The Real Stevenson
THERE is no real Stevenson, if we are to take the word of a recent essayist. In a capricious but singularly suggestive criticism of the Scottish writer he remarks : “ He is the Improvisatore, and nothing more. It is impossible to assign him rank in any line of writing. If you shut your eyes to try and place him, you find that you cannot do it. The effect he produces while we are reading him vanishes as we lay down the book, and we can recall nothing but a succession of flavors. It is not to be expected that posterity will take much interest in him, for his point and meaning are impressional. He is ephemeral, a shadow, a reflection. He is the mistletoe of English literature, whose roots are not in the soil, but in the tree.”
The admirers of Stevenson are inclined to wince at this passage, and yet it is easy to understand the critic’s point of view. He has reached it through dwelling too exclusively upon Stevenson’s extraordinary talent for literary mimicry, — a talent which was equaled only by his faith in the value of imitative writing to the young author. The wellknown paragraph in A College Magazine, describing how he “ played the sedulous ape ” to various men of letters, closes with the dictum : " That, like it or not, is the way to learn to write; whether I have profited or not, that is the way.” Stevenson’s self-confidence is nowhere more infectious than in these lines. Yet they betray a peculiarly narrow view of the function of literature, and have done much to warrant the unfortunate impression as to his own unreality. The “art of literature”—to use one of his favorite expressions — is not so wholly mimetic, surely, as the art of acting ; and even the actor learns as much from “ imitating nature,” as Sir Joshua Reynolds would have termed it, as from imitating other actors. Like all artists, the actor learns by both methods, one correcting the other. The case of the writer is precisely similar. The value of literary mimicry in forming the hand of the young author is sometimes indubitable, — witness the early work of Thackeray, — but it may easily be overindulged. There is little question that Stevenson “ played the sedulous ape ” too long. He kept dipping into other people’s inkstands long after he had a shining one of his own.
Hence the fact that, with all the lucidity, the delicacy, the piquancy of expression which delight everybody worth delighting, his twenty-two charming volumes are haunted by echoes. The very versatility with which he turned from one type of literature to another has served to emphasize the imitative, experimental character of much of his work. He was essayist, critic, biographer, dramatist, moralist, adventurer, fabulist, poet, romancer, — in love with “ the art of words and the appearances of life.” Believing that the inconstant public deserved its money’s worth in pleasure, he played “ tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragicalcomical-historical-pastoral,” and many another genre that would have tickled the fancy of Polonius. And all in all, how admirably he did it, this clever performer who tried so hard to please; now and then flashing into genius and creating a rôle, achieving on the whole, as the years went by, a more simple and noble and genuine method, until finally, in that first, and, alas, only act of Weir of Hermiston, he was master of the boards at last!
The value of the Letters which Mr. Colvin has so skillfully selected and arranged for us1 lies primarily in their power to set one face to face with the real Stevenson. They summon, as it were, the strange bright histrionic figure from before the footlights, and allow us to chat with him in the greenroom. He flings himself into a chair in front of us, and lights a cigarette. He is an odd creature, with his lean painted face and wonderful restless eyes ! But was there ever a more captivating frankness, a more sincere modesty ? How fascinated he is with his art, its theory and practice ; how fine his admiration for those elder and better players who achieved so easily and unconsciously the effects he would give his life to compass ! It may be that you are unlucky enough not to like the part for which he happens to be cast to-night. He may not like it, either. But then, “a moment of style ” may always come; he has not yet earned his “ honorable discharge ; ” and now he has shaken hands with you, and is back upon the stage again, versatile, spirited player that he is ; and this time your heart goes with him, were he the sorriest ventriloquist in the world. Back of the endless disguises which his actor nature as well as his theory of art has compelled him to assume, what genuine and unforgettable human quality !
However the literary critics may differ upon the interesting if somewhat academic problem of Stevenson’s artistic originality, there is no question as to the unique personality of the man. His intimate friends have borne constant testimony to his irresistible charm, and readers of the Vailima Letters and the later essays can readily believe it. Yet the two stout volumes now given to the world by Mr. Colvin are significant if not essential additions to that image of Stevenson which is traced upon the minds of many of his contemporaries. “ The illusive and questionable personality of Stevenson ” — to quote again from Mr. Chapman’s essay — is perhaps a justifiable phrase, if one is merely trying to peer behind the romances for the man who wrote them ; but the author of these Letters, surely, is as veracious a figure as Dr. Johnson.
Mr. Colvin’s excellent introduction, and his editorial comments which preface the twelve chronological sections of the Letters, enable the reader to follow without confusion the rapid shiftings of scene and circumstance with which Stevenson’s invalid existence was sadly familiar. Though he confessed himself a somewhat irregular, irresponsible letterwriter, he had many correspondents throughout most periods of his life. From his student years at Edinburgh to the last day of his Samoan exile there are many keys in which he composes, but the instrument — if one may say so — is invariably the same. The kindness, the sweet nature, the gay invincible courage, are always there. It is curious to note in some of his earliest letters the union of passionate moral earnestness with romantic, almost morbid sentiment, — as if Gladstone and Laurence Sterne were walking arm in arm within the heart of the young Scotchman. He outgrew the boyish morbidness easily enough, but to the end of his days the preacher and the pirate in him struggled for the mastery of his imagination, and the preacher had the “ under-hold.” The sermonizing letters, like his sermonizing essays, show him at his best; and though he often mounted a singular pulpit, he liked to choose his texts from St. Paul.
It is in this ethical impression given by the Letters that their chief present significance lies. They tempt the reader, indeed, at every turn, to open old favorites among our letter-writers, to see if Lowell was really wittier, Keats more poignant, Byron more unconventionally at ease, Fitz Gerald fuller of delicious humor, or Gray a more discriminating yet enraptured lover of that art of literature for which, like Stevenson, he half apologizes. Comparisons like these will be made and remade by many generations of book-lovers. The Letters of Stevenson will ultimately take their place as literature, and there are sound reasons for thinking that that place will be a high one. But it is instructive to notice that the judgment passed upon these volumes within the first few months after their appearance has concerned itself mainly with the man Robert Louis Stevenson, rather than with his adventures and endeavors on the wide stage of literature.
“ R. L. S.” was; that is what one finds one’s self saying. He was no bright ghost. He made a great and memorable fight for the things dear to us all, happiness and usefulness and honor. Like his own ideal parson, he blew the trumpet for good. Instead of faith pitifully smaller than a grain of mustard seed, he had “ faith as big as a cigar case.” He had “ no Timon to give forth.” “ Sick and well, I have had a splendid life of it.” It is for words like these that the Letters will be read by Stevenson’s contemporaries. The undefeated optimism, the communicative courage of the man, will move thousands of readers who find his actual literary output a trifle disappointing. No writer of his day, it is true, afforded more exquisite pleasure to the people whom he would have liked best to please. No one gave to his fellow craftsmen a more constant and potent example of the religion of good workmanship. Nevertheless, time has already placed an interrogation point over many of his pages. Their delicate artificiality betrays now the device ; their fragile beauty “ smells of mortality.” The mere admirable fooling of his earlier volumes begins to leave us unmoved to mirth. The storms have struck hard against many of the toy boats that he set adrift; and some of the great ships that he launched with such a touching combination of boyish ardor and manly effort have never sailed back with any cargo. In one of his last letters he wrote : “ I think of the Renaissance fellows and their all-round human sufficiency, and compare it with the ineffable smallness of the field in which we labor and do so little. I think David Balfour a nice little book and very artistic, and just the thing to occupy the leisure of a busy man ; but for the top flower of a man’s life it seems to me inadequate. Small is the word ; it is a small age, and I am of it. . . . We take all these pains, and we don’t do as well as Michael Angelo or Leonardo, or even Fielding, who was an active magistrate, or Richardson, who was a busy bookseller. J’ai honte pour nous ; my ears burn.”
There is doubtless a humorous selfdepreciation here, as well as some evidence — how rare in him ! — of a lowering vitality. Yet it may be that he is right. Out of all the sumptuous volumes of this delightful writer, the twentiethcentury reader may select only a dozen essays, a half dozen short stories, and two or three longer ones. (This will be very stupid in the twentieth - century reader, but why should stupidity die with us ?) It is as impossible to forecast Stevenson’s literary fate as it is to predict what he might have accomplished, had not death claimed him at the very moment when his work was most rich with the promise of new power. But whatever happens, it has already become his gracious fortune to be loved. However well or ill he may have succeeded in his difficult profession, at least he did his best. “ I did my damnedst, anyway,” he says of the toil that it cost him to write Pulvis et Umbra. The essay was composed during that iron winter that Stevenson passed in the Adirondacks. Its fame is already assured, if noble thought and finished style can confer assurance. Since Cardinal Newman wrote that passage in Part VII. of the Apologia, beginning, “To consider the world in its length and breadth,” no one has painted with a more grave and terrible beauty the mortal struggle of man. But the excellence of Pulvis et Umbra is not here in question ; one can think only, as he reads the Letters, of the indomitable spirit in the frail body, of the man who “ did his damnedst, anyway.” And there is a paradox which would have delighted Stevenson himself in the fact that this martyr of style, a very nympholept of art, is loved to-day by countless persons who do not know or care whether there be such a thing as art, but who know that Robert Louis Stevenson was a gallant man and a good one.
- The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. Selected and edited by SIDNEY COLVIN. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1899.↩