if kids still read Jack London; though I enjoyed White Fang, I was even then shocked by the racism, and it probably remains the most dogmatically racist book I have ever finished. Even the animals can tell that white men are superior to the darker races, and London’s social Darwinism is so dim-witted that I don’t imagine his work is returning to for anything but diagnostic value.
.Robert Louis Stevenson, I think, has aged a bit better, though on revisiting Kidnapped, I wonder what on earth I made of it as a 4th-grader. I do have vivid memories of my puzzlement at some of the insults, such as “Whiggy.” And on the last page, when young David says that the hand of Providence led him to the bank, I recall feeling that it was strange to introduce this new girl Providence with no explanation of who she was or why she was helping our hero find the bank.
Large parts of the novel must have been pretty opaque to me, as the Lowlander David finds himself in the Highlands in the aftermath of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. The Highlanders accuse David of being a Whig (a supporter of King George against the remnants of the Stuarts) and a Covenanter (a sort of dour Presbyterian), when they speak English to him at all instead of their native Gaelic. The gentry have been driven into exile or hiding, so that people have grown used to the idea that a nobleman might live in a hut and wear rags, and in particular Stevenson is sensitive to the English assault on native culture, exemplified by the ban on kilts (David sees various responses to the ban, including people stitching up a skirt to make fake pants and people wearing nothing but a coat). Did even Victorian boys know so much about the ins and outs of Whigs and Jacobites, Covenanters and Catholics? Maybe they did, sometimes it’s surprising what kids pick up about history: when Richard Dawkins was at boarding school, the boys divided themselves, according to circumcision status, into “Roundheads” and “Cavaliers.” These were respectively the Parliamentary and Royalist factions in the English Civil War of the 1640s; by the way, the Roundheads included cool group names like the Diggers and the Ranters, while the Cavaliers had cool personal names like Sir John Suckling and Sir Richard Lovelace.
Anyway, going back to Kidnapped now, I find Stevenson’s image of a culture being ground beneath the wheels of empire surprisingly sophisticated, sympathetic but not tarted up Hollywood-style. He is, to be sure, too much of an old-time Romantic for my taste: he admires the loyalty of the peasants who continue to pay secret rents to support their dispossessed lairds, but nobody asks what the lairds did to deserve their high status or why anybody needs parasitic lairds at all. Still, the knowledge of what had happened to people of his own country (to the extent that Edinburgh and the Highlands are the same country) gave him for understanding what was happening to native peoples elsewhere.
In the last years of his life (he died in his mid-forties) Stevenson fell in love with Polynesia and Polynesian culture. He lived in Samoa, where he saw the local people as no more primitive than the Highlanders of his grandfather’s day. This led him to take the side of local chieftains against the British and German colonial administration, and to risk ostracism by visiting them in prison and arrest by agitating on their behalf. When the New England aristocrat Henry Adams visited, he was horrified to find Stevenson and his family living like “dirty peasants,” and when RLS died, it was mostly Samoans who showed up to carry his body up to a mountaintop to be buried. RLS was self-contradictory and silly like the rest of us, but I can’t help thinking that he makes quite a contrast with Jack London.
Oh, and one side benefit of reading Kidnapped: you get the Scots dialect running through your mind, and a transposition into faux Scots can lend flair to even the blandest pop song (try “Tak it tae the lemmit ane mair time,” for example).