Pirates, buccaneers, marooners, those cruel but picturesque sea wolves who once infested the Spanish Main, all live in present-day conceptions in great degree as drawn by the pen and pencil of Howard Pyle. It is improbable that anyone else will ever bring his combination of interest and talent to the depiction of these old-time Pirates, any more than there could be a second Remington to paint the now extinct Indians and gun-fighters of the Great West.
Original publication date
Many of the stories have to do with ordinary people getting involved in pirates' affairs, like the young boy who (with the help of the local parson) discovers where Captain Kidd buried his treasure. I liked the one about the young Quaker, Jonathan Rugg, who accidentally kills three pirates while protecting the treasure of a pirate's daughter. When she offers Jonathan her father's treasure along with herself, he politely declines, saying that he is engaged and so is "not at all at liberty to consider my inclinations in any other direction." Such an understated sense of fun! But Quakers aren't always so virtuous. In "Captain Scarfield," Pyle tells about a one pirate's double life as both a strict Quaker leader and a feared buccaneer.
What struck me most about this collection is Pyle's justification for telling stories about pirates and their evil deeds. Pyle was a Quaker (like several of his characters) and it's interesting that he should be so fascinated with evil men. He writes:
Why is it that a little spice of deviltry lends not an unpleasantly titillating twang to the great mass of respectable flour that goes to make up the pudding of our modern civilization? And pertinent to this question another—Why is it that the pirate has, and always has had, a certain lurid glamour of the heroical enveloping him round about? Is there, deep under the accumulated debris of culture, a hidden groundwork of the old-time savage? Is there even in these well-regulated times an unsubdued nature in the respectable mental household of every one of us that still kicks against the pricks of law and order? ... Courage and daring, no matter how mad and ungodly, have always a redundancy of vim and life to recommend them to the nether man that lies within us, and no doubt his desperate courage, his battle against the tremendous odds of all the civilized world of law and order, have had much to do in making a popular hero of our friend of the black flag.
Such is a brief and bald account of the most famous of these pirates... And such is that black chapter of history of the past—an evil chapter, lurid with cruelty and suffering, stained with blood and smoke. Yet it is a written chapter, and it must be read. He who chooses may read betwixt the lines of history this great truth: Evil itself is an instrument toward the shaping of good. Therefore the history of evil as well as the history of good should be read, considered, and digested.
Convincing, isn't he? The foreword (by Merle Johnson) says that Pyle is not generally remembered for his writing — his illustrations had a far more profound effect on American art — but I think little gems like these are worthy of their settings in his illustrations.
These stories would probably have been more enjoyable if I read them piecemeal rather than in one afternoon. As it is, I wouldn't heartily recommend this collection unless someone was looking specifically for children's literature on pirates.