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.
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In his twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth year, at all events, he was really getting under way, though for the present, as was becoming, with small ventures; and from that time, except for the frequent occasions when illness and the likelihood of speedy death constrained him to "twiddle his fingers and play patience," he kept his pen busy as few men of anything like his physical disabilities and his roving disposition have ever done. For it is important to note that he was by inheritance a wanderer. Even had his health allowed it, he could never have sat month after month at the same desk, turning off so many thousand words as his daily stint. Once, when he has lived for six months at Davos, he writes to his friend Colvin that he is in a bad way,—a result, he believes, of having been too long in one place. "That tells on my old gypsy nature; like a violin hung up, I begin to lose what music there was in me." And when his mother complained that he was little at home, he bade her not be vexed at his nomadic habits. "I must be a bit of a vagabond; it's your own fault, after all, isn't it? You shouldn't have had a tramp for a son."

For a man who had studied authorship, and wished to write not mainly from books, but from the experience of his own mind and body, this ineradicable gypsy strain was of the highest value. How much it imported to Stevenson should be evident even to those who know his books only by the backs of them. Bodily health excepted, he had all the qualifications of a traveler. Happy man that he was, he was always a boy, rich to the last in some of the best of youthful virtues,—buoyancy, curiosity, "interest in the whole page of experience," and the capacity for surprise. The world for him was never an old story. When he saw a ship or a train of cars, he wished himself aboard. Discomforts and dangers were nothing; nay, they could be turned into excellent fun, and after that into almost as excellent copy. His spirit was habitually strung up to out-of-door pitch, to borrow his own expression. He felt "the incommunicable thrill of things." Not for him a staid life in drawing-rooms or city clubs. He would be out in the open, "where men still live a man's life." At forty he wrote his own formula thus: "0.55 artist, 0.45 adventurer." Near the same time, being just from the island of Molokai, where he had played croquet with seven leper girls (and would not wear gloves, though cautioned to that effect, lest it should make the girls unhappy to be reminded of their condition), he writes to a friend: "This climate; these voyagings; these landfalls at dawn; new islands peaking from the morning bank; new forested harbors; new passing alarms of squalls and surf; new interests of gentle natives,—the whole tale of my life is better to me than any poem." A lucky combination it was, both for the man himself and for the world of readers,—fifty-five per cent artist, and forty-five per cent adventurer.

And the adventures, of course, need not be so extraordinarily venturesome, with an artist's pen to put them on the paper. In 1887 Stevenson had been once more at the gates of death with hemorrhages, this time so often repeated that they had ceased almost to be exciting, and were rather grown tiresome; and when the doctors prescribed another change of climate, he sailed for America. The steamer turned out to be loaded with cattle,—"a ship with no style on, and plenty of sailors to talk to;" and this is how the consumptive patient describes the voyage: "I was so happy on board that ship, I could not have believed it possible. We had the beastliest weather, and many discomforts; but the mere fact of its being a tramp-ship gave us many comforts; we could cut about with the men and officers, stay in the wheelhouse, discuss all manner of things, and really be a little at sea... . My heart literally sang... . It is worth having lived these last years, partly because I have written some better books, which is always pleasant, but chiefly to have had the joy of this voyage."

Later, in the South Seas, he ran more than once upon the very edge of shipwreck, but always with the same brave heart and the same gayety. "We had a near squeak," he writes to a friend, after one such experience. "The reefs were close in with, my eye! what a surf! The pilot thought we were gone, and the captain had a boat cleared, when a lucky squall came to our rescue. My wife, hearing the order given about the boats, remarked to my mother, "Isn't that nice? We shall soon be ashore!" Thus does the female mind unconsciously skirt along the verge of eternity." And thus, be it added, does the artistic masculine mind turn even the face of death itself "to favor and to prettiness."

By this time Stevenson had almost settled it with himself that he should never again leave the sea. "My poor grandfather, it is from him that I inherit the taste, I fancy, and he was round many islands in his day; but I, please God, shall beat him at that before the recall is sounded... . Life is far better fun than people dream who fall asleep among the chimney-stacks and telegraph wires." One feels like saying again, What a blessing it was for the world that a man so perennially boyish, so endowed with the capacity for enjoyment, so conscious of his life, so incurably in love with the romantic side of things, was also the master of a style and an industrious lover of the art of writing!

His remark, quoted above, about the "plenty of sailors to talk to" suggests another thing: his exceeding fondness for rubbing elbows with what are called, inappropriately enough, common people,—people who have lived free from the leveling, uniformity-producing, character-dulling influences of too many books and an excess of social sophistication. This, too, was a real fairy's gift to a man destined for literature. "He was of a conversible temper" (he is speaking of himself in his youth), "and insatiably curious in the aspects of life." Like Will o' the Mill, "he had a taste for other people, and other people had a taste for him." As we read of his journeying hither and thither, and the friends he made almost as often as he opened his mouth, we are reminded of what David Balfour's father said of his offspring: "He is a steady lad and a canny goer; and I doubt not he will come safe, and be well liked where he goes." Perhaps it was from his own experience that Stevenson was writing when he said that a boy might learn in his truant hours "to know a good cigar, or to speak with ease and opportunity to all varieties of men."

Stevenson's books, the narratives of travel and the essays not less than the novels,—perhaps even more,—are galleries of portraits. Wherever he went he found men: not caricatures, mere burlesques and oddities, useful materials for print, creatures of a single crying peculiarity, so easily drawn and, for one reading, so "effective;" nor lay figures simply, wire frames (literature is populated with them) on which to hang "the trappings of composition;" but breathing men, full like the rest of us, of complexity and paradox, nobly designed, perhaps, but—still like the rest of us—more or less spoiled in the making; men who had known, each for himself, the war in the members (happy for them if they knew it still!), and had drunk every one of the mingled cup of tragedy and comedy. He loved the sight of them; their talk, wise or foolish, was music to his ears; and the queerest and ugliest of them, under his capable and affectionate hand, wear something of a human grace upon the canvas.

It is a great gallery. Who that has ever walked there will forget the old soldier turned beggar, the borrower of poets' books?—"the wreck of an athletic man, tall, gaunt, and bronzed; far gone in consumption, with that disquieting smile of the mortally stricken in his face; but still active afoot, still with the brisk military carriage, the ready military salute. "We can see him, "striding forward uphill, his staff now clapped to the ribs of his deep, resonant chest, now swinging in the air with the remembered jauntiness of the private soldier; and all the while his toes looking out of his boots, and his shirt looking out of his elbows, and death looking out of his smile, and his big, crazy frame shaken by accesses of cough." His honest head may have been "very nearly empty, his intellect like a child's," but he loved the unexpected words and the moving cadence of good verse. We know his talk; a little more, and we should hear it: "Keats,—John Keats, sir,—he was a very fine poet."

A book like The Amateur Emigrant is full of such sketches, every one of them done from life, and hit off with a perfection that might well render it and the volume, as foolish mortals say, "immortal." It would be long to enumerate them, though it is a short book. There is Jones the Welshman, for example,—"my excellent friend Mr. Jones," owner and dispenser of the Golden Oil; "hovering round inventions like a bee over a flower, and lying in a dream of patents." He had been rich, and now was poor, but, like all dabblers in patents, he had a nature that looked forward. "If the sky were to fall to-morrow, I should look to see Jones, the day following, perched on a stepladder and getting things to rights." What we should have cared most to see was Mr. Jones and Mr. Stevenson walking the deck by the hour and dissecting their neighbors; for Jones was first of all a student of character. "Whenever a quaint or human trait slipped out in conversation, you might have seen Jones and me exchanging glances; and we could hardly go to bed in comfort till we had exchanged notes and discussed the day's experience. We were then like a couple of anglers comparing a day's kill." And there is the fiddler, "carrying happiness about with him in his fiddle-case," a "white-faced Orpheus cheerily playing to an audience of white-faced women," with his fiery bit of a brother, who "made a god of the fiddler," and was determined that everybody else should do the same; and Mackay, the cynic and debater, who professed to believe in nothing but what had to do with food ("that's the bottom and the top"), but who once grew so eager in maintaining this noble thesis that he slipped the meal hour, and was compelled, with a smile of shamefacedness, to go without his tea; and Barney the Irishman, the universal favorite, so natural and happy, with his "tight little figure, unquenchable gayety, and indefatigable good will," who could sing most acceptably and play all manner of innocent pranks, but whose "drab clothes were immediately missing from the group" when, after the ladies had retired, some one struck up an indecent song; and the sick man (poor soul), who thought it was by with him, and who had a good house at home, and "no call to be here;" and the two stowaways, so fond of each other, yet so strikingly contrasted,—one so ready to work for his passage, the other "a skulker in the grain," and like the devil himself for lying.

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