Clearly, Robert Louis Stevenson is staging a comeback. For most of the
twentieth century, Stevenson was regarded as, at best, merely an elegant
stylist, a faddishly light-weight master of surfaces. As the centenary
of Stevenson's death approached, however, new critical studies and
biographies began to appear, as well as a new standard edition of his
letters, soon to be followed by a new standard edition of his literary
works. Some of Stevenson's writings which were out of print for decades
have been reissued in inexpensive paperback editions. Genres in which
Stevenson wrote-travel writing, fantastic tales, gothic fiction, and
children's books-are no longer simply dismissed as subliterary. Recently, a
Dickensian reviewing a volume of the Pilgrim edition of Dickens's letters,
noting that she had also been reading the new edition of Stevenson's
correspondence, confessed her preference for the animation and vitality of
Stevenson's letters over the tired, perfunctory jottings of "the

As with all such reappraisals of an author, something has changed in the
tenor of the times and in our aesthetics to prompt this reassessment. Just
as John Donne and Robert Browning were revalued by the modernist poets
because they seemed recognizable precursors, so Stevenson has increasingly
come to be seen as modern or even postmodern by many late-twentieth-century
readers. This is Alan Sandison's thesis in the book under review, and his
argument advances us toward articulating the elements of Stevenson's

Sandison shows that Stevenson's books contain many features that we have
come to see as typically modern. Stevenson focuses on form and technique
rather than on moral and practical lessons. He is a master of moral
ambiguity, in part because of his sense that the world is a treacherous and
duplicitous place. Reflecting these uncertainties, Stevenson employs the
complexity of multiple narratives and multiple narrative voices, and he
sometimes resists narrative closure. He is a "cool" rather than a "hot"
writer-detached, restrained, enigmatic, ironic, occasionally given to
self-parody. He is self-conscious about the fictional nature of his writing
and is not averse to calling attention to that fictionality, to the point
of exploding all semblance of realism, all "dramatic illusion," in his
texts. His precise word choice frequently reveals the abyss beneath a
particular term or phrase, making the link back to "the real world"
difficult or impossible. Stevenson's writing is thus at least partly
consonant with an aesthetic in which there is nothing outside the text;
there is only language, only words.

Invoking many authorities, both literary and critical, Sandison builds
his case for Stevenson's modernist aesthetic. Writings by Joseph Conrad,
Samuel Beckett, and Franz Kafka are compared with Stevenson's; elements
of the theories of M. M. Bakhtin, Roland Barthes,Joseph Frank, Richard
Poirier, Peter Brooks, and others are proleptically figured in Stevenson's
fiction. There are moments, indeed, when Sandison's drive to find modernist
parallels threatens to overwhelm; as one reads yet another two-page precis
of a particular critic's theory of modernism, one is often impatient for
Sandison to return to the Stevenson book supposedly under consideration.
Still, Sandison's erudition is frequently helpful and informative: the
comparisons of Stevenson to Conrad are particularly enlightening; many
of the links to modernist theory are at least thought-provoking if not
entirely persuasive; and, in his occasional glimpses backward at Stevenson's
sources rather than forward into the twentieth-century, Sandison does a
fine job of explaining what Stevenson derived from Walter Scott, George
Meredith, the Arabian Nights, and such operas as Carl Maria von Weber's
Der Freischitz ( 1821).

A particular virtue of Sandison's study is the attention he devotes to
some of Stevenson's early and less popular books-Prince Otto (1885), New
Arabian Nights (1882), and More New Arabian Nights (1885). Surely he is
correct in noting that the "ornate and cryptic" styles (85) of these works,
which alienated readers for so long, seem much less odd in an age accustomed
to reading Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino. A persistent problem with
Sandison's argument, however, is that some features of a modernist
aesthetic-such as unresolved ambivalences, the conflation of genres, the
recurrent undercutting of literary illusion, and a difficulty in settling
on and realizing a conclusion-are also features of unpracticed or flawed
writing. It may be true, as Sandison would have it, that Stevenson's
"extreme unwillingness to subscribe to any one genre or any one style"
(146) even in a single work is a kind of aesthetic statement, but surely
sometimes a cigar is only a cigar, and complexity and a disconcerting
mixture of modes may be tell-tale signs of literary apprenticeship or
simply of an author's confusion. Might the potentially ambiguous allusion
in the book's tide to the appearance of modernism in RLS imply a doubt
about whether Stevenson's modernism is more apparent than real? It seems
not. Though it avoids such hard assessments, Sandison's study at least
invites the reader to evaluate seriously and sympathetically Stevenson's
writing across his entire career by the standards of an aesthetic for which
he is certainly a harbinger.

Sandison also offers an astute account of some of the psychological patterns
in Stevenson's life and work that play into Stevenson's attraction to
modernist ideas. He points to anxieties in the novels connected with
paternity and creation, as well as to the struggles between youths and
father figures, calling attention to Stevenson's recurrent use of the
motifs of the prodigal son and of Jacob wrestling with the mysterious
stranger. He notes the tendency of Stevenson's heroes to avoid direct
confrontation with the father and remain developmentally adolescent, which
is complemented by the tendency of Stevenson's heroines to behave like
mothers as much as lovers toward their young men. Above all, Sandison
stresses Stevenson's struggles with paternal authority, and the
responsibility of "fathers" in the fiction for creating and reinforcing a
modern sense of unease and uncertainty.

Stevenson often sets out in his books, Sandison argues, as if he were
describing a world of clear and stable moral values, but before long the
books challenge this apparent stability and reveal its artificiality,
arbitrariness, and literariness. Stevenson is thus a transitional writer
mediating between an older, straightforward, and coherent worldview and one
which is recognizably anxious and modern. One of Stevenson's characteristic
voices speaks for a paternalistic moral absolutism, but other, more
restless and perhaps more interesting voices contest these moral
certainties and undermine the smooth verbal surfaces of his texts.


Volume: 41
Issue: 2
Pagination: 295-297
ISSN: 00425222
Subject Terms: Nonfiction
Literary criticism
Univerity of Minnesota