Robert Louis Stevenson

"Stevenson had from the beginning an idea of literary composition as a fine art." A profile of the author of Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and other classics.

Stevenson was one of the happy few: he knew his life's business from childlhood. He was to write books. Happier still, and one of even a smaller minority, he early discovered that authorship is an art requiring a long and rigorous apprenticeship; that, if a man is to write, he must first study how, putting himself under tuition and devoting himself to practice; that an author no more than a pianist can begin with "pieces" and a public performance. In short, Stevenson had from the beginning an idea of literary composition as a fine art,—an art not to be picked up some pleasant day by the roadside (as later in life he essayed, for whim's sake, to pick up the art of writing music), nor acquired, with other more or less useful pieces of knowledge at a grammar school or university, but to be attained, if at all, by years of drill. Another man may write "well enough," and perhaps successfully, so far as material rewards go, by nature and the rule of thumb; but the artist aims at perfection,—perfection for its own sake. That aim, the pursuit of that ideal, is what makes him an artist. And such was Stevenson.

"All through my boyhood and youth," he says, "I was known and pointed out for the pattern of an idler; and yet I was always busy on my own private end, which was to learn to write. I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in. As I walked, my mind was busy fitting what I saw with appropriate words; when I sat by the roadside, I would either read, or a pencil and a penny version-book would be in my hand, to note down the features of the scene or commemorate some halting stanzas."

So he "lived with words." And the point of the confession is that these "childish tasks," as he calls them in another place, were done "consciously for practice." "I had vowed that I would learn to write. That was a proficiency that tempted me; and I practiced to acquire it, as men learn to whittle, in a wager with myself."

But he did more than to practice. A man does not learn to whittle, or to paint, or to play the flute, by the primitive process of merely trying his hand, be it ever so patiently. The fine arts are no longer things to be invented, every man for himself. Others have whittled and painted; one generation has bequeathed its increment of skill to the next; here and there a master has arisen, and the masters have set up a standard; and now, the standard being established, the essential matter is, not to paint or write to the satisfaction of village critics, but to prove one's self a workman beside the best of the craft. For this there needs acquaintance with the masters' work,—such acquaintance, or so young Stevenson was persuaded, as could come from nothing but an imitative study of it. And he set himself to imitate. He had never heard the dictum, or he disbelieved it, that a boy should read the best writers, but pattern after nobody. Wherever he saw excellence of a kind that appealed to him, he took it for the time being as his model. This he did consciously and unashamed.

Such a course would never give him originality; but no matter. For the present it was not originality he was seeking; he was not yet writing books: he was learning his trade. Whether, having learned it, he should turn out to have original genius to go with his knowledge and put it to use, was a question that the event alone could determine. Originality is a gift of the gods; it is born with a man, or it is not born with him. The technique of a prose style, on the other hand, could be learned, and Stevenson's present business was to learn it, in the only way of which he had any knowledge, the way in which his masters themselves had learned it,—practice based on imitation.

How could the boy have done better? He was called to write; he had "the love of words" which, as he says, marks the writer's vocation; and for such a boy "to work grossly at the trade, to forget sentiment, to think of his material and nothing else, is, for a while at least, the king's highway of progress." Yes, "for a while;" and after the while, if he is not merely one of the many that are called, but one of the few that are chosen, he will have found his own line, and such originality as nature endowed him with at birth (or before) will show itself in its season.

Stevenson had the name of an idler, he tells us, and it must be said that he wore it jauntily,—as he wore his old clothes. Whatever he did or failed to do, it would have been hard to catch him without defense. He wrote An Apology for Idlers, which, as he confided to a correspondent, was "an apology for R. L. S.," and to this day it sounds like a good one. It would do many a hard-working man and useful member of society a service to read it. He believed that, for the young especially, a certain kind of idleness is a profitable kind of industry; while they are seemingly unemployed they may perchance be learning something that is really worth while: "to play the fiddle, to know a good cigar, or to speak with ease and opportunity to all varieties of men."

For himself, like many another man of genius, he was very little of a scholar in the traditional sense of the word. What the schools had taken upon themselves to teach were mostly not the thing that he had taken upon himself to learn. At the university he devised " an extensive and highly rational system of truantry," and no one "ever had more certificates (of attendance) for less education." Like his antitype in Mr. Barrie's novel, he could always find a way. No doubt his personal attractivenes counted for much here, as it did every where else. One of his earlier teachers had pronounced him "without exception the most delightful boy he ever knew;" and his mother's testimony is that his masters found it pleasanter to talk with him than to teach him. How his wits and his fine gift of plausibility helped him over a hard place in one of the last of his examinations—for admission to the bar—is related, as from himself by Mr. Balfour. The subject in hand was Ethical and Metaphysical Philosophy, and a certain book had been prescribed. "The examiner asked me a question," Stevenson says," and I had to say to him, 'I beg your pardon, but I do not understand your phraseology.' 'It 's the textbook,' he said. 'Yes; but you couldn't possibly expect me to read so poor a book as that.' He laughed like a hunchback, and then put the question in another form. I had been reading Mayne, and answered him by the historical method. They were probably the most curious answers ever given in the subject. I don't know what he thought of them, but they got me through."

It is a good story, and thoroughly characteristic. There was nothing academic in Stevenson's turn of mind, whether in youth or manhood. "I was inclined to regard any professor as a joke," he remarks, in his Memoir of Fleeming Jenkin, and the words may be taken as fairly expressive of his attitude toward the whole business of what is called education. The last thing he meant to be was a conventional man,—"a consistent first-class passenger in life,"—and why should he disquiet himself over a conventional training? Allow him his own subject and his own method, and he would be studious with anybody.

So through all his early years, as we have seen, he studied the art of authorship. Then, as happens to all artists, came the critical point of production or non-production. Would the plant so seduously watered and tended, so promising in the leaf, prove to be fertile or sterile? Having so lofty an idea of his art, so exalted a standard of excellence in it, would he go on indefinitely putting himself off with preparations, "prelusory gymnastic," as he saw so many painters doing at Barbizon ("snoozers" instead of painters, covering their walls with studies, and never coming to the picture), and as is so easy for art students of all kinds to do, or, having learned the handling of his tools, would he set himself to use them in the performance of a man's work?

Such a question is by no means one that answers itself. In any particular case there is perhaps more than an even chance that the student will never have the industry, the courage, and the intellectual and moral stuff to accomplish, or even seriously put his hand to, any of the great things for which he has so long been making ready. Stevenson himself, from all that appears, may have had at the beginning a period when the issue hung more or less in doubt. "I remember a time," he wrote afterward "when I was very idle, and lived and profited by that humor." Now, he says, the case is different with him, he knows not why. Perhaps it is "a change of age." He made many slight efforts at reform, "had a thousand skirmishes to keep himself at work upon particular mornings;" the life of Goethe affected him, as did also some noble remarks of Balzac, but he was never conscious of a struggle, "never registered a vow, nor seemingly had anything personally to do with the matter. I came about like a well-handled ship," he concludes. "There stood at the wheel that unknown steersman whom we call God."

Presented by

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In