*Stevenson, Robert Louis
Stevenson, Robert Louis
During his 20 years as a writer Robert Louis Stevenson turned his hand to nearly every possible genre: novel, short story, drama, poems for children and adults, history, biography and essays. Fiction and essays form the bulk of his work, and they are almost evenly balanced. Furthermore, Stevenson’s essays and fiction share each other’s conspicuous characteristics. The essays are filled with narrative and with fictive images of military action and adventure; the stories are marked by passages of sententious meditation.
Essays came first, with Stevenson using the form as a selfimposed apprenticeship in which he taught himself to write “as men learn to whittle” (“A College Magazine,” 1887), deliberately modeling his own structure and style on essayists of the past such as Lamb and Hazlitt. Stevenson’s first three collections were travel books, an especially attractive form for the beginning writer, since travel provides a ready-made structure, while leaving many opportunities for digression. These essays are gracefully written and sound much alike, the work of a writer learning how to say things without yet having much to say. Stevenson’s main task in these early essays was to invent his own character, which he presents as a sympathetic, mildly bohemian onlooker who invites but resists involvement in the affairs that he observes.
After these travel books, Stevenson published three collections of mixed essays during the next decade: Virginibus Puerisque (1881), Familiar Studies of Men and Books (1882), and Memories and Portraits (1887). Several essays in Virginibus Puerisque, written while Stevenson was in his twenties, purvey solemn nonsense about marriage and old age. But in others written at the same time, notably “AEs Triplex” (first pub. 1878), he is both graceful and convincing on the need to face life with courage. His own ill health, which had already brought him to the brink of death several times, enabled him to write with real power on a subject that could easily become trite and sentimental.
“Walking Tours” (first pub. 1876) generalizes the themes of the earlier travel books and helped to establish a new cultural role, that of the young man tramping the roads of Europe by himself—but never too far from a friendly inn—meditating as he goes on life and the surrounding scenery. “Walking Tours” is the precursor of the many essays and poems written on this subject by a host of British and American authors from the 1880s to World War I.
The essays in Familiar Studies and Memories and Portraits coincide with Stevenson’s development as a writer of fiction. In addition to the shared characteristics mentioned above, some of these essays also create characters who prefigure types that Stevenson would explore more fully in his stories. The two essays on Robert Burns and François Villon (both in Familiar Studies) are excellent examples. Stevenson castigates Burns as a drunkard and womanizer, but at the same time he sees him as a tragic figure, constantly striving to act responsibly even though he was beaten down by overwhelming flaws. He is like the reluctant wrongdoers of “Markheim” and Kidnapped (1886), perhaps even a bit like Dr. Jekyll. Villon fascinated Stevenson as a charming but utterly ruthless villain. He later published two short stories in which Villon figures as a character, but one can also see in Stevenson’s version of Villon preliminary sketches of Long John Silver and the Master of Ballantrae.
Even more interesting cross-connections between Stevenson as an essayist and as a writer of fiction are to be found in “A Gossip on Romance” (1882) and “A Humble Remonstrance” (1884), both in Memories and Portraits. Most critical writing about Victorian fiction concentrates upon the Jamesian view that fiction is a kind of history, that its important dimension is the temporal, and that its value depends upon the intensity of the author’s impressions of life. Stevenson insists that fiction imitates speech, not life, and that romances differ from novels because they depend upon place and incident. Their important dimension is the spatial. “A Humble Remonstrance” was actually addressed to Henry James himself, but despite this disagreement—or even because of it—the two writers became close personal friends.
Many other essays in these books as well as in Across the Plains (1892.) are almost secular sermons. They express a moral code that might be described as “quixotic stoicism,” emphasizing scrupulous honesty (especially in money matters), endurance of misfortune without complaint, but also grand, heroic gestures in the face of fate.
Stevenson’s essays are written in highly wrought prose marked by a precise, even precious vocabulary and carefully controlled cadences. Sometimes, it must be admitted, he strikes attitudes. It is important to recognize that for Stevenson style—even flamboyant style—was a moral quality. Partly this is a matter of financial probity, insuring that the author gives honest value for money received. But there is also in his writing a firm belief that grand, heroic gestures can be performed in words as well as in deeds.
In 1888 Stevenson began several years of travel in the South Pacific, where he lived for the last six years of his life. In the South Seas (1896), the last of his travel books, was originally a series of newsletters recounting his voyages. In early books Stevenson had often given the impression of provoking whimsical incidents so as to have something to write about. Here there was no need to do so: exotic sights and bizarre events surrounded him. In these essays, however, Stevenson resisted all temptations to florid or precious writing. The style is lean and muscular throughout—the same style Stevenson was developing for his last novels, The Ebb-Tide (1894) and Weir of Hermiston (1896).
Special mention must be made of “Father Damien: An Open Letter to the Reverend Dr. Hyde of Honolulu,” published in 1890. The previous year Stevenson had visited the leper colony founded by Father Damien, a Belgian missionary in Hawaii, and had been greatly moved by the heroism of Damien and his followers. A year later Stevenson chanced to read a letter in a religious newspaper brutally criticizing the late Father Damien.
Immediately he leaped to Damien’s defense in a letter which is a masterpiece of warmhearted but cool-headed invective. For once Stevenson had found a topic that required the highest pitch of his rhetorical skills. Indeed, he later wondered if he had been too harsh, but fortunately he never revised this open letter; it remains one of the most effective diatribes in English literature.
During the 20 years after his death in 1894, Stevenson’s reputation as an essayist was caught up in the vogue for sentimental whimsy that marked British and American literary taste at the turn of the century. In the 1920s and 1930s taste changed; Stevenson suffered from the reaction against sentimentality, and his reputation plunged. However, later generations have reconsidered Stevenson’s writing, and it is now possible to see his essays as the work of a professional craftsman who could rise above his own desire to be charming. At their best, the essays manifest the twin virtues of beautiful prose and a generous heart.
Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson. Born 13 November 1850 in Edinburgh. In bad health throughout his life, particularly with hemorrhaging lungs and possibly tuberculosis.
Studied at the University of Edinburgh, 1867–72; studied law in the office of Skene Edwards and Gordon, Edinburgh: admitted to the Scottish bar, 1875. Lived mainly in France, 1875–79, the United States, 1879–80 and 1887–88, Scotland, 1881–82, various places in Britain, France, and Switzerland, 1882–84, and Bournemouth, 1884–87.
Contributor, Cornhill Magazine, London, 1876–82. Married Fanny Osbourne, 1880: two stepchildren. Sailed to the South Pacific islands, 1888; settled at Vailima, Samoa, 1890.
Died (of a stroke) at Vailima, 3 December 1894.
Essays and Related Prose
An Inland Voyage, 1878; edited by Wilbur L.Cross, with Travels with a Donkey, 1924, and Trevor Royle (with The Silverado Squatters), 1984
Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes, 1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, 1879; edited by Wilbur L. Cross, with An Inland Voyage, 1924, and Trevor Royle (with The Silverado Squatters), 1984
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers, 1881
Familiar Studies of Men and Books, 1882
The Silverado Squatters: Sketches from a Californian Mountain, 1883; edited by Trevor Royle, with An Inland Voyage and Travels with a Donkey, 1984
Memories and Portraits, 1887
Across the Plains, with Other Memories and Essays, edited by Sidney Colvin, 1892
The Amateur Emigrant from the Clyde to Sandy Hook, 1895
In the South Seas, 1896
Essays and Criticism, 1903
Essays of Travel, 1905
Essays in the Art of Writing, 1905
The Pentland Essays (selections), 1913
Selected Essays, edited by H.G.Rawlinson, 1923
Essays, edited by Malcolm Elwin, 1950
The Mind of Robert Louis Stevenson: Selected Essays, Letters, and Prayers edited by Roger Ricklefs, 1963
From Scotland to Silverado; Comprising The Amateur Emigrant, The Silverado Squatters and Four Essays on California, edited by James D.Hart, 1966
The Lantern Bearers and Other Essays, edited by Jeremy Treglown, 1988
The Scottish Stories and Essays, edited by Kenneth Gelder, 1989
Travels ivith a Donkey in the Cévennes, and Selected Travel Writings, edited by Emma Letley, 1992
Other writings: many short stories and novels (including Treasure Island, 1883; The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1886; Kidnappedy 1886), plays, poetry (including A Child’s Garden of Verses, 1885), books on history and travel, and correspondence (collected in Letters, edited by Bradford A.Booth and Ernest Mehew, 1994–[in progress]).
Collected works editions: The Works (Edinburgh Edition), edited by Sidney Colvin, 28 vols., 1894–98; Vailima Edition, edited by Lloyd Osbourne and Fanny van de Grift
Stevenson, 26 vols., 1922–23; Tusitala Edition, 35 vols., 1924; South Seas Edition, 32 vols., 1925.
Bethke, Frederick J., Three Victorian Travel Writers: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism on Mrs. Frances Milton Trollope, Samuel Butler, and Robert Louis Stevenson, Boston: Hall, 1977
McKay, George L., The Stevenson Library: Catalogue of a Collection of Writings by and About Robert Louis Stevenson, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 6 vols., 1951–64
Prideaux, W.F., A Bibliography of the Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, revised by F.V.Livingston, London: Hollings, 1918
Swearingen, Roger G., The Prose Writings of Robert Louis Stevenson: A Guide, London: Macmillan, and Hamden, Connecticut: Archon, 1980
Aldington, Richard, Portrait of a Rebel: The Life and Work of Robert Louis Stevenson, London: Evans, 1957
Balfour, Graham, The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson, London: Methuen, and New York: Scribner, 2 vols., 1901
Bell, Ian, Robert Louis Stevenson: Dreams of Exile, London: Headline, 1993
Calder, Jenni, R.L.S.: A Life Study, London: Hamilton, 1980
Calder, Jenni, editor, The Robert Louis Stevenson Companion, Edinburgh: Harris, 1980
Calder, Jenni, editor, Stevenson and Victorian Scotland, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981
Chesterton, G.K., Robert Louis Stevenson, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1927; New York: Dodd Mead, 1928
Daiches, David, Robert Louis Stevenson, Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, 1947
Eigner, Edwin M., Robert Louis Stevenson and Romantic Tradition, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1966
Furnas, J.C., Voyage to Windward: The Life of Stevenson, New York: Sloane, 1951; London: Faber, 1952
Greene, Graham, “From Feathers to Iron,” in his The Lost Childhood and Other Essays, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1951; New York: Viking, 1952
Hammond, J.R., A Robert Louis Stevenson Cotnpanion: A Guide to the Novels, Essays and Short Stories, London: Macmillan, 1984
McLynn, Frank, Robert Louis Stevenson, London: Hutchinson, 1993
Maixner, Paul, editor, Robert Louis Stevenson: The Critical Heritage, London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981
Noble, Andrew, editor, Robert Louis Stevenson, London: Vision, and Totowa, New Jersey: Barnes and Noble, 1983
Rankin, Nicholas, Dead Man’s Chest: Travels After Robert Louis Stevenson, London: Faber, 1987
Riedel, F.C., “A Classical Rhetorical Analysis of Some Elements of Stevenson’s Essay Style,” Style 3 (1968):182–99
Smith, Janet Adam, editor, Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson: A Record of Friendship and Criticism, London: Hart Davis, 1948; Westport, Connecticut: Hyperion
Swinnerton, Frank, R.L. Stevenson: A Critical Study, London: Secker and Warburg, 1914; New York: Kennerley, 1915
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