How much would you pay for a brigantine beached and abandoned on Midway Atoll in the South Pacific?
That’s the question faced by the main character of Robert Louis Stevenson and his step-son Lloyd Osbourne’s novel, The Wrecker (1892). The enterprising young man, Loudon Dodd, bids $50,000—something like $2,000,000 in today’s inflated dollars.
Loudon’s reckless bid leads him on a globe-spanning quest worthy of the author of Treasure Island and the South Sea Tales. But before probing Loudon’s motives and the mystery he uncovers, let’s step back (or forward) to our no less turbulent times.
For we live in an age of wrecking.
The state and federal responses to COVID—the trillions of dollars practically tossed from helicopters, the lockdowns and shutdowns and disincentives to work—are wrecking our economy.
Perhaps more grievously, COVID authoritarianism and censorship have wrecked whatever trust was left in doctors and medical experts.
It’s hard to imagine a time when Congress was not wrecked.
Our puppet president seems intent on wrecking whatever respect was left for his office (real or virtual).
And the recent leak of a draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade has revealed how ready for wrecking was the Supreme Court.
Black Lives Matter wrecked dozens of downtowns in their “1619 protests” and created the conditions for a surge of homicide that has wrecked mainly black lives. The devotees of Critical Race Theory, Diversity-Equity-Inclusion, and “antiracism” have resurrected racism and may have wrecked race relations for another generation to come.
The so-called “Woke” have wrecked whatever they have laid hands on: business (Disney, Twitter), churches, and the higher echelons of the United States military. They have done the same to law enforcement, from the Department of Justice and the FBI down to local district attorneys and police departments.
Our southern border and immigration laws? U.S. foreign policy, as revealed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, China, and now a proxy war with a dispirited, nuclear-armed Russia? All equal-opportunity wrecking jobs.
American colleges and universities have long reveled in “deconstruction”—wrecking themselves and being the cause of wrecking in others. The humanities and social sciences are scorched earth. Generations of reliance on foreign students have wrecked American capacity in engineering. Putting Wokeism above the pursuit of truth is preparing the coup de grace for the natural sciences too.
What can one do amid such a grim scene? Let’s see what inspiration might be found in The Wrecker.
It’s a curious work. In his epilogue Stevenson describes it as a romance, a panorama, an epic, and a mystery. And the mystery begins with the title. Who is the wrecker?
The hero, Loudon Dodds, spends the first hundred or so pages making a hash of his education. He fails out of the ludicrous commercial college in which his businessman father enrolls him. He then proves a middling sculptor in Barbizon, France, where his “study abroad” (coupled with a taste for red wine) helps wreck his father’s finances.
After moving to San Francisco with a friend, Jim Pinkerton, Loudon uses his veneer of culture to entertain weekend picnickers. Then, in an attempt to get rich quick, he eggs Pinkerton into bidding in auction on the wreck of a brig, theFlying Scud, which was grounded on Midway. At a ruinous price, Dodd and Pinkerton end up as owners of the hulk. They guess that the brig secretly carries opium, and Loudon rushes to the South Pacific to claim their prize.
After spending weeks demolishing the not-too-badly-damaged ship, Loudon finds a little opium—not nearly $50,000 worth—and a further mystery. It turns out the crew who were saved from the wreck on Midway and ferried to San Francisco were not the Flying Scud’s original crew. Loudon’s attempt to discover what happened on the brig leads him from San Francisco to an estate in Dorsetshire, then back to Barbizon, and finally to a life of trading on the South Seas.
Wreckers abound in this tale.
Without saying too much and spoiling the mystery for anyone who has not read the book … there is the original master of the Flying Scud, whose inhuman greed unleashes a catastrophe.
Then there is the captain who takes his place and, indeed, ends up reefing the brig.
There is the Chinese cook who, it seems, hid the soul-destroying drug on the Flying Scud in the first place.
And a young aristocrat, Norris Carthew, who wrecked his relations with his family, was exiled by them to be a “remittance man” (a sort of trust-fund baby) in Australia, and brought to bloody culmination the disaster of the Flying Scud.
But, still, the primary wrecker remains Loudon, who wrecks his own prospects, wrecks his friend Jim’s finances, and then smashes the Scud to matchsticks and burns its carcass.
Yet, in this moment of wrecking—the apparent failure of his quest—Loudon attains some solidity. He at last devotes himself to some real work, with his fellow seamen. He earns a friend, in the hard-bitten captain. He attains integrity, using an unexpected legacy to pay off his creditors and rescue the now-destitute Jim. He pursues justice, by rushing to England and France to save the reputation, even the life, of Carthew, a man he doesn’t know but whom he suspects suffered great wrong. In the end, Carthew becomes Loudon’s friend and partner. Loudon keeps a hand in sculpting, on the side, but devotes his main energies to the useful work of trading copra and other goods on the South Seas.
In a wrecked world, filled with cheats and superficialities, wrecking the wreck makes Loudon Dodd a man.
What has The Wrecker to teach us in our wrecked age? What insights, in particular, does it offer to those of us who must navigate among the hulks of higher education and the opium-peddlers of academe?
The irrepressible Jim Pinkerton is like millions of parents of college-aged students. He is drawn to Loudon Dodd for his “culture,” just as parents hope college will make their sons and daughters “educated.” Yet, at the same moment, Jim is willing to bet a fortune on an illegal drug, just as so many decent parents are willing to gamble on buying their offspring a credential in sustainability, gender- or racial-studies, or some similar opiate of the elite. To be suckered is the dark side of American hopefulness.
What then? Certainly, serious people would not want to position themselves like the “remittance men” of Sydney: free of any responsibility; squeaking by a livelihood through a sort of ironical existence; drunk and despairing in the twilight of civilization.
Nor does the novel offer any attraction in the form of the original master of the Flying Scud, who like so many college administrators or diversicrats today, is willing to capitalize on others’ misfortune to line his own pockets.
Where to turn, if one is not willing to be a crook, or a parasite, or to pretend that the corruption is not as thorough-going as it is?
There is, as the Preacher said, “a time to break down.” When “education”—such as Loudon’s—provides no firm foundation, then “reform” and even “replacement” may only perpetuate the corruption. In the case of higher education, this means accepting that there are thousands of Flying Scuds that would be better splintered than allowed to continue luring wayward souls. It means fostering instead the much-despised “bourgeois” virtues of hard work, integrity, honesty, justice, and friendship. It means praising the humble work of those who make things—such as railroads in the Australian outback—or who bring valuables to market—even copra—and not count them less for the absence of some degree, which seems more and more like a vain aristocratic title. In a sea of Flying Scuds, building character, even if through wrecking, offers the firmest ground for a better future.
After all, ideally, wrecking precedes rebirth. For a final example, jump ahead fifty years from the publication of TheWrecker, when that same Midway Atoll served as ground zero for the great battle that left four Japanese aircraft carriers at the bottom of the Pacific. A mere seven months before, Japan had nearly wrecked the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, capitalizing on failures in American intelligence, planning, and political will. Nonetheless, in June 1942, the remnants of that almost-wrecked fleet along with the Army air corps wrecked the Imperial Navy, sending Japan on the path to ultimate defeat—a defeat from which arose a democratic Japan and a pax Americana over the Pacific.
Our academic elite are like Hirohito’s haughty general staff, confident in their cultural superiority. Our colleges and universities are the smoking ruins of Pearl. Midway Atoll, as its name implies, lies midway between America and Asia. Stevenson and Osbourne’s poetic divination was to see it, and the wreck upon it, as the turning point, from a time to break down to a time to build up. Certainly it became so for the United States in 1942. Now, exactly eighty years later, and so much closer to home, do we possess a similar will?