Full Circle: Stevenson and His Critics
Authors who have enjoyed enormous popularity in their day are eery likelyto be neglected for some time after their death. Then comes reassessment, which in the exceptional case is accompanied by a revival of interest. This has happened recently in the case of F. Scott Fitzgeral and if J. C. FURNAS is right, an even greater retribution is due to Robert Louis Stevenson. For ten years Mr. Furnas has been following Stevenson’s trail in Oceania, in the Uniled States, and in Scotland, and from his glowing appreciative biography, Voyage to Windward (Sloane), the Atlantic has been privileged to draw two sections.
by J. C. FURNAS
BETTER than most people, writers survive themselves, at least in the Library of Congress. Better than most writers, Robert Louis Stevenson survived himself in both reputation and people’s memories of his person. The final form of this survival is yet to be determined.
Within a few days of his death, Quiller-Couch was writing: “Put away books and paper and pen. . . . Stevenson is dead, and now there is nobody left to write for.” Within a few months half the minor versifiers in the English-speaking world had elegies in print: Richard Le Gallienne hailed the dead man as “Vergil of prose!”, Bruce Porter as “Our pilot into light!” Within thirty years every living human being whose cat had patronized the same veterinarian as Bogue had published dilute memories of Robert Louis Stevenson. E. F. Benson’s inaccurate and venomous study of Stevenson in 1924 was right on one point: the man did suffer “the indignity of being pilloried in stained glass.”
Overpraise elicits atlack and relative neglect. Then — sometimes — comes rediscovery with — sometimes — solider reason to readmit the writer to the canon. In our time this has happened in some degree to Melville, Henry James, Trollope. Utter giants see less of these vicissitudes: Balzac, Tolstoy, Thackeray suffer fluctuations but do not shatter and reshape. It is the “little masters” who vibrate in and out of the light for generations before settling down to presumptive title to so many lines or pages in any given History of Literature: for Teachers and Students.
Rescuing Stevenson will take doing. Trauma has been severe and, in these matters, the cards must lie right to begin with. Says Edwin Muir, with regrettable accuracy: “Stevenson has simply fallen out of the procession. He is still read by the vulgar, but he has joined that band of writers on whom, by tacit consent, the serious critics have nothing to say.’
Degeneration visibly began when Gosse wrote Louis that not since Byron went to Greece had a literary adventure so seized the public as his settling in Samoa where, the newspapers understood, he had become some sort of king of savages. An ill-omened comparison: of all sizable writers, Byron leaned most on personal gesture to foster literary renown. A bilious critic could say that softer but equally specious traits made Stevenson the Byron of children and compilers of reading lists.
Before his death Stevenson had already been exposed to the hazards of having his essays set as school examples. It was rather like giving a novice machinist a chronometer to reproduce. Nor were results much better when more docile spirits were moved to imitate the Stevenson of the earlier essays and travels.
Academic anthologists were significantly prone to give their readers the dulcet experiment of An Inland Voyage instead of the sturdier skill of Silverado. Such sins of tunnel-vision ended in exhibiting Stevenson as incarnating gay wholesomeness, as wholesomeness was then understood. And, though his alleged optimism kept him considered pertinent to human life for long after his death, he was gradually being forced into a descent inlo the nursery, a place even more sinister than the pulpit. Belittlingly, dilutingly, and sweetishly the pleasant letters from “the lean man’ to “the children in the cellar’ helped the emphasis swoon over to “Of speckled eggs the birdie sings,”illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith or Charles Robinson — the perpetrator of those puffed and tallowy urchins wearing rumpled bedsheets and carrying large initial capitals. But wrath is pointless. Morse things have happened to even greater works: consider the usual child’s abridgment of Gulliver.
Treasure Island also did sad damage. Ah, pirates, my dears, ah, the Spanish Main, ah, pieces of eight and shiver my timbers! The cultivated aunt wishing her small nephew normally but hygienically pirate-minded furnished him with Jim Hawkins’s story. Few items of warranted literary standing can compete so well with dime novels or comic books. So Treasure Island appeared on children’s shelves long before they could savor it — it was written, after all, for the early teens, not the kindergarten — and was left off high-school reading lists (replaced by The Black Arrow, since a Stevenson was indicated) because it was a “child’s book.” Here are remarkable anomalies: Woolly animals and Silver panting aloud as he knifes the honest hand. The patter of little feet and Israel Hands trailing across the deck with the great wound in his thigh and the blood-sticky dirk in his yellow teeth. Pattycake and the stiff-as-a-crucifix deadness of O’Brien lying “across the knees of the man who had killed him, and the quick fishes steering to and fro over both.” The movies usually completed the sabotage by casting Jim as a child of nine or ten instead of as a boy in his teens conceivably capable of snatching up a cutlass in the melee at the blockhouse.
MOVIES have even more to answer for in sabotage of the third Stevenson item still high in public awareness — though perhaps not one in ten who have seen a movie version of Jekyll knows who wrote it, any more than he could name the authors of Dracula or Frankenstein. Resistance as well as ignorance may enter here. A bumble-minded lady to whom “Robert Louis Stevenson” connotes only decalcomania pirates and “Up into the cherrytree” may have difficulty grasping the astounding fact that the same author provided occasion for the apelike horrors perpetrated by John Barrymore, Fredric March, Spencer Tracy, et al., in scenarios smoky with sex in the interpolated orgy scenes.
For all its merits and the money that its success brought directly and indirectly, Jekyll probably did Louis more harm than good. It boomed him on the basis of sensational effects and combined with the creeping renown of Treasure Island to identify him with literary genres of low prestige. Grave observers prone to mistrust popularity and virtuosity found this hard to overlook. Stevenson was hardly cold in his grave when the first peevish exceptions to his literary apotheosis were entered.
The pity of it was that the indicated correction was too often in the hands of people distortingly eager and ill-natured about it.
It had begun mildly in 1888 with young Barrie’s suspicion that Stevenson leaned too much on the great work he is to write by and by when the little works are finished. . . . He experiments too long; he is still a boy wondering what he is going to be. . . . It is quite time the great work was begun.
Louis retaliated by heaping the cheeky young fellow with praise of A Window in Thrums.
Next year the tone was harsher when Steuart — the same who later endowed Louis with a ravishing mistress who never existed — sneered elaborately at Stevenson largely on the grounds that Alan Brack was reminiscent of Rob Roy and that Louis disliked Tom Jones. But the heavy shelling did not begin until 1897, when, using his review of Yeats’s The Secret Rose as occasion for attacking Stevenson, George Moore set one of the major motifs of this reaction opposite in direction and rather more than equal in force. In the teeth of John Silver and Jekyll, for instance, Moore charged that Stevenson “imagined no human soul, and he invented no story that anyone will remember”; in the teeth of the Odyssey: “Great literature cannot be composed from narratives of perilous adventures.” But the gist of Moore’s criticism is overstatement of the contention that even Stevenson’s best is mere “literary marquetry”; this renowned “style,” Moore averred, was only a trick of first couching a platitude in the customary words, then deliberately replacing the key word with a racier substitute — not exactly accusing Stevenson of thumbing a thesaurus but seeing the net effect as if that method had been used. Technically, of course, this is nonsense, but no doubt Moore was pleased thus to dispose of the man who wrote: “The sky itself was of a ruddy, powerful, nameless, changing colour, dark and glossy like a serpent’s back.”
In the States the following year John Jay Chapman supplied the extreme case of using Louis’s theory of writer-training as a club to beat him with. Because he had recommended playing “sedulous ape” to writers of quality, this strident voice accused him of being merely “the most extraordinary mimic that has ever appeared in literature.” It attributed his relative failure with In the South Seas to his having lacked “an original to copy from.”
The falsity of this Ape-Chapman approach is impossible to demonstrate, for it is immediately perceived or never. Knowing both Stevenson and most of his models well, I am convinced that, by his late twenties, he was as near idiosyncrasy as Sterne before him or Kipling after him. In all common sense, whom does Treasure Island or “Pulvis et Umbra” read like? For proof by example, try Frank Swinnerton’s well-known study of Stevenson, which, though patronizing about his style, falls again and again into writing identifiable yards away as watered-down Stevenson and nothing else.
In the second wave the charge of sedulous apery was raised to that of empty stylism. Leading from another citation of Stevenson against himself, Benson summed up in 1925: —
. . . tells himself (and it is probably quite true) that few ever went so far as he who had less natural talent for writing.... A style he certainly did achieve, which, at its best, was admirably lucid and picturesque, but it was always a foreign language to him and he never wielded it with ease . . . a forced style, not natural, and he forged it into less an instrument than a fetter.
Quotations put in evidence are from the youthful journeyman-work of An Inland Vayage and Travels with a Donkey, which is sharp practice. No word of the above could conceivably apply to almost any bit in the hurricane chapter of the Footnote: —
For the seventh war-ship, the flay had come too late; the Fhcr had finished her last cruise; she was to be seen no more save by the eyes of divers. A coral reef is not only an instrument of destruction, but a place of sepulture; the submarine cliff is profoundly undercut, and presents the mouth of a huge autre, in which the bodies of men and the hulls of ships are alike hurled down and buried. The Eberr had dragged anchors with the rest; her injured screw disabled her from steaming vigorously up; and a little before day, she had struck the front end of the coral, come off, struck again, and gone flown stern foremost, oversetting as she went, into the gaping hollow of the reef. Of her whole complement of nearly eighty, four souls were cast alive on the beach; and the bodies of the remainder were, by the voluminous outpourings of the flooded streams, scoured at last from the harbour, and strewed naked on the seaboard of the island.
In any idiom or any century, that is writing.
SOON after Benson, C. E. M. Joad was even using Stevenson as deplorable example for “. . . How to Write Badly,” quoting Samuel Butler against him and, for contrast, commending Shaw’s dictum: “Effectiveness of assertion is the beginning and the end of style.” This currently popular and practically tonic — attitude toward style was summed up better by the Duchess than by Joad, Butler, and Shaw together: “Take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves.” The doctrine was pertinent to the audience that Joad addressed — the readers of a labor newspaper. But more experienced students of such matters might have advised Joad to read William James’s On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings for the effect of the contrast belween James’s excellent lean style (of which, I assume, the Duchess would approve) and the full flavor of Stevenson in the long passages from “The Lantern-Bearers’” here used to illustrate James’s psychological point.
In fact, the founder of pragmatism here publicly hopes that this essay of Stevenson’s will be immortal, “both for the truth of its matter and the excellence of its form,” which is notable from a man who managed both to write well and to think hard. In winnowing literature for further illustration, he harnesses Stevenson with Josiah Royce, Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, and Tolstoy — fast company for a mere phrase-juggler.
It all leads to unilluminating debate over whether Louis’s acute awareness of technical issues, strongest in his youth but always lively, damns him as a literary fiddler. Thomas Beer had no doubls; he used Louis as stalking-horse for ridiculing American fascination with the fin de sièele: —
His intellect was not legitimately rebellious at all. . . . So the high place was not for him; but hi.s levity impressed timid, bookish folk as red rashness, and for fourteen years a moving syrup of appreciation supported the gay invalid on its sweetness. . . . His prose chimes gently on, delicately echoing a hundred classic musics, gently dwindles from the recollection as do all imitations, and is now impressive only to people who think that a good prose is written to be read aloud.
In view of the facts about Louis’s illness and mental attitudes, it is enough to call this obscene and point out that the larger issue concerned hardly needs discussion. Obviously “style” cannot be dissected away from content, except in the sense that expert acting can he abstracted from the roles it employs — after all, John Barrymore’s and Laurence Olivier’s Hamlets were not exactly alike. In parallel, highly expert writing often carries a quality that, though not indispensable to literary stature — consider Dreiser — can heighten susceptible readers’ pleasure aside from content as such. The critic addicted to the ascetic, Joadish approach to writing — which often comes of too prolonged early exposure to spurious “fine writing” — should dedicate himself to the useful if limited function of improving the quality of prose in The Journal of Hydrogenetics. He will never understand that this quality of ‟style” may be conspicuous, consciously sought for because the writer consciously values if, without ending in the mawkishness of bad Poe or the petrifaction of Samuel Johnson — both fatal to “effectiveness.” ‘Thomas Henry Huxley wrote very well indeed; bul that is neither the only nor the most rewarding way to write well. Here is self-conscious, highly mannered, young Stevenson, describing the invalidexile on the Riviera: —
He is like an enthusiast leading about with him a stolid, indifferent tourist. There is someone by who is out of sympathy with the scene, and is not moved up to the measure of the occasion; and that someone is himself. The world is disenchanted for him. He seems to himself to touch things with muffled hands, and to see them through a veil, His life becomes a palsied fumbling after notes that are silent when he has found and struck them. He cannot recognize that this phlegmatic and unimpressionable body with which he now goes burthened, is the same that he knew heretofore so quick and delicate and alive.
“Effective” enough, almost clinical in accuracy of observation; but you could never write like that by letting the sounds take care of themselves.
The number of thwarted beginnings that Louis left is often taken as evidence of his weakness in the building of fiction. With greater staying power, it is said, he would either never have begun or else finished The Young Chevalier and Heathercat and The Great North Road. Kidnapped stopped coolly in the middle after a sharp structural break between the kidnap-the-heir plot-line and the flee-from-thelaw plot-line. Ballantrae has that mishandled, overmechanized climax. Those who feared that Weir of Hemiston might not have held up to its first third had genuine cause for uneasiness. The contrast between these and the high coherence of Louis’s better shorter narratives leads even generous critics to attribute to him a limit in narrative stamina like the range of a gun — his wind gave out too soon, forcing him to cobble things up out of tone. To get the most good out of Stevenson one must learn — a thing sometimes necessary with Dostoevski and Thomas Mann too —to forgive him his faults of fundamental structure for the sake of the long, highly integrated stretches in which he does so dangerously well.
Frank Swinnerton’s critical study of Stevenson, first published in 1914, tried to be fair, but its author’s fundamental mistrust of his subject wrested it into a sort of epitome of all that can be said to disparage the man. Stevenson couldn’t depict woman — he admitted it himself: nevet mind the two Kirsties. He could handle only picturesquely eccentric character: never mind Wiltshire and Prestongrange. He founded no school of fertile disciples, so he could have been no genius. He founded a school of disciples that fatally cheapened the romantic novel. . . . As large and small stones heap up, it IS plain that Chapman’s was the only tenable position: At best this was an able trickster whose tricks amused people for a while, then palled. That classes him where he belongs, with O. Henry and Jerome K. Jerome.
Since personality was part of Stevenson’s renown, the attack naturally moved info that sector. After Henley’s eruption in 1901, the only iconoclastic notes came from inconspicuous people who had failed to feel Louis’s charm, such as Trudeau and Cusack-Smith. The saintly consumptive among his loving brown vassals, the friend of lit-tul children, kept on growing heavenward in shapely smoke like the genie from the bottle and, as the genie must have, losing substance as he grew. The “debunkers” of the 1920s, working from fragmentary new material, strained themselves and probability by trying to make Louis sound like a character out of the Spoon River Anthology. Clayton Hamilton, who really did know a good deal about Stevenson, unscrupulously backed up Stenart’s vicious findings, speaking as expert: “erects a new image of R.L.S., fully rounded with all his faults and virtues properly proportioned.” Several voices of protest were raised against “Mr. Steuurt’s gloating amplification . . . with foolish and fantastic conjectures and inferences of his own pages long uttered in a kind of fatuous dance of jubilation.” But the net effect favored this egregious biographer, who allowed Louis only personal courage, otherwise insisting that such apparently blameless behavior as distinguishing correctly between “shall” and “will,” giving a beggar sixpence, or admiring Hazlitt all signified inner emptiness.
The culmination was contributed by E. F. Benson, the personal phase of whose study of Stevenson in 1925 is a rare piece of cultivated billingsgate that even I, who am naturally indignant at every other sentence, can read with pleasure in its skill with whips of scorpions.
There is some effort toward fairness: “Stevenson was most emphatically not a humbug” Henley was aiming not at Stevenson but at “those who were turning him into Mary’s lamb” (palpably wrong to anybody with Benson’s ear for overtones); those who never knew personally the charm that blinded Louis’s friends must assume “some quality in him far more divine and august than mere mental charm . . . a love of beauty as intense as any that the highest genius of the race have known, combined with a passionate desire to communicate it.” This is either nonsense or sarcasm, but it clears the ground for Henson to settle down contentedly to the feet of clay.
Thus, Louis was callously indifferent to others. His dress “cannot quite escape association with the type which we are accustomed to call ‛bounder.’” When writing home that he might be deported from Samoa, he was lying for self-glorification. He highly relished his old-man-of-the-tribe role among cringing women and crawling natives at Vailima, “a very forcing-house for egoism.” His depiction of Huish, the unspeakable cockney of Ebb-Tide, was so successful because of “consonant first-hand knowledge of spiritual experience.”
That is about like attributing to Thackeray spiritual consonance with Barry Lyndon on the same grounds. But rebuttal of Benson is hardly necessary. What can have moved the Archbishop of Canterbury’s son to such bitter slander of a man he had never known? Again the responsibility probably lies on the posthumous glorification that Louis’s less well-advised friends insisted on. Benson’s keynote quotes Gosse in what must be the silliest thing ever said of one adult by another: “I ought to remember [Stevenson’s] faults, but I protest I can remember none.” Such drivel did endow the hapless subject with the “hieratic and beatified smirk” that Benson resented, and its natural effect was to fill too many people with malicious joy when Heilman and Steuart assured the world of letters that it had been an implausible fraud all along. That is the way antithesis sabotages reputations. Reading Stevenson was soon aesthetic slumming and the “Seraph in chocolate” gave place to a pretentious and clandestinely lecherous poseur who happened to possess some personal bravery. Every year the ripples from the immediately posthumous reputation have decreased in height. Only recently have such thoughtful studies as those of Miss Janet Adam Smith and David Daiches given hope that interest may revive in terms appropriate to adult readers.
TRUE, the modern reader has handicaps to overcome if he falls on Stevenson beyond Treasure Island and Jekyll: for instance, the dominance of individualistic moral issues in his work. Readers born after 1900 are well broken to “problem” plays and novels — the phrase is archaic, the thing livelier than ever — which essentially imply condition-contrary-to-fact. Overtly or subtly they insist that revision of social or economic convention would reduce the maladjustments described. But these same people have had inadequate experience with looking at a universe in which what one feels hinges on what one does, not on what is done or has been done to one. Both universes are tenable, both are proper material for fiction. And a valid taste for quality would seek values common to both and disregard variations of fashion, as it can disregard immense differences of idiom in deriving the same shiver of recognition from Falslaff’s death, A Tale of a Tub, and Hucklberry Finn.
For another difficulty out of the same barrel, Stevenson was, in a rare sense, a writer. That was the quality that kept him so close to Henry James. In our day the writer has become equivalent of the shaman — the esoteric, ecstatic scapegoat, supernormal bridge to mysteries over readers’ heads, a function sometimes combined with that of the amateur psychiatrist inventing fictitious and overconsistent case-histories for purging the passively unstable. The product must meet a need, else it would not be in such demand, and the better reviews of current novels would not sound so much like adepts discussing the mystical experiences of diverse cults. No doubt it should be the dominant function of writing to do for readers what finger painting does for unstable children or shock therapy for the schizoid. But it is significant that the current writer’s work, of whatever cryptic depth of mythos, would seldom lose much by being reasonably well translated into any European language; whereas, though Stevenson has been widely translated, it can never conceivably have been adequately done.
Lack of experience with the essay bars many modern readers from much good Stevenson outside his fiction. Mourning the demise of this literary form is as pointless as deploring the disappearance of bootjacks. But, again, it is culturally inconvenient that the fields of comment in which Bacon, Montaigne, and Hazlitt were so sure-footed and flavorsome are in so many cases no longer fair game for amateurs. Thus Louis’s “The Character of Dogs” practically ceased to be publishable after Pavlov’s early work. The content of “A Chapter on Dreams” has been taken over by the psychiatrist; of “Beggars” by the social service worker; of “Virginibus Puerisque” by, God save the word, the marriage-counselor. The result has certainly been better quality of data and theories. But we have paid for that in widespread inability to savor the “effectiveness of assertion” of our literary elders in some of its better aspects.
In this bald effort to persuade readers to sandwich some Stevenson among explorations of other and newer writings, to claim him more than comfortable standing-room on Parnassus would be misrepresentation. He loved great poetry — Virgil, Milton, Marvell — like a mistress, and that very passion kept him from great affection for his own. He would have been first to agree that his literary validity would suffer little if he had never published a line of verse.
But it was very high indeed in other aspects and — the thought is always frustrating — still rising when he died. Edwin Muir, a critic of distinctly modern approaches, was tragically right in concluding from the fragmentary Weir of Hermiston that, had he lived, Louis “would have been the first Scottish novelist in the full humanistic tradition.” This live and ripening validity of his lay in fascinated industry that warmed words into coming alive in his hands; in devotion so intense that writer and words grew indistinguishable; in intelligent, organic ambition not for himself but for his beloved medium. It all culminated — glowing, eccentric, and whalebone-strong — in the parson’s glimpse of Janet trampling the clothes; Pew tapping on the frozen road; Utterson and Poole listening at the laboratory door; the Doric brothers’ quarrel; Hermiston hearing of his wife’s death. ... If literary fashion, as arbitrary as the cut of next year’s evening gowns, keeps people from reading such things for their own delight, the more fools they.