Robert Louis Stevenson was a ham-handed playwright, a less than minor poet, a fitful journalist, and the author of several awful novels. What might have been his crowning masterpiece was never finished; only a scrap of his most ambitious project was ever published; and he died young, just as his work was sharpening and deepening in startling ways.
Yet Stevenson, born in Scotland in 1850, and killed by a stroke in 1894 as he made a salad for dinner at his house in Samoa, also wrote a timeless classic of young-adult fiction (Treasure Island), two and a half other novels of the first rank (Kidnapped, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the unfinished Weir of Hermiston), a classic children's book of poems (A Child's Garden of Verses), and an exceptional travel book (Travels With a Donkey in the Cévennes). He was additionally a fine essayist, a prescient political reporter, a skilled social anthropologist, a maker of historical fiction in the vein of his countryman Sir Walter Scott, an early practitioner of the modernist novel, a sharp-eyed chronicler of nature and landscape, a biographer, a historian, a prolific and hilarious letter writer, a composer of deft and poignant prayers, and even the author of horror stories. He created a handful of characters who are embedded in the popular imagination and culture: the cunning and complex pirate Long John Silver, the dashing and vain Scottish rebel Alan Breck Stewart, the bipolar Everyman Dr. Jekyll.
Stevenson was twenty-three when his first magazine essay appeared, twenty-eight when his first book was published (An Inland Voyage, his report on a canoe trip in France), thirty-five when Jekyll and Hyde made him world-famous, and only forty-four when he died in the South Seas. Considering the astonishing variety of his literary achievements, we might account him the best writer our language has known—or at least the most comprehensively accomplished. That is a remarkable epitaph for a man who in his mid-twenties was known in his native Edinburgh mostly as a rake, a failed lawyer, and a "horrible atheist," as his shocked and devoutly Presbyterian parents called their only child.