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.
More

And besides these there are numbers more nearly or quite as telling; but they must be let pass, though it is pleasant to pick good things out of a book that, comparatively speaking, seems to have been little made of, either by the author or by his admirers. To one of these, at least, The Amateur Emigrant seems, not one of Stevenson's greatest books, indeed, but certainly one of the most enjoyable, say on the sixth or eighth reading.

It is a point of grace with any writer, and a very sine qua non with the essayist, that he should be able to speak often of himself without offense, as Montaigne and Lamb did, to mention two shining and incontestable examples. And the trick (though it is not a trick, but an admirable quality, and almost as far as honesty from being common) is none of your easy ones. To begin with, the venturer on such an experiment must be interested in himself, which is by no means an ordinary happening. Most men, we may say, count for nullities under this head; they recognize their outward presentments in the glass, no doubt, and are letter-perfect with their names and occupations; but for a knowledge of their inner selves, the story of their real lives, the "wonderful pageant of consciousness," one might almost as well interrogate the lamp-post on the next corner. They have never kept company with their own thoughts, nor been in the least degree inquisitive about them. Life, as they live it, is a matter of externals, of eating and drinking and being clothed, of getting and spending more or less money, of being amused, of movings up or down on a social ladder. As for their past, the past of themselves—which with another man is his dearest possession,—it is mainly as if it had never been. They must have had a boy's dreams once, one would think, but that was long, long ago, and the dreamer is dead, and the dreams with him.

But if a man is to tell the world about himself, and charm it into attention, he must not only be in love with his subject; he must have a natural frankness, an unaffected and almost unconscious delight in self-revelation,—tempered by a decent sense of personal privacy,—such as infallibly commends itself and makes its way, the listener cannot tell how other words, and in a good sense, the man must be still a boy, endowed with a boy's winning attributes, and entitled, therefore to something of a boy's privilege. And with all the rest, and most important, he must be favored with the gracious quality of humor. Of all talk whatsoever, talk about one's self must not be too serious. No man (or none but a great poet) can safely indulge in it unless it is natural for him to see the funny side of his own foibles, and at the right minute to make his point at his own expense. All of which is perhaps no more than to say that the writer in the first person must be a man of taste, knowing (a wisdom which nobody under the sun can teach him) what to say and what not to say, and, chiefest of all, how and when to say it.

Stevenson did not talk of himself so freely as Montaigne nor (the present scribe being judge) so adorably as Lamb,—Nature herself is little likely to hit the white centre of perfection twice, and we shall perhaps see another Shakespeare as soon as another Lamb; but few have loved a personal theme better, and in the handling of it there were none among the living to surpass him. He had every qualification for the work. A pity he died at forty-four,—a pity in every aspect of the case, but especially when it is considered what treasures of youthful reminiscence he would have left behind him had he lived even to the approaches of old age. Such a devotee of his own past should have been spared to see it through a bluer haze. Yet even in middle life how fair it looked to him, and how lovingly he laid its colors as he transferred the picture to the page! Hear him speak of his grandfather, in a passage no better than is common with him and dealing with nothing out of the ordinary:—

'Now I often wonder what I have inherited from this old minister. I must suppose, indeed, that he was fond of preaching sermons, and so am I, though I never heard it maintained that either of us loved to hear them. He sought health in his youth in the Isle of Wight, and I have sought it in both hemispheres; but whereas he found and kept it, I am still on the quest. He was a great lover of Shakespeare, whom he read aloud, I have been told, with taste; well, I love my Shakespeare, also, and am persuaded I can read him well, though I own I never have been told so. He made embroidery, designing his own patterns; and in that kind of work I never made anything but a kettle-holder in Berlin wool, and an odd garter of knitting, which was as black as the chimney before I had done with it. He loved port, and nuts, and porter; and so do I, but they agreed better with my grandfather, which seems to me a breach of contract. He had chalkstones in his fingers; and these in good time I may inherit, but I would much rather have inherited his noble presence. Try as I please, I cannot join myself on with the reverend doctor; all all the while, no doubt, and even as I write the phrase, he moves in my blood, and whispers words to me, and sits efficient in the very knot and centre of my being.'

A man could talk of himself in that strain for all day and all night, and nobody would vote him tiresome or blame him for an egotist. Yes, a misfortune it was that he could not have lived to write a dozen books full of essays like "The Manse," "Old Mortality," "Memoirs of an Islet," and especially "A Gossip on a Novel of Dumas's." So appreciative a reader and so entertaining a talker could never have wearied us with gossip of his favorite books, "the inner circle of his intimates;" and the more first-personal and confidential he became, the better we should have liked it.

Well, since we cannot have the finished essays, we will be the more thankful for the letters. How good they are!—so varied, so spontaneous, so freespoken, so humanly wise and so deliciously nonsensical; now bubbling over with jest, now touching the deepest springs of thought ad action; fit expression of a man who was himself both more nourished, more commonplace—Ariel and Prospero; "an old, stern, unhappy devil of a Norseman," with "always some childishness on hand; "the grandson of the Manse," who would rise from the grave to preach, and has "scarce broken a commandment to mention," yet owning it as his darling wish to be a pirate. Whim and opinion, settled conviction and passing mood, alike find utterance in them; and best of all, perhaps, many of them are most engagingly rich in matter connected with his own pursuit. A selection of these in a handy volume (why must letters always be put up in a form too cumbersome for lovers' convenience, as if they, more than other books, were expected to stand forever upon a shelf?) would go far to supply the place of that treatise on The Art of Literature which their author spoke so frequently of making.

Here would be found a letter to Mr. Marcel Schwob, a letter one page long, but weighty with the subtlest and pithiest criticism, not of Mr. Schwob's writings alone (that might not seem so very important), but of writing in general, and in particular of Stevenson's. For it is impossible to read it without perceiving that the critic is passing judgment (no unkind one) upon his own early books of sentimental travel. His correspondent has sent him a volume of verses. He has read it through twice, and is reading it again,—a handsome compliment, to start with. It is essentially graceful, he says, but is a thing of promise rather than a thing final in itself. "You have yet to give to us—and I am expecting it with impatience—something of a larger gait; something daylit, not twilit; something with the colors of life, not the flat tints of a temple illumination; something that shall be said with all the clearnesses and the trivialities of speech, not sung like a semi-articlate lullaby. It will not please yourself as well, but it will please others better. It will be more of a whole, more worldly, more nourished, more commonplace—and not so pretty, perhaps not even so beautiful. No man knows better than I that, as we go on in life, we must part from prettiness and the graces. We but attain qualities to lose them; life is a series of farewells, even in art; even our proficiencies are deciduous and evanescent. So here with these exquisite pieces, ... you will perhaps never excel them... . Well, you will do something else, and of that I am in expectation."

Happy poet! to be caressed so affectionately and lanced so beneficently with one stroke of the master's hand; and happy critic, no less! having sentences of this quality to drop without a second thought, like small change from the hand of wealth, into the oblivion of private correspondence.

In truth, Stevenson could afford to be generous; he had always good things enough and to spare. His was a mind incessantly active. He was always covering paper. If only disease would leave him strength enough to hold the pen, he could be trusted to keep it going. Ideas thronged upon him; books by the dozen, one may almost say, stood waiting for him to make them. The more wonder that, with all this excess of fertility, he could yet rewrite and rewrite, and then write again, still on the search for perfection. Surely the artist was strong in him.

His fame was of slow growth, surprising as the fact seems now, till he wrote novels. These, as all the world knows, since all the world reads them, are nothing like the ordinary modern novel of carpet knights and pairs of happy or unhappy lovers. They are romances in the heroic vein, spun mostly of a single thread, with no lack of high lights, plenty of blood-letting, a good spice of humor, dialogue that is closely pared and talks of itself, character displayed in action, not dissected, and movement to delight the lover of a story.

The lode was struck, almost by accident, when Stevenson's schoolboy step son, backed by another "schoolboy in disguise"—namely, Stevenson's father,—begged him to "write something interesting." The response to this eminently reasonable request was Treasure Island, which not only filled the schoolboys' bill, but captivated so stout-hearted a disbeliever in things romantic as Mr. Henry James. As it was this story that introduced its author to a wider public, he used to speak of it (possibly with a shade of irony, though that does not certainly appear) as his first book.

It may be that the gift of romance was the highest of his endowments. Some, at least, have thought so, and have reckoned the novels as not only the most popular, but the greatest of his works. As to the choice among them, the question of their comparative excellence among themselves, that is a matter not under discussion here, the writer of the present paper having no sort of (competency for dealing with it. His own special delight is in David Balfour (the two parts) and Treasure Island. These he hopes to read—now and then a chapter, if no more—as long as he reads anything. He likes the men,—and the women—and he likes the talk. Mr. James's comment uponTreasure Island, that one seems to be reading it over a schoolboys shoulder, strikes him as extremely ingenious and pretty, but he is conscious of nothing of that nature himself. He reads it, if he may be allowed to say so, on his own hook, and for the time being is himself the schoolboy,—which may or may not be the better fun. He likes the story and the pictures,—for every chapter is a picture,—and he likes the writing.

Concerning this last point, so often discussed discussed, what shall be said? As Stevenson's nature was complex and his themes varied so he wrote in many keys. His prose was never "far from variation and quick change." When he put pen to any work—essay, travel sketch, tragedy or comedy—the first thing was to strike "the essential note." He would not begin a funeral march in A major, nor a sailor's hornpipe in C minor; a requiem for the friend of his youth was one thing, and a description of his fellow passengers in the steerage was another: and, strange to tell, here and there a wise critic, wise above what is written, has discovered in this change of key proof of a want of originality. "Behold," he cries, "the man has no style of his own; to-day he writes in one manner, and to-morrow in another." The same sharp-eyed reviewers are certain to be troubled because Stevenson talks freely of style, openly professing to have cultivated one,—to have cared not only for what he said, but almost or quite as much for the way in which he said it. "How can a man be concerned with the niceties of expression, and yet be true to himself?" they seem ready to ask. A question to which, it must be admitted, there is no answer, or none worth the offering to any who need to ask for it.

To be greatly occupied with matters of form is doubtless to subject one's self to peril. Careful writing may easily become mannered (as careless writing also may, and with less excuse); but what then? Danger is the common lot. An author, not less than other men, must face it, whether he will or no. He may choose between one set of pitfalls and another, but he will find no path without them. As for the risk of mannerism, Stevenson escaped it substantially unharmed. Compared with some of the more famous of his style-loving contemporaries, he may be said to have come off without a scratch. Whether his style is better or worse than theirs (and touching a point so delicate an unprofessional critic may prudently reserve his opinion) is a different matter; at least, it is less tagged with peculiarity. It was formed, as style should be, by the study of many models, not of one; and it has many virtues, including in good measure one of the highest, rarest, and most elusive, the quality of pleasurableness, or charm,—a quality not to be acquired by labor nor to be exactly defined; a something added to a thing already complete, like the bloom on the grape or the perfume of the rose.

If the style has failings, also; if one feels now and then, in the more closely wrought of the essays especially, a certain excess of precision, a seeming hardness of outline, a lack, shall we say, of flexibility; if, after a time, one experiences a sensation as of walking in too continuously strong a light, with the sun, as it were, standing still at high noon; if one misses those momentary glimpses of invisible truth, those hints and adumbrations of things beyond the writer's and the reader's ken (a feeling as if twilight were coming on, and shadows were falling across the page), those touches of distance and mystery which make the peculiar attractiveness of another order of writing; if this, and perhaps more than this (an occasional want of absolute success in the use of the file; a failure, that is to say, to leave the phrase looking only the more unstudied for the labor bestowed upon it),—if things like these are felt at times by the sensitive reader, what does it all signify but that, in the perception and expression of truth as in the making of moral character, one excellence of necessity excludes or dwarfs another, and perfection is still to seek? As the French martyr said ("a dread confession," Stevenson called it, in one of his moods). "Prose is never done."

The estimate which the author himself placed upon his style (though this is a point of little consequence) seems not to have been exalted. He had his gift, he knew, and had done his best to improve it; but other men had greater ones. He was an enthusiastic reader, and while still fresh from the enjoyment of A Window in Thrums he wrote to Mr. Barrie: "There are two of us now [two Scotchmen] that the Shirra might have patted on the head. And please do not think, when I seem thus to bracket myself with you, that I am wholly blinded with vanity. Jess is beyond my frontier line; I could not touch her skirt; I have no such glamour of twilight on my pen. I am a capable artist; but it begins to look to me as if you were a man of genius. Take care of yourself for my sake."

A handsome thing for a man to write, and a pleasant thing for his lovers to remember, but, as we say, not to be interpreted too strictly, as if it settled anything. The more considerable a man's gifts, the more likely he is to speak disparagingly of them. To take his own word for it, Stevenson was a poor letterwriter,"essentially and originally incapable." So he assures one of his correspondents; and then, the mood coming on him, he proceeds to fill page after page with the very scintillations of epistolary genius,—compliment, gossip, humor, brilliant description, verbal felicities, sweetness of personal feeling, everything, in short, that goes to the making of a perfect letter. No doubt he smiled at the incongruity of the thing as he folded the sheet (for no doubt he knew he had done well), but what shall we conclude as to the value of an honest author's depreciatory judgment of his own work? If it is not a proverb, it ought to be, that self-dispraise goes little ways.

The welcome of Stevenson to his younger Scotch contemporary was characteristic of the man. In all his letters there is not a glimmer of professional jealousy nor a word of belittling criticism. With all his boyishness,—partly because of it, it might be truer to say,—he had a manly heart. Generosity and courage were matters of course with him, native to the blood. In his novels there is plenty—some would say a superfluity—of battle, murder, and sudden death; Cut and Thrust were two of his favorite heroes; he loved the breath of danger and when, for the first and last time he saw armed men taking the field, the"old aboriginal awoke" in him, and he sniffed the air like a war horse; he could be as stern as the Judgment Day itself against injustice and cruelty; in such a cause he would break a lance, though all the world should call him what he was once overheard to call himself, another Don Quixote; but withal, few men were ever more tender-hearted. At twenty-one, as he told the story more than twenty years afterward, he enjoyed a great day of fishing; the trout so many and so hungry that in his eagerness he forgot to kill them one by one as he took them from the water. In the small hours of the night his conscience smote him; he saw the fishes "still kicking in their agony;" and he never fished again. Whoever was in distress was sure not only of his sympathy, but of his hand and purse. He would walk the streets of a city half the night with a lost child in his arms, invalid though he was; and when he comes to clear the land of his new South Sea domain, he wonders whether any one else ever felt toward Nature just as he does. He pities the vines and grasses that he uproots: "their struggles go to my heart like supplications." Since his death, says his biographer(1) (of whose capacity and taste it seems a shame to speak only in a parenthesis), the native chiefs—" gentle barbarians,"truly—have forbidden the use of firearms on the hillside where he is buried,"that the birds may live there undisturbed."

Stevenson believed in the supremacy of the soul. Many years he lived face to face with death, and to the last his testimony was that he found his life good.

To a critic who thought him too little appreciative of the darker side of things he wrote: "If you have had trials, sickness, the approach of death, the alienation of friends, poverty at the heels, and have not felt your soul turn round upon these things and spurn them under, you must be very differently made from me, and I earnestly believe from the majority of men." Such was his brave confession; and his life, from all we see of it, was in full accordance with his faith. We may say of him what Lowell said of Chaucer: he was "so truly pious that he could be happy in the best world that God chose to make."

Toward the last, it is true, he fell into a state of depression, and for a time was alarmingly unlike his old self. His power of work seemed to be gone, and the "complicated miseries" that surrounded him weighed upon his spirits. Even then, however, he protested his belief in "an ultimate decency of things; ay, and if I woke in hell, should still believe it! "This was his natural religion, which the early loss of his ancestral creed—that damnatory creed with which his childhood was "pestered almost to madness"—had only deepened and irradiated. And the dark and sterile mood was no more than a mood, after all. Soon he was writing again, more successfully than ever. And then, with everything bright before him, his powers working at their easiest and best, his prayer for "courage, gayety, and the quiet mind" fully answered, all at once the end came. The brief candle, that so often had flickered and burned low, was suddenly blown out. He had gone round more islands than his lighthouse-building grandfather, as it amused him once to boast, and now, like his grandfather, he had reached "the end of all his cruising."

"Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill."

1 The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson. By GRAHAM BALFOUR. Near York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1901.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Do You See When You Look in the Mirror?

In a series of candid video interviews, women talk about self-image, self-judgment, and what it means to love their bodies


Elsewhere on the web

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

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In