Elton urges reading about South Seas

Posted: Friday, April 22, 2005

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

"Under the wide and starry sky,

Dig the grave and let me lie.

Glad did I live and gladly die,

And laid me down with a will."

So begins the epitaph of Robert Louis Stevenson, the Scottish poet and writer. He died on Dec. 3, 1894, at his home at Vailima in Western Samoa, and is buried nearby on the top of Mount Vaea a few miles from the major community of Apia.

The South Seas have always been a magnet for great writers. In the 19th and 20th centuries these are a few of their names: Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, Jack London, Louis Becke, James Norman Hall, Charles Nordhoff, W. Somerset Maugham, James A. Michener and Robert Louis Stevenson.

If I were to select an anthology of their writing I would pick three favorites, and I'd like to challenge my readers to read at least one. If they locate and finish all three, they will deserve a rich prize for this is writing at it's finest.

The three are Jack London's "Mauki," James Norman Hall's "Sing: A Song of Sixpence," and Louis Becke's "A Basket of Breadfruit." All are short stories.

I have always been amazed at the amount of marvelous writing that has come out of Polynesia and the South Seas, even from the days of the first European explorers such as Capt. Cook and Capt. Bligh.

But it has always puzzled me at the absence of an equal body of great art. The only celebrated painter of the era was Paul Gauguin, whose canvases speak so powerfully of his time and place.

The only answer I can conceive is that the lush setting of the islands creates an opacity, a soft blurring and fading of the color of the sea and land and a languor of the spirit that entrances the writer but with the exception of Gauguin confounds the artist.

This was my impression when I visited Tahiti a few years ago.

Maybe great art needs the sharp colors of northern climes such as Alaska.

On the tablet beside the grave site is Stevenson's concluding words:

"This be the verse you grave for me:

'Here he lies where he long'd to be;

Home is the sailor, home from the sea,

And the hunter home from the hill.' "

• Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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