LIFE AND WORKS FROM JAMES CAMPBELL'S POINT OF VIEW
One evening in the spring of 1880,
Robert Louis Stevenson dropped into
the bar of the Magnolia Hotel in Calistoga, at the head of the Napa Valley.
There was little more to the town than the springs, the railway station
and the enticement of a fortune to be made from mining gold or silver.
The West was still pretty wild. Inside, someone asked Stevenson if he would
like to speak to Mr. Foss, a stagecoach driver; Stevenson, always alert
to the suggestion of travel, said yes: "Next moment, I had one instrument
at my ear, another at my mouth, and found myself, with nothing in the world
to say, conversing with a man several miles off among desolate hills."
It was "an odd thing," Stevenson
reflected, that here, "on the very skirts
of civilization," he should find himself talking on the telephone for the
first time. Later, he adapted the incident for use in a novel. "May I use
your telephone?" asks Mr. Pinkerton in "The Wrecker" (1892), one of the
earliest occurrences in literature of that polite request.
Stevenson and his wife, Fanny, were
in the middle of their honeymoon, spent
mostly in an abandoned California silver mine. Throughout his life,
Stevenson preferred to circumnavigate civilization, with its increasing
reliance on contraptions, and steer toward the rougher fringes. Wherever we
catch sight of him - tramping in the Highlands of Scotland or shivering in
the Adirondacks or sailing in the South Seas, where he feasted with kings
and cannibals - Stevenson is self-consciously turning his back on the
Victorian idol, progress. In similar spirit, he chose the past more often
than the present as a setting for fiction. His most popular novels -
"Treasure Island," "Kidnapped," "The Master of Ballantrae" - are set in a
semimythical realm, where the fire of adventure catches on every page.
Stevenson loved the sound of clashing swords; he didn't want them getting
tangled up in telephone wires overhead.
Yet, though he might try to avoid
it, Stevenson was destined to be a modern
man. He was born 150 years ago in Edinburgh, into a family of civil
engineers, esteemed for its technological genius. His grandfather, also
Robert, was Britain's greatest builder of lighthouses, and his graceful
towers continue to guide sailors today. Three of Robert Senior's sons
followed him into the profession, including R.L.S.'s father, Thomas, who
made his own mark in the field of optics. Among his various inventions are
louvre-boarded screens for the protection of thermometers (these are still
in use) and the marine dynamometer, which measures the force of waves.
It was expected that Louis would
enter the family business in turn, and
a great wringing of hands greeted his announcement to the contrary. He
told his father that he wanted to be a writer, which Thomas Stevenson
regarded as no profession at all. We can imagine the consternation in the
solid bourgeois drawing room when Stevenson's letters arrived bearing pleas
such as "Take me as I am . . . I must be a bit of a vagabond." This was
written in his final year at Edinburgh University, and a vagabond was
precisely what the graduate set out to be: longhaired, careless about food
though never without tobacco, walking through France or planning an epic
ocean voyage; a far cry from the offices of D. & T. Stevenson, Engineers. He
was forging the template for generations of college-educated hobos to come.
"I travel not to go anywhere, but to go," he wrote in "Travels With a
Donkey" (1879). "I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move."
Compare that with Jack Kerouac, as he climbed into a car with Neal Cassady
threequarters of a century later: "We were leaving confusion and nonsense
behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move."
Stevenson would not be an engineer,
but he left his own lights, in Scotland
and across the world, by which it is possible to trace his unceasing
movement. No other writer, surely; is as much memorialized by the words
"lived here" as he is. There are five houses with R.L.S. associations in
Edinburgh alone, not to mention the little schoolhouse he attended as a
child and the lavish gardens opposite the family home in Heriot Row, where
he played and, the fanciful will have you believe, first acted out the
quest for Treasure Island. I have shadowed Stevenson up to the northeast of
Scotland, where he tried his hand at being an apprentice engineer, back
down to the Hawes Inn at South Queensferry, where David Balfour is tricked
into going to sea in "Kidnapped." It still serves rum and ale. There are
landmarks in Switzerland, on the French Riviera and on the Pacific islands
where the adventure of his final years took place among a peculiar clan of
relatives and natives.
Recently, I stumbled across a place
where Stevenson lived briefly in London:
Abernethy House. Now a private dwelling, it was once a lodging house. It
stands in a secluded corner of Hampstead, where no cars and few pedestrians
pass by, and which seems little changed from Stevenson's day. He stayed
here when he was 23. High up on a hill, and separated from foggy London
by farms and heath, Hampstead was kind to Stevenson's tubercular lungs.
It left a healthy impression on him, let's say; and Abernethy House left
its mark, too, for Stevenson wrote an essay, "Notes on the Movements of
Young Children," about a scene witnessed from his bedroom window. His friend
Sidney Colvin, who was also staying at Abernethy, called the essay "merely
an exercise," but it is among the first pieces in which we hear the mature,
intelligent voice of the writer he would become.
One day, Colvin found Stevenson
entranced by the sight of some girls
skipping rope in the street below. The youngest was particularly appealing:
"The funniest little girl, with a mottled complexion and a big, damaged
nose, and looking for all the world like any dirty, broken-nosed doll in a
nursery lumber-room, came forward to take her turn. While the others swung
the rope for her as gently as it could be done . . . and playfully taunted
her timidity, she passaged backwards and forwards in a pretty flutter of
indecision, putting up her shoulders and laughing."
The description is capped by a typical
note: "Much as I had enjoyed the
grace of the older girls . . . the clumsiness of the child seemed to have
a significance and a sort of beauty of its own." Ethereal traces of R.L.S.
are to be found elsewhere in Hampstead. I cannot pass the old pub, Jack
Straw's Castle, without seeing the dog that Stevenson met there in 1874,
"looking out of a gate so sympathetically that it has put me in good humor."
And it was while standing on Hampstead Hill one night that he gazed down
on London and imagined a technological miracle of the future, "when in
a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, the design of the monstrous city
flashes into vision - a glittering hieroglyph." He is anticipating the
effects of electricity and a time when the streetlamps would be lighted
"not one by one" by the faithful old lamplighter, but all at once, by the
touch of a button. Not for him improvements in optics, and his father's
"azimuthal condensing system"; give him the flickering gas lamp and the
"skirts of civilization" any day.
LAMPS of one sort or another occur
frequently in Stevenson's writing. In
addition to this essay, "A Plea for Gas Lamps," there is another, "The
Lantern Bearers," and his poem for children, "The Lamplighter," which
celebrates an old custom: "For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the
door, / And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more." Then there
is the memoir he wrote in California, while waiting for Fanny to extract
herself from her unhappy first marriage, in which he describes how, when a
child and sick, his nurse would take him to the window, "whence I might look
forth into the blue night starred with street lamps, and see where the gas
still burned behind the windows of other sickrooms." And the lights shine
again, with a subdued glow, in the obituary he wrote of his father in 1887.
Thomas Stevenson's name may not have been widely known, yet "all the time,
his lights were in every part of the world, guiding the mariner."
A year later, Stevenson chartered
the schooner yacht Casco and became a
mariner himself, sailing circuitously through the South Seas for Samoa.
With his mother in tow, as well as his wife and stepchildren, he had, in
a sense, entered the family business at last. By then, a very modern cult
of celebrity had grown up around the author of "Treasure Island" and "Dr.
Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," and Stevenson found it difficult to evade admirers
and the press. After his death in 1894, Fanny recalled how they set out
from Tahiti, where they had been living in contented isolation, and set
their sails for Hawaii. When they reached Honolulu, "the change from our
simple, quiet life to the complications of civilization . . . proved
confusing to a degree almost maddening." There were crowds of visitors at
the door of their cottage, numerous letters to be answered and - there it
goes again - "the almost constant calls to the telephone."
James Campbell is the author of
"Talking at the Gates: A Life of James
Baldwin" and, most recently, "This Is the Beat Generation."
© Copyright James Campbell
Subject Terms: Literary criticism
Personal Names: Stevenson, Robert Louis