Column – Wyeth still helps adventure books come aliveN.C. Wyeth. For me, that one name, like magic, summons up all of the pleasures of summer reading.
By: Dennis Dalman, Alexandria Echo Press
For me, that one name, like magic, summons up all of the pleasures of summer reading.
Wyeth was a great American artist who illustrated many of my favorite books from my childhood: Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Black Arrow, The Last of the Mohicans and Robinson Crusoe – to name just five. They were all part of the Scribner’s Illustrated Classics series. While reading them, every 30 pages or so, I would be treated to a dazzling Wyeth illustration in full color, bursting with action, adventure and drama.
Any bookworm my age, I’m sure, fondly remembers the Scribner’s Classics, which were the quintessential boys’ adventure books – indelible artifacts from childhood.
One that I can still see in my mind’s eye is from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a book I never tired of reading. The illustration I’m referring to depicts the peg-legged Long John Silver, parrot on his shoulder, leading young Jim Hawkins hurriedly across a rocky landscape. The two hurrying figures are in a foreground shadow, silhouetted against a background rocky cliff that is ablaze with the golden-orange brilliance of late-afternoon sun. It’s a typical Wyeth illustration – the way it captures a heightened moment of action in a landscape animated by iridescent colors and moody contrasts of light and dark.
Wyeth had a genius for capturing in images the adventures in those adventure books. And what I treasured most about those illustrations is that they welcomed me into the books, making them come alive, their excitement and commotion leaping right off the pages. They also made it possible for me to picture vividly the ambience of those books – landscapes, castles, the way people looked and dressed in those exciting kingdoms of imagination.
There’s an illustration of Robinson Crusoe standing shipwrecked on his lonely island, the vast blue sea beyond him and the faraway horizon’s clouds emphasizing his lonely island fate.
There is the sinister – even terrifying – illustration of blind-man Pew in Treasure Island, his cloak billowing as he stumbles down a night road, the inn behind him, an inky sky dotted with stars above him.
In yet another, there stands the re-awakened Rip Van Winkle, haggard and shabby, standing in the doorway of a house gone to ruin.
And those clouds! Nobody could paint clouds as eye-popping as Wyeth. Great big billowing clouds, blazing with light or scowling with storms, as if they themselves are characters in the book. Such towering clouds embody the conflicts, the drama, the magnificence of the adventures they illustrate.
On summer days, friends and I would walk down elm-lined 5th Avenue to the Carnegie-style library in St. Cloud. We’d carry home armloads of books, and more often than not I would have in my heavy stack one of the Wyeth-illustrated Scribner’s Classics. As I read them avidly in the shade of our backyard oak tree or sometimes up in our neighborhood tree house, a gentle summer breeze would waft the smell of the books to my nose – that wonderful aroma of book-binding glue. To this day, I associate that smell with the pleasure of reading.
Every summer, I read one of those books from those happy summer days. Last year I re-read, for the umpteenth time, Treasure Island. This summer, just now, I’m re-reading Kidnapped, which is another timeless Stevenson novel.
The edition I happen to have is not illustrated, however. Much as I love the Wyeth-illustrated Scribner’s Classics series, I don’t have a single one of those books. And yet, after all these years, when I re-read text-only editions, I can still see in my mind’s eye those Wyeth illustrations blazing in their adventurous colorful glory. Wyeth still helps those books “live” yet again as I read them. His pictures are like great photographs; once you see them you never forget them. They become tattooed on the brain, on the memory.
Now, while reading in the shade of my backyard maple tree, I sometimes rest my eyes from reading and look up at the billowing clouds in the blue sky of a summer afternoon. Very often, what I see, what I behold in wonder, are N.C. Wyeth clouds, as if they’d floated right out of the Wyeth Kingdom of Imagination to enhance, once again, my summer reading pleasure.
Dennis Dalman, a former reporter for the Echo Press, is a regular contributing columnist to the Opinion page. He is currently the editor of the St. Joseph Newsleader. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.