Sunday, November 8, 2020

Thus I Lived with Words: Robert Louis Stevenson and the Writer's Craft.

One of the questions I've been concerned with for a while now is just what is the nature of a lasting artistic reputation.  I think it's telling that the question is not one that a great majority would ever think to ask.  One of the hard facts of a bookworm's life is that when you sign on for such a gig, you've more or less joined a very small and informal fraternity.  There has never been a time, so far as I can tell, when a reading audience was ever able to make up a sizable, or influential majority of the world's population.  My own response to this slow growing realization has been complex.  On the one hand, there's nothing to wonder about in the strictest sense.  History shows a world in which the vast majority of its peoples have never bothered to pick up a book, much less take in a movie.  The whole thing is a continuous and recurring pattern that doesn't look to change anytime soon.  As far as anyone can tell, that has always been the norm.  On the other hand, if that's the norm, then I guess I can't help but find the whole thing disconcerting.  It just seems wrong to me that entire world cultures would neglect the various aesthetic artifacts that make up the best and brightest of their respective intellectual histories.  It all kind of makes me wonder how come certain authors are able to maintain their popular reputations over such a long span of time.  Robert Louis Stevenson is a good case in point.

He's one of those names on the tip of the tongue.  He's famous for something, and it's possible to just barely recall what that is.  His heyday was during the Victorian Era.  If any lingering historical memory of that period exists at all, then it's most likely to found in old, battered copies of Dickens and Jane Austen.  They seem to be the ones who have cemented the popular image of that decade the in the minds of audiences.  To be fair, part of the reason for that is because they really were just that good at capturing the atmosphere of their times and giving them the proper dramatic spin that would fashion it all into an indelible image.  When we hear someone described as a Scrooge, we have this near-instant idea of the kind of personality we are dealing with.  If someone encounters a quarreling couple who can't bare to leave each other, then so long as its not that serious, we might remember the main characters from Pride and Prejudice.  It's rare for even the most talented artists to leave that kind of a lasting impact.  That's what makes the survival of Stevenson so remarkable.  His legacy can be found in sentiments regarding the fate of fifteen men on a dead man's chest.  If you can complete at least the words that describe the second half of that old sea-chantey, then you may be familiar with Stevenson's works, even if the author himself remains a complete mystery.

That's a shame, because the man in question helped form a vital link in a chain of creative talents.  Together they more or less created a minor, yet notable renaissance in both English and American letters during the 19th century.  They were never anything like a formal group.  Each writer who can be listed as a contributor to this collective effort occupied a place in which their major efforts were done in the privacy of their own, individual studies.  Yet they also shared and critiqued their efforts among one another as peers.  If it is possible to give an academic label to this group, then perhaps the title that fits it all best is to describe them as the Victorian Romantics.  The phrase may have a certain apt ring to it.  There's a nicety about it that perhaps makes it easy to remember.  However, I'm convinced there's nothing facetious about it.  I really am willing to contend that all the best known children's authors of the Victorian Era were and remain the closest thing to a series of literary inheritors of an artistic tradition that in many ways helped to form and set the parameters of their differing, yet interrelated literary endeavors.  

It's the goal of this article to show that the work of Robert Louise Stevenson fits in well with this same tradition.  In order to do that, a close look at the writer's life and craftsmanship and will be a bit more than necessary.  So far as I can tell, there's never really been any other way of finding out what makes a good work of writing tick.  In Stevenson's case, the  task is not impossible, though it's a lot more laborious than it has to be.  The trouble with examining the art of Stevenson isn't that his life plays no part in it.  It's just that for the longest time I've had to struggle against a major obstacle when it comes to getting at all the relevant facts.  There's shared tendency among all of his biographers to become so fascinated with the life of the author.  This has happened time and again in all the major biographies that are still available.  The tendency is so widespread, in fact, that it can be traced all the way back to the slew of critical work that emerged in the wake of the death of the author.  To be fair, there is at least a certain kind of excuse to be offered here.  One of the marvels of Stevenson's life was his determination to live it to its fullest.  In his case, this meant embarking on a life that really did seem to match the old epic romances that populated his favorite storybooks as a young boy.  

As soon as Stevenson was old enough, he embarked on a series of excursions to lands old and (for him, at least) new.  It took him from the charm of Old Europe, the new blank canvas of the American West, and somehow it all ended up on the Samoan Coast.  It really was quite a life, and I think the key about it is that so few of us will ever be able to dare even half of what Stevenson accomplished.  This leaves the writer as something of a freak of nature.  He has found a way to make his own daily existence so remarkable that it's left all the various academics and enthusiasts in a kind of intellectual stupor.  There's just no way most people can pull that kind of thing off today.  As a result, it seems all too easy for them to get lost in the grandeur of the life at the expense of the art.  I can't recall many RLS biographies where the writer ever stopped much to ask how Stevenson's adventures on the high seas might have impacted a work like Treasure Island.  It's a real shame the way the buck keeps getting passed on like that.  The fault is all the more noticeable when you realize Stevenson is one of those obliging authors who are considerate enough to wear their influences on their sleeve, or else telegraph where and how they get their ideas by simply talking about how his day went.  I think it's time critics began to focus on how the life made up the art, rather than just focusing in on what happened to the author for its own sake.

The good news is I was able to find at least something that gets to the core of Stevenson's art.  I just had to agree to take my sweet time in getting there.  That's where today's book under discussion comes in.  It is just possible Annette R. Federico has done Stevenson scholars a kindness.  Whether it counts as a favor remains to be seen.  She has composed a book on Stevenson that zeroes in on his craft and inspiration as a writer first and proper.  This creates an ideal situation for the critic, because it allows something to talk about other than the contents of what the artist had for breakfast.  The basic purpose of Federico's book is laid out neat enough on the book's back cover.

"Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894) loved more than anything to talk about the craft of writing and the pleasure of reading good books. His dedication to the creative impulse manifests itself in the extraordinary amount of work he produced in virtually every literary genre—fiction, poetry, travel writing, and essays—in a short and peripatetic life. His letters, especially, confess his elation at the richness of words and the companionship of books, often projected against ill health and the shadow of his own mortality.

Stevenson belonged to a newly commercial literary world, an era of mass readership, marketing, and celebrity. He had plenty of practical advice for writers who wanted to enter the profession: study the best authors, aim for simplicity, strike a keynote, work on your style. He also held that a writer should adhere to the truth and utter only what seems sincere to his or her heart and experience of the world. Writers have messages to deliver, whether the work is a tale of Highland adventure, a collection of children’s verse, or an essay on umbrellas. Stevenson believed that an author could do no better than to find the appetite for joy, the secret place of delight that is the hidden nucleus of most people’s lives. His remarks on how to write, on style and method, and on pleasure and moral purpose contain everything in literature and life that he cared most about—adventuring, persisting, finding out who you are, and learning to embrace “the romance of destiny (web)”.

Books like this present something of a challenge.  On the one hand, there are folks out there who just eat this stuff up.  Then there's the other half of the equation.  The simple truth is that most people tend to view works of fiction as mere indulgences, nothing more.  This second group often has a hard time understanding why anyone would want to devote their whole life to the scribblings of a guy like Shakespeare.  It really is a simple question of finding out just who is the right audience for a text like this.  It's a work of literary criticism which studies the words of an old, canonical author.  It devotes an entire book to this topic, and all for the sake of trying to attain a better grasp on the nature of creative writing.  In that sense, the book has a very definite goal.  I'm just wondering how many out there can find any value in it it.  For what it's worth, I'm willing to go far enough out on a limb to say that such a topic does have some kind of applicable value to real life.  The question is whether or not Federico and Stevenson are able to prove that value, and fulfill that book's stated goal?

The Early Years of a Writer's Mind.

The description of this book could lead the unsuspecting viewer to believe that all they will find inside is just a collection of essays by Stevenson on the art and craft of writing.  I'm pretty sure there have been such editions in the past.  However, once the reader opens to the first page and starts to go through the book, they'll find that this is not the case at all.  Instead, Federico has chosen to present a genuine critical text of her own, focusing on the meaning behind Stevenson's observations on literature.  She presents this in an outline of nine main chapters (along with a preface and acknowledgements, notes, sources, etc).  The topics Federico chooses to highlight in her study include ideas such as Style, Teaching, Reading, Romance, and Dream.  The choice of topics for discussion begins to make sense once you understand the kind of author we're dealing with.  Federico helps the reader in this respect by narrowing Stevenson's career and interests down to a simple and compact handful of these interrelated topics.  In this sense, her book really does qualify as a literary, more than a full-length biographical study.  Nevertheless, I think she makes the wise choice of starting out with the beginning years of Stevenson's imagination, when he was just a child growing up in a Scottish nursery setting.

I think it might be important to explore and establish that nursery setting, or context, because it keeps the reader from making the mistake of viewing the author in isolation.  Perhaps it really does have to be kept in mind that Stevenson's first experiences of the world were never so unique as to be unparalleled.  On the contrary, a case can be made that there is a sense in which the writer's childhood conforms to a type or pattern that was pretty much typical of that era.  Granted, the idea of saying that the life of any given child has a pattern to it isn't all that far-fetched.  Most of us, parents in particular, are willing enough to admit that most children go through a lot of experiences that contain a similarity of pattern mixed in with the individual's own unique response to the challenges that real life throws at them.  We like to call them growing pains these days.  There is an element to Stevenson's experience of this pattern that makes his case stand out just a bit more than the others.  A lot of it has to do with the times in which he lived.

What makes the Victorian Era of Letters stand out so much is how the literary climate of that period helped to cultivate a collective sense of the imaginary.  I;ve said that it was an inheritance from the Romantic Period.  What this means in actual practice is that a lot of the imagery and concepts that fired lyrical productions such as The Prelude, The Ancient Mariner, or the entire landscapes of William Blake, found themselves transported by a gradual process from poetry to prose.  It soon became possible, in other words, for Blake's mythic vistas to find a wider audience in the popular reading public when authors like Williams Morris discovered that you could transliterate those settings and images into a different format without losing any of their poetic vitality.  It was literary breakthroughs like this that enabled a kind of brief renaissance in English Letters.  There was a great explosion of productivity from various authors who each contributed to what might now called the classic children's book format.  The key fact to remember, however, is that if none of them had at least a serviceable familiarity with the poetry of the Romantics, none of their accomplishments would have been possible.  

The curious part is the nature of this format's popularity during that brief span of time.  Perhaps a good idea of the nature of this popularity can be suggested by turning to the reputation of one of its most lauded practitioners.  We remember H. Rider Haggard today, if at all, mainly as a kind of pulp novelist.  His works are filled with the sort of tropes that Steven Spielberg would one day plaster on the big screen.  Some of the audience today might be inclined to thank him for it at least, though what's the big deal in that?  Why worry much over some cheap dime novelist?  The answer is that if this is an accurate enough measure of Haggard's reputation today, then the nature of his fame during the author's own life leaves us with little choice except to view it as staggering.  Haggard didn't just enjoy the kind of quiet acclaim that even brand name authors like Stephen King must content themselves with today.  Instead, he was given a level of respect that I'm not sure is possible anymore.  Haggard was able to enjoy not just the accolades of the highest literary critics of the era (all of whom have been forgotten and overlooked), he also earned and maintained the respect of the highest levels of British government.

This in itself is a pattern that could repeat with various other scribbling fantasists of the era.  The most notable being Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, and, perhaps, Jane Austen.  The result of this willingness of Victorian culture to allow the tale of the fantastic into the homes of both Britain, America, and France is what marks the decade out as so unique.  It might be a mistake to call it the most well read of any age in history, though perhaps there is a sense in which it can be classified as the most literate.  With authors like Jules Verne enjoying a literal international reputation, perhaps it does make a bit more sense to label the Victorian Romantic period as a Storybook Culture.  It was an age when popular stories and authors weren't relegated to literary or genre ghettos, and books in general could not be regard as non-essentials like they are now.  It was this type of culture in which Stevenson was born, and which he took to almost at once.

The way it all started for him was in a situation that almost makes him sound like a cliche.  In order to understand Stevenson's introduction to Victorian Romanticism, you really do have to picture the image of a young boy, sat up in bed, listening to his nurse tell bedtime stories while the light from a nearby lamp casts shadows on the wall that can form themselves into anything the child can imagine.  It's the kind of setup that is so old and stereotypical that odds are even you can find more than a dozen variations of this image decorating the front cover of any half-way decent assortment of Grimm's Fairy Tales.  There is something about this image that strikes the viewer as a so damn quaint that it almost seems like a mistake to treat it seriously.  Stevenson didn't have much choice in the matter.  Nor is there any evidence that he was bothered much by questions of believability.  All he had to do was ask his nurse to tell him a story, and as he listened in, the cliche became a somewhat ironic reality.

Stevenson's nurse was a woman named Alison Cunningham, and even the lady herself seems like another instance of a truth behind a fictional image.  There is still such a phrase as Old Wives Tales, denoting a certain type of folklore, and the social and cultural conventions that surround it.  The curious thing about Ms. Cunningham is that she seems to be yet another cliche brought to a curious, vibrant life.  The woman was a veritable fount of stories, most of them based on, around, and derived from ancient Scottish myths.  These were " marvelous fairy-tales and hair-raising stories of giants and goblins and dragons.  He was entranced by them all, though he never could listen to a story quietly.  He must bravely attack the enemy, or kill the dragon, and and gallop spread the news (9, web)".  This then is the best available snapshot of Robert Stevenson's first introduction to the world around him.  They say first impression count for a lot.  If we take this logic as being true, then it means Stevenson's future was determined by the fact that his first impressions were of stories and storytelling.  

I'm willing to admit there's at least a given amount of truth in that kind of speculation, however I also want to go further.  I think it's more true to say that some folks are just born with natural artistic talents.  It's true this talent can often start out as rudimentary and ill-formed, and that a great amount of practice is required before the writer's mind can reach the height of its creative potential.  I think the real difference between a natural artist and the rest of us is that folks like Stevenson find using their imaginations as easy as breathing or blinking their eyes, while it's all everyone else can do just observe them and wonder what makes them so damned peculiar.  I think if Stevenson didn't have that spark of natural talent in him, he wouldn't have bothered his nurse for so many fables.  It just seems to be one of the ways you can tell an artistic type from a lot of others.  If they find out about a work of make-believe, their first natural inclination will be to allow themselves to get drawn to it.  If you ask this sort why they bother with something that doesn't exist, they might look at you puzzled as hell, and wonder you can't see how interesting it all is.

Perhaps Stevenson had a better excuse for his creative interests more than others of his type.  Federico explains this part well.  "As a boy he was afflicted with a series of ailments: scarlet fever, bronchitis, gastritis.  He had horrid nightmare he could recall well into adulthood (3)".  Another of Stevenson's older critics had a rather fitting take on the writer's ailments in relation to his creative work.  English mystery novelist G.K. Chesterton refers to Stevenson's life as a "a zigzag pilgrimage impossible to compress except in a larger biography. But all or most of it is covered by one generalization. This navigation chart was really a hospital chart. Its jagged mountains represented temperatures; or at least climates...He went where he did partly because he was an adventurer and partly because he was an invalid...his picture of himself as a vagabond with blue fingers on the winter road is avowedly an ideal picture; it was exactly that sort of freedom that he could never have. He could only be carried from sight to sight; or even from adventure to adventure. Indeed there is here a curious aptness in the quaint simplicity of his childish rhyme that ran, "My bed is like a little boat." Through all his varied experiences his bed was a boat and his boat was a bed. Panoramas of tropic palm and Californian orange-grove passed over that moving couch like the long nightmare of the nursery walls. But his real courage was not so much turned outwards to the drama of the boat as inwards to the drama of the bed. Nobody knew better than he did that nothing is more terrible than a bed; since it is always waiting to be a deathbed (Robert Louis Stevenson, 13-14)".  In fewer words, Stevenson was a lifelong invalid.

It's still true that his physical limitations didn't stop him from craving adventures or stories.  Even in his early years, the pattern noted above of having, observing, or directing an adventure, real or imagined, from the comforts of the best can be seen and charted even during his pre-teen years.  "Whenever he was sick and had to stay in bed, he would spread his toys over the counterpane and have a jolly time all by himself (ibid, 9)".  He liked to take these tin figurines and assemble them into warring armies.  Or else take just a handful and perhaps make up various quests for them to go on.  In these moments, perhaps the author can be accused of foreseeing this same occupation taken the level today's professional gamers.  The main point, however, is that Stevenson is one of those helpful authors.  If it is possible to discern a kind of pattern in his life, then it's due in large part to the direction he chose to take things.  These choices meant that his early years made up a recurring series of influential encounters with various forms of artistic creativity.  The impact left by these experiences was enough to cement the idea of the arts as the best path for himself.  I think the most important point to emphasize is the idea Stevenson was given of both the nature and function of writing.  All his early encounters left him with a very definite notion of his own role as an artist.  It was a theory of creativity that he was very eager to put into practice.

The Writer's Approach to Craft and Life.

If it is just possible to assert that Stevenson entered the world of English Letters with at least some kind of writer's philosophy under his cap, then even if it's true, perhaps some caveats have to be kept in mind.  The two most important points seem to go as follows.  While Louis was never stingy with advice or thoughts about what made for good writing, there was also an aspect to his thinking on the topic that made him pretty much like everybody else.  In the first place, there always came a point where he knew that it was out of his hands.  Like any good writer worth the title, Stevenson seems to have understood that ultimately the book, or story, is the real boss of the literary venture.  In his case, as with a lot of others, that meant there would always come a time when he would be forced to just stand back and hope his imagination had something entertaining to tell him.  If that were the case, then while he might not always understand where the stories came from, at least he could pass on a good yarn to entertain others.

The second and most important point to note about Stevenson's approach to writing is I think even he would be the first to admit all he was doing was standing on the shoulders of giants.  In other words, he knew his views about writing and creativity couldn't really be called his own.  That's perhaps the central point of Louis's creative output, and it deserves a space all its own.  For the moment, it'll suffice to trace out the most important contours of that system of thought, or at least all the uses he was able to make out of it.  That's where the main function of Federico's study comes into play.  She touches on multiple aspects of Stevenson's artistic handiwork.  However, for the sake of this article, I think the best aspects to focus on are the ones that remain closest to the core of Stevenson's imaginative reflections.  In this case, it means a focus on the concepts of Play, Truth, and Romance.


Federico believes "It's probably  an exaggeration to say that Stevenson lived inside the literary culture of his time...he was too much of a free spirit...(4)".  With all due respect, however, I'm afraid this a point at which the critic takes a minor, if notable misstep.  Far from standing above the thoughts of his time, there is plenty in Stevenson's outlook and style that mark him as one of the prototypical products of the era.  There's is nothing that makes him different from it just because he was very good at his particular job.  Perhaps it is just possible in this passage, and a few similar others like it, to admit that the critic is unwilling to give as complete a picture of Stevenson as the facts require.  The good news is that this doesn't do much damage to the text.  She is still able to maintain enough objectivity to be able to more or less nail down all of her subject's main points.  

For instance, she is perhaps more than dead accurate to observe that many of Stevenson's "letters and essays about writing give the impression of someone in a state of rapturous bondage.  Literature - reading, writing, and talking about books - was always Stevenson's seventh heaven".  At the very least, there is a sense in which that is true.  He seemed to display a natural set of enthusiasms for both life and letters.  He liked to scale a mountain as much as he liked to right about imaginary figures trying to do just the same.  However, Federico's main point that writing was a paradoxical way that Louis had for plugging into the real world is true enough.

"He was always excited when he was seized by an idea for a new story.  Often enough it came to nothing.  But sometimes, miraculously, the scheme for a novel came happily and without a hitch.  Treasure Island had its genesis on a rainy day in Braemar when Stevenson was playing with his stepson, Lloyd, who had taken up drawing.  Stevenson created a beautifully colored map, complete with woodlands, paths, and mountains.  To someone like Stevenson, a map is a "mine of suggestion." With "the unconsciousness of the predestined," he called his map "Treasure Island."  "No child but must remember laying his head in the grass, staring into the infinitesimal forest and seeing it grow populous with (imaginary armies, sic).  Somewhat in this way," Stevenson recorded, "as I paused upon my map of 'Treasure Island,' the future characters of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods; and their...faces and bright weapons peeped out a me from unexpected quarters, as they passed to and fro, fighting and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of flat projection."  The next thing he knew he was writing out a list of chapters, and the tale took off (ibid)".

This is a particular moment that Federico chooses to linger on, and she is able to justify this for several reasons.  In the first place, readers are allowed a glimpse into the creation of what is still regarded as Stevenson's best work.  The point Federico wishes to emphasize, however, is the exact way in which it came about.  It all started when Stevenson forgot about himself as an adult, and started to have fun playing with his son.  It's this element of play that Federico singles out as the most important, and I think she might be on to something.  The main reason for my saying this is because it wasn't too long ago when I was trying to figure out the nature of what any halfway decent story is, or what is its nature and function.  At one point the idea that storytelling itself might be a form of game-play occurred somewhere along the line.  The concept itself might not be all that far-fetched, especially when you factor in the constant occurrences of questions about whether the author is able to "play fair with the character, and/or the plot".  

It can also been seen perhaps in all the times a critic or audience is willing to interrogate the "integrity of the work".  You get barbs like this tossed into the mix countless times, and the fact that they keep happening can be likened to the way people will judge how well a sport is played.  Such basic phenomena might be enough to establish some kind of connecting thread between stories and games.  It would be interesting to find out just how far Stevenson himself might have gone with a concept like this.  Federico, however, is content to remain well within bounds.

She establishes that treating the act of writing as a form of Play was important for her subject.  She focuses in on a basic rule Stevenson liked to apply to his own precarious situation as an artist.  "There is the golden maxim; thus one should strain and then play, strain again and play again.  The strain is for us, it educates; the play is for the reader, and pleases (45)".  "Strain and then play.  There's something Zen about this philosophy.  It describes not only a practice, but a temperament, a deliberate attitude toward one's creative work (ibid)".  It's an insight Federico develops a bit further on, when she notes the psychological alertness that Stevenson was able to bring to his profession.

"If Stevenson wanted art to seem effortless, he also believed the undertaking itself should be diverting.  Let's admit that writing stories is something of a frolic - as he wrote to his father, lives are not at stake here.  Novelists (most of them) are not brain surgeons, or even lighthouse engineers.  So however intensely he is working on his novel, the writer's efforts should be lightened by a sense of his delight in passing the hours in just that way.  To borrow from the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, creative work should be "deliberate but without too much of the deliberateness of trying."  Stevenson insisted that an author should take up his work "with the unreasoning good faith and the unflagging spirit of children at their play."  

"He should become so involved in the pleasure of linking words together or in imagining what his characters would say and do, that it never occurs to him to ask why he is writing his story or if it is worth doing.  Those questions would never "occur to the child as he plays at being a pirate on the dining-room sofa, nor to the hunter as he pursues his quarry," Stevenson wrote.  "And the candour of the one and the ardour of the other should be united in the bosom of the artists."  The immersion of the child, the absorption of the foxhound - these are important psychological stages for creative work, and also forms of mental release, when the imagination has free rein.  A writer who is not in touch with his own instinct for play and his own pleasure in playacting will ultimately fail to charm the reader (46)".

Treating the creation of a work of fiction as a game is an idea I'm willing grant a given amount of legitimacy to.  The one caveat I have to add is for the artist to realize that it's still necessary for the artist to bring a critical aesthetic eye to the endeavor sooner or later.  The good news is that Stevenson appears to have been well aware of this aspect of the craft.  Federico is also alert to the more analytical aspects of the Louis's approach to the material.  Which brings us to the next big topic for discussion.


While Federico's exuberance at Stevenson's idea of art as play might come off as frivolous, it is somewhat gratifying to find she knows enough to moderate this stance.  It's not the same as curbing enthusiasm, so much as going on from there to find out where the enjoyment comes from.  For Stevenson, exploring the origins of the joy that stems from artistic creation seems to have led to conclusions that may or might not be all that surprising.  I guess it depends on how one chooses to look at it.  Here is how Stevenson phrased it.  "The happy star of this trade of writing is that it should combine pleasure and profit to both parties, and be at once agreeable, like fiddling, and useful, like good preaching".  The writer has a high calling.  His work is not only to please, but to improve and instruct.  Stevenson believed all forms of writing implicitly communicate the beliefs and values of their author and that writers can be important moral teachers.  "There is no quite good book," he wrote in his essay on Dumas, "without a good morality (60)".     

It's a very bold-faced claim to make in today's climate.  Or is it?  One of the problem's of the age I'm living in is the constant difficulty of taking its temperature.  It can be frustrating like that.  It also puts the critic in something of a bind.  Whether or not such talk is something that gets frowned down upon, it's for certain the topic of Truth in fiction is something Federico has a certain amount of reluctance in tackling.  This ambivalence is best on display in the way she tries to contextualize her subject.  "Stevenson came of age a generation after the big writers of the High Victorian period, men and women who earnestly believed that the  mission of art and literature was to morally strengthen and ennoble people.  Browning and Tennyson in poetry, Ruskin and Carlyle in prose, and in fiction Thackeray, Eliot, Trollope, the Brontes, and, of course, Dickens - these were towering names for would-be authors in the 1880s.  Stevenson honored and admired them, and they shaped his comprehension of the writer's moral responsibilities.  But he could not accept their authority unquestioningly, and as a writer he had no desire to duplicate their   achievements.  Dickens died in 197- and George Eliot in 1880.  The last two decades felt looser - more exploratory and less rule-bound.  Like many young artists and intellectuals of the fin de sciecle, Stevenson did not want to tread the old road of triple-decker novels (61)".

The whole passage is a curious one.  It gets even curiouser if one has taken the time to acquaint themselves with the other writers Federico mentions in her attempts at a contrast.  For one thing, I'm not sure how accurate she is to lump all them together.  The one element that ties them together is that they shared the same era in common.  Beyond that, however, a lot of the names she mentions branched off in different directions.  For one thing, aside from a few scattered efforts, Tennyson doesn't strike me as a poet to make any big deal of.  I know Browning can have a morbid streak in him, though one of his poems may anticipate certain elements of Modernism in T.S. Eliot, or the like.  The Bronte Sisters stand as early pioneers of what is now known as the tale of the horrific and supernatural.  Does it matter that Stevenson created Jekyll and Hyde, or does that not count as a legit contribution to the same shared genre?  As for Carlyle, there is a bigoted streak in his writings that places him on the outs with me.  He's a bit too fond of Great Men theories for me to ever be comfortable with.  I confess I don't see how Federico can claim him as a moral authority.  The idea is a bit too beyond me.  I'm also not sure how to take what could be mistaken as a slight against the social reforms for improving the lives of the poor that Dickens crusaded for all his life.  As for the decadent movement, I'm pretty sure her subject took issue with that whole scene, just as an attempted literary movement.  Let's just say I'm convinced Stevenson has a lot more in common with guys like Ruskin and Boz more than Federico is ready or willing to acknowledge.  As for the question of truth and morals and values in fiction, here is the best I can offer under the circumstances.

If there is any value to be found in treating the act of artistic creation as a kind of game to be played as best as the artist can, then I guess you can also argue that it helps to make sure you know the rules.  If there is any truth to art as game-play, then the closest I can formulate to any rule is that it helps to make sure everyone plays fair.  What that boils down to is just a handful of precepts.  The first, as already hinted in the last section, is that the artist has to learn to respect the artistic integrity of the work.  The second is that it is the writer, whatever medium they are working in, owes it to both the audience and the artwork to get the story as correct as possible.  The two rules almost form a complete whole in my mind.  The more an artist gets the story right, the better he or she is able to respect the integrity of the work they creating.  I'm willing to admit its more than possible for the creator to try and disrespect the value of the artwork.  It's less a question of if it can happen, and more a question of how far an artist can go wrong in regards to the defacement of the work.  We seem to be confronted with examples of the latter problem everywhere these days.  I just hope its either passing fad, or else a momentary lapse of reason that can be righted in the long run. 

Beyond that it's been pretty clear to me for some time now that it's pretty much impossible for any artist to create a work without given something of themselves away.  This includes the ability to telegraph at least some kind of moral stance through their work.  I also don't think this is something we're able to help all that much, if I'm being honest.  It's to do with a sentiment shared by James Baldwin.  He said "All art is confession".  You can quibble with all kinds of potential details with that statement, however I can't help thinking there's a genuine truth about it.  Every artist winds up communicating their sense of life, or worldview, in one form or another.  If they are willing to respect their art (if not always themselves) then there's not much of a way they can help showing their moral sense, or lack thereof.  It just seems to be a normal, or at least semi-natural turn of the mind.  Like Mt. Everest, or even Thought itself, it's just there.  You can try to eradicate it (history is full of such examples), however so far there is no full proof way of getting rid of ideas.  As long as they stand, both confessions or lies with truth tucked away inside them will have a peculiar habit of cropping up everywhere you turn.  Like or hate it, there's the nature of things.  I can't help thinking Stevenson might have operated under a similar logic  Maybe talk of morals and manners is tiring, however.  Perhaps its best if we just move on the the final event.


"Like a lot of people, when he felt restless or sulky or especially when he was too sick or run down to work, Stevenson looked for something to read that would both relax and stimulate him. "When I suffer in mind, stories are my refuge; I take them like opium; and I consider one who writes them as a sort of doctor of the mind."  Serious art - Shakespeare, George Eliot...won't do the trick.  In these moods he needs "old Dumas, or the Arabian Nights, or the best of Walter Scott; it is stories we want, not the high poetic function which represents the world...We want incident, interest, action: to the devil with your philosophy.  When we are well again and have an easy mind, we shall peruse your important work; but what we want now is a drug.  So I, when I am ready to be beside myself, stick my head into a story-book, as the ostrich with her bush (18)".

This opening statement from Federico's chapter on Romance is perhaps the most typical of the entire book.  It forms a perfect capsule display of the curious mixture of her study's positive and negative traits.  On the latter side, she always tries to make a valid point by shooting herself in the foot.  In this case she does it by taking a direct quote from Stevenson, which is valid, and then proceeds to lump in an author like Shakespeare into it in such a way that I have to worry about whether or not words are being put in a statement that Stevenson never meant to make.  It's true he likes to make a distinction between what might be called obligatory books, and those read for enjoyment.  There is nothing in that quotation, however, that can tell us just where a writer like Shakespeare would fall in it.  It's another moment where the author shows an alarming tendency to jump to a conclusion at the expense of her subject, as well as that of other great names.

On the plus side, when she is able to curb her enthusiasm, Federico is able to display an accurate estimation of Stevenson's meaning.  I think is right to choose the particular quote above as a highlight, or illustration.  We here the writer sing the praises of an author like Alexandre Dumas, or anthologies like The Thousand and One Nights.  What really matters is the term he decides to classify them under.  In Stevenson's mind, such novels or collections are best thought of as "story-books".  It's a designation of no small import.  A case can be made that it's one of those statements where the writer wears his heart on his sleeve.  Perhaps the best proof anyone will accept these days is the fact that its just the kind of book or subject matter that Stevenson liked to write about.  He liked to populate his fiction with figures that always have this caricatured, larger than life quality to them.  Indeed, one of their main ingredients is outlined by him in the quote above.  An RLS book is always filled "incident, interest, and action".  It just seems to have been the way his imagination worked.  Nor do I think there was ever anything improper about it.  The best term that defines this turn of mind is to call it that of the Romantic.

Stevenson "liked to complain  that there was nothing good to read in his cynical and prosaic age; contemporary fiction was either deadly serious or intolerably clever.  "The great lack of art just now is a spice of life and interest; and I prefer galvanism to acquiescence in the grave."  Novels about modern life were "like mahogany and horse-hair furniture, solid, true, serious, and dead as Caesar."  After a sever illness in 1884 when he was stuck in bed for days, Stevenson was desperate for a fix: "But I do desire a book of adventure - a romance - and no man will get or write me one," complained to W.E. Henley.  "I want to hear swords clash.  I want a book to begin in a good way....O my sighings after romance, or even Skeltery, and O! the weary age which will produce me neither (19)".

The writer uses a peculiar turn of phrase in the letter quoted above.  It's a fair enough certainty that no other author has ever bothered with it.  At least I know for a fact that I've yet to find any other artist who treated the word with the kind of severity that the writer of Treasure Island did.  Federico is thankfully aware of this, and she devotes the necessary amount of space to unlocking the full meaning of the word.

"Skeltery was Stevenson's coinage for the old-fashioned, melodramatic staginess of his bygone and beloved Skelt's Juvenile Drama, a toy theater made of paper cutouts, plain and colored, that he purchased from a stationer's shop in the Leith Walk, Edinburgh.  He played with Skelt addictively.  Skelt "stamped himself upon my immaturity" and planted in his soul "the very spirit of my life's enjoyment.  Skelt magnetized his young imagination and colored his world with glamour.  If you accept G.K. Chesterton's theory, Skelt's Juvenile Drama, with its pasteboard figures, castles, inns, and bright, contrasting colors, even had a part in the development of Stevenson's style, such as his attraction to stark, vivid images and his "love of sharp edges and cutting or piercing action."  "It was because he loved to see to see on those lines, and to think in those terms," observed Chesterton, "that all his instinctive images are clear and not cloudy; that he liked a...patch work of colour combined with a zigzag energy of action, as quick as the crooked lightning.  He loved things to stand out; we might say he loved them to stick out; as does the hilt of the sabre or the feather in a cap. 

"Chesterton asserted that if there is one real sentence of autobiography in Stevenson's works, it is from his essay on Skelt's Juvenile Drama, "'A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured'": "What am I what are life, art, letters, the world, but what my Skelt has made them (19)".  For some reason, Federico is prepared to dispute these words.  In doing so, the author has brought up the occasional hassle of whether or not it's a good idea to take the author at his word.  For whatever it's worth, I am unable to find any reason that would make Stevenson want to try and obfuscate his words.  The main reason is because there is so little to be gained from such an admission.  

Acknowledging a love for the elements of a storybook can neither heighten or lessen things for the author in general.  It's just the basic sharing of an enthusiasm, and nothing else.  If an artist has a particular passion that they care about (and this is common enough to be labeled as a shared trait) then unless we are dealing with a warped mind, there remains no discernible motive for him to lie about it.  The best course of action seems to be to take Stevenson at his word.  He really did seem to have that kind of storybook oriented mind.  It's a topic we may have to come back to.

Despite her reservations (which remain curious for being somehow so ill-defined) Federico is still able to let Stevenson's words do the talking.  He describes his own Romantic streak in the following terms.  "Skeltery is one of "those direct clap-trap appeals; of the foot-light glamour, the ready-made, bare-faced transpotine picturesque."  It's an old wayside inn where "gentlemen in three-cocked hats" play at bowls, or "dank gardens that cry aloud for a murder," or certain rocky coasts set apart for shipwreck, and the words "post-chaise," "the great North Road," "ostler," "nag," - words, Stevenson said, that "still sound in my ears like poetry."  Any story that is rich in incident, and largely pictorial, that is morally interesting, deals with human passions, and is driven by imaginative energy has a bit of Skeltery to it.  These are the tales that have been touched by romance, that talismanic word for Stevenson, incorporating style and method, pleasure and moral purpose, everything in literature and in life he cared about most - password into the hidden nucleus of most people's lives (20)".

Conclusion: A Decent Starting Point.

If I had to pick out a favorite moment from Federico's book, then it has to be the passage where she describes the first time the author became a reader.  "I was sent," Stevenson recalled, "into the village on an errand; and, taking a book of fairy tales, went down alone through the fir-wood, reading as I walked.  How often since then has it befallen me to be happy even so; but that was the first time; the shock of that pleasure I have never since forgot, and if my mind serves me to the last, I never shall; for it was then I knew I loved reading (52)".  

For me, I think the first time I realized I was a bookworm was thanks to R.L. Stine, believe it or not.  I'd already learned that books could act as a draw thanks to guys like John Bellairs, and Edgar Poe.  It was one of the random Goosebumps entries that sort of showed me just how serious I was about it.  By that point I was into literature enough to ask my mom to read them aloud to me.  Then one day I found myself alone with that particular Stine book, and everyone else was busy doing other stuff.  At that moment, the idea entered my head that I'd like someone to read the book to me.  No one was available, however.  I was very young at the time, and probably in kindergarten, or near enough to not qualify as totally lettered.  I'd practiced spelling by then, and knew a few words.  Though up till then the idea of reading for myself had never crossed my mind.  I just knew I wanted to know what came next in the story.  So, nervous as hell, I picked up that book, ran my eyes across the words on the page, and they began to make sense.

I'm not quite sure it's possible to get a non-reader to understand what a moment like that can be for some folks.  There's a sequence in an old Francois Truffaut movie where the main character learns how to read in a society where books are outlawed.  Watching that scene for the first time left a surprise lump in my throat.  I think the reason why is because it kind of captured the sense of revelation or discovery to be had on learning that ink and paper can sometimes help to make sense both in and of themselves, and the world.  The book being read by the main character was David Copperfield, now that I think of it.  

The point is it took a lot longer to realize just how rare such an experience is for most of us.  The great majority tend to be able to crack open a text, read the lines, and...nothing.  Or at least nothing happens in their minds that can they can consider to be of any great value.  I've heard such non-experiences described as a form of color-blindness.  Perhaps its one of those sentiments you should learn to bite your tongue on.  What can't be denied is that it's true enough that most people might not very well see much sense in making a big deal over learning how to read.  To which all I can do is tell the truth.  After learning I even knew how to read, I made a further discovery.  I soon realized I could repeat the same process with any of the texts I had in my library.  This further realization was perhaps similar to a light bulb going off.  Either way, the fact is from there on, the process just kept repeating, and while I don't wonder at it as much, I can at least say that's where I had the first inkling that reading is one of the favorite things I prefer to do above all else.

This is a sentiment that Federico has at least some kind of understanding of.  She knows that a "relationship with books can become a central part of who someone is, an instrumental aid in structuring an inner life.  Being a reader was very much a part of Stevenson's self-identity as being a writer...To look back on our reading life is to revisit our own emotional and moral history, or sense of ourselves as it has evolved through the years.  Stevenson's bookshelves were a tangible record of his aspirations and his delights - as well as his disappointments and failures (53)".      

There's a lot more in the book than what I've just discussed.  The entire chapter on Reading, for example, is one that I wish I had more time to review.  That section alone is perhaps worth the entire book in itself.  It's filled with all kinds of background information and advice about an often necessary, yet overlooked skill.  People think reading is just about scanning a given number of lines on a page.  Turn's out it's not that simple.  I think it's not enough to know "This is what happened".  I'm convinced you have go even further and ask why it happened in the first place.  What's it all about, in other words.  Federico reveals that Stevenson can give at least some insights into a lot of these questions.  "(His) advice, at age forty-three, is consistent with his earliest efforts to be a writer when he was in he teens and early twenties.  Writers rub off on one another.  Read and study excellent models.  Guard against shoddy writing habits that can unconsciously creep into your work (50)".  

Another valuable gem goes as follows.  "After a while the question becomes not which books to avoid and which to read, but which to reread.  RLS had his canon: Dumas, Meredith, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Bunyan, Scott, Hazlitt.  The sedulous ape held fast to the belief that rereading and copying good writers was how to get at the marrow of their style and, perhaps equally important, how to earn a clear comprehension of their moral vision (51)".  Just one more quote should, with any luck, help to give a good idea of the value of the whole chapter.  It has to do with her subject's insistence that the good reader is one who is able to build up a proper critical attitude to browsing through the pages of a book. 

 "The critical attitude means a reader doesn't choose a book in order to disappear into his private fantasies or to confirm and bolster his private prejudices - at least, not as a regular thing.  The beauty of novels is that they "disengage us from ourselves, they constrain us to the acquaintance of others; and they show us the web of experience, not as we can see it for ourselves, but with a singular change - that monstrous, consuming ego of our being, for the nonce, struck (57)".  Federico considers this statement to be "perhaps the best, most succinct explanation for the ethical effects of literary reading that anyone has devised.  Stevenson thought that reading intelligently required self-vigilance as well as absorption.  It's a two-way transaction.  With the "genuine reader," he says, the author's words are not swallowed whole but are "weighed and winnowed, and only that which suits will be assimilated."  Active readers, who both exercise their judgement and meet the author halfway, are the best readers - and every author...hopes and prays for this kind of reader.  For then the reader is co-interpreter and co-creator of the book.  But when an authors words "fall into the hands of one who cannot intelligently read," Stevenson maintained, "they come there quite silent and inarticulate, falling upon deaf ears, and his secret is kept as if he hadn't written (57-8)".

It's in that spirit that I'm forced to say while there is a good deal of great material in Federico's book, there may be stretches here and there that aren't always as good as the material quoted here.  There are at least two big failings the writer has got going for her.  The first issue concerns what might be called the Bells and Whistles Department of creative writing.  Federico devotes an entire "Simplicity" chapter to Stevenson's words about style and technique.  In doing so, she takes us from matters of inspiration to engineering.  She tries to make a case that Stevenson's concept of the "Ideal Novel" would have been one whose page count measured out into the medium range quality.  A good example of the kind of book Federico is thinking of might be the 1968 Charles Portis novel, True Grit.  It's original page count clocks out at just 215 leafs, or sheets of paper.  The current contemporary edition manages to eke out an extra 25 pages, including an Afterword by Donna Tart.  I recall reading somewhere that Horror author and graphic novelist Joe Hill once stated that Portis's book represented what all good fiction should be in terms of length; long enough to qualify as a novel, yet short enough to not lose the reader. Federico seems to be trying to make the same argument in her own study.

I can see a number of problems with this idea.  To start with the general picture, such claims beg an ironic question.  Can any work of fiction that trespasses over the line drawn in the sand by Federico and Hill have any artistic merit, or does its very length negate such a possibility?  If we're going by the success and staying power of such works as The Grapes of Wrath, Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, Look Homeward, Angel, or the works of Shakespeare and Dickens, then I'm afraid the answer has to be a definitive yes, it's possible.  The very fact that not just a possibility, but a series of published realities exist, and that fellows like Dickens and Steinbeck still have their reputations intact goes a long way toward asserting the mistake at the heart of any such questions of length.  There seems to be an unspoken debate going on here.  

It's like we've got two camps of readers, the first one liking their fiction neat and compact, while the second may have a inkling for the novel as door-stopper.  If that's the case, then I'm going to have to disappoint both by saying I fall into, and remain firmly entrenched in the middle category.  I represent those types who don't care a fig about the length of a story.  I'll admit I find myself much more preferring the type of works that can act as a stand-alone story, where once the author written the end, that is all there really is to say.  I've grown weary of the big multi-part stuff unless you can either prove a very good reason for going that route other than marketing potential, or unless we are talking about, say, a work of detective fiction, featuring a serial main character who has to solve every case.  However, with that out of the way, none of this makes me in any way concerned with a novel's length.  It can have just sixteen chapters, or go on for 90 more.  All I can ever be bothered to care about are just three questions.  Is the story any good?  If so, then why is it good.  If not, then why does it fail?  These are the only important questions to ask when it comes to reading as far as I'm concerned.  All else it noise.

The second problem is a bit more fundamental.  It's the way Federico treats Stevenson at certain junctures of her study, or how she sees him, or else doesn't, or prefers not to know him as much as she either could or should.  There are times when I can't help thinking she misidentifies him at points in her work.  One example has already been given, where she takes what is little more than the author's notable technique for paring down words (which is just an element of style, more than anything else) and then proceeds to try to turn one molehill into a shaky sort of aesthetic mountain.  The bigger issue, however, can be seen in those moments where it looks like she either can't or won't bring herself to go as far as Stevenson did with his own career.  The best example of this failing on the critic's part was already cited way above, back when Federico tried to see if it was possible to disengage Stevenson from the age in which he lived, moved, and had his life.  She wants to separate him authors like Dickens or John Ruskin.  She does this in a chapter in which she is simultaneously trying to mount a defense of his penchant for Romantic writing.  The irony is by taking Ruskin and Dickens out of the equation, she is undermining her very premise, and cutting off the very branch it's perched on.

This goes back to what I said earlier about Stevenson belonging to a Storybook Culture.  Like Dr. Seuss's Horton the Elephant, I meant what I said, and said what I meant.  A careful and well-researched enough glance will show it's obvious that when you talk about books like Kidnapped, or Jekyll and Hyde, that we've entered a precinct that belongs to a very specific pantheon.  I've called it Victorian Romanticism, and the proof that Stevenson belongs to this milieu can be seen in the authors he wound up choosing as both models and inspirations.  Alexandre Dumas was the man responsible for giving us The Three Musketeers and the swashbuckling adventure yarn.  Dickens, meanwhile, has too many entries in the genre to count.  It isn't going to far to say that he was, in many ways, an early pioneer of the Victorian Fairy Tale.  His novels are neat and precise examples of how to give the figures of the Skelt Theater the proper modern dress and modes of expression that allows them to come alive for a modern audience.  Stevenson read, admired, and did his best to emulate both men, as well as others.

These are established facts.  They are also elements of her subject that Federico seems shy about.  It's an open contradiction that lies at the very heart of her book.  She keeps trying to find ways of walking him back from his own public devotions.  I haven't got a clue why she would think any of it was necessary.  It's just here and there, cropping up at odd moments on the page.  The result is a book with a somewhat skewed quality.  This is probably down to the fact that its being written by more less two differing authors.  On the one hand, Federico has to allow Stevenson to have his say, he's the subject of her thesis, after all, and if you don't put down at least a solid enough idea of the man down on the page, then the whole entire book would be a bust.  So, she lets him talk, and to her credit, gives him all the space he needs to make himself plain.  Then, however, she insists on adding clarifications that don't seem to add much to the conversation, and in some places almost help to derail what Stevenson was getting at it.  The whole thing reads like a quiet, quarreling dialogue between a couple who are too fond of each other to part ways.  Can't say that's what I was expecting when I first picked the text up.

I have just one reply to all of Federico's attempts to remake the author into some vague, undefinable image (which, come to think of it, may be at least part of the point; a lack of definition can sometimes act as a kind of tonic for some).  The reply isn't mine, by the way, it was written way back in the 1950s by Roger Lancelyn Green.  In a biography of A.E.W. Mason, Green gave a description of a certain time and place.  "Those were the days when the great battle between...realism and...romance' was at its height - when the reading public took its literature seriously, and the monthly magazines filled the place which the wireless has since usurped.  The outcry over Rider Haggard had not long died down but he was still one of the best sellers of the day; Kipling had risen to take his place in the forefront of the more universally popular literature, and there was no sign, despite the protests of the 'other persuasion', that a time was drawing any nearer

"When the Rudyards cease from Kipling
"And the Haggards Ride no more

"True, the novels of Henry James were received with a respect befitting that lofty paragon of the prolix; Meredith was the grand old man of letters; Shaw and Archer, unamused by Anstey's parodies in Punch, were shouting up Ibsen; and it was quite the thing among the younger sets to disagree with Andrew Lang's strictures on the novels of Thomas Hardy.  But still the more popular books were being written by the story-tellers - by Conan-Doyle and Quiller-Couch, by Stanley Weyman and Anthony Hope, while S.R. Crockett, leaving J.M. Barrie and Ian Maclaren in undisputed possession of the kailyard, was producing three or four stories a year wherein the dashing sentiment of love's youngest dream, spread sparingly over a few bare bones of Scottish history, held the market which in a later day vends the wares of Edgar Wallace and the creator of Tarzan.  All these authors sat at varying altitudes upon the Parnassus which enthroned Robert Louis Stevenson - Quiller-Couch indeed, master of the outward style if hardly of the inward light, was shortly to complete the unfinished St Ives, after Conan-Doyle had declined the honor - and that summit was a goal worthy of the greatest writer's ambition, whatever might be happening in the valleys (56)".

The very fact that Green singles out Stevenson as "the Parnassus" to which a lot of the later Romantic writers of that period aspired to be tells you pretty much all there is to know about the literary context to which Stevenson belonged.  Federico's peculiar inability to acknowledge this remains perhaps the most glaring oversight in her text.  All of it points to this not being a perfect book about the thought of Robert Louis Stevenson.  The curious thing is that while I can't call it perfect, I also can't find my way to labeling it a complete and total failure.  For all its faults, Federico does at least manage to allow Stevenson to share his own ideas with us.  While she makes a misstep here and there, none of turns it out to ever be quite enough to dwarf and sink her subject.  Stevenson always remains as the guiding light of her book, and perhaps the best news for her is that the critic remains too much of a fan to eclipse the artist.

It's with all these caveats in mind that I'm forced to admit that, yes, you really should see if you can find a copy online somewhere.  The ironic truth remains that this is the closest modern book I've been able to find which realizes that the real importance of Stevenson lies in tackling just two issues.  The first is the composition and thematic nature of his actual literary output, and the second is his thoughts on the art of the craft itself.  I didn't get as much of the latter as I might have liked out of it, and that whole subject still remains a great untapped vein in the field of critical studies.  However, in devoting an entire volume to Stevenson's thoughts about the creation of stories, Annette Federico can be said to perhaps be the first step in the right direction I've been able to turn up.  That's got to be an accomplishment of some kind.  As for Robert Louis Stevenson himself, both as a writer and human being, he remains one of the most criminally under-explored writers out there.  That's a serious kind of shame, if I'm being honest.  It means he's never gotten as much of the respect that he probably deserves.  There are ways to remedy that, of course.  The readers in the audience just has to be willing to make it happen.

I think maybe it was Chesterton, one of Stevenson's earlier biographers, who summed it up best.  "It may be that the world will forget Stevenson, a century or so after it has forgotten all the present distinguished detractors of Stevenson. It may be quite the other way, as the poet said; it may be the world will remember Stevenson; will remember him with a start, so to speak, when everybody else has forgotten that there ever was any story in a novel. The dissolution hinted at by Sir Edmund Gosse, whereby fiction which was always a rather vague form shall become utterly formless, may have by that time dropped out of the novel all its original notion of a narrative. 

"Mr. H. G. Wells, if he lives to delight the world so long, will be able to deliver the goods in the form of great masses of admirable analyses of economics and social conditions, without the embarrassment of having to remember at every two hundred pages or so that he has somewhere left a hero in a motor-car or a heroine in a lodging-house...But the trouble about such fiction will be that it is very much of a novelty, but not much of a novel. The passion for making patterns of loops and spirals, like a chart of currents at sea, has so far dissolved the outline of individuality that we lose all sense of what a man is, let alone what a man wants. Nameless universal forces streaming through the subconsciousness, run very truly like that dark and sacred river that wound its way through caverns measureless to man. 

"When this process of shapelessness is complete, it is always possible that men may come upon a shape with something of a sharp surprise; like a geologist finding in featureless rocks the fossil of some wild creature, looking as if petrified in the last wild leap or on the wing. Or it is as if an antiquary, passing through halls and temples of some iconoclastic city, covered with dizzy patterns of merely mathematical beauty, were to come upon the heaving limb or lifted shoulder of some broken statue of the Greeks. In that condition it may be that the novel will again be novel. And in that condition, in that reaction, certainly no novel will serve its purpose so forcibly, or make its point so plainly, as a novel by Stevenson. The story, the first of childish and the oldest of human pleasures, will nowhere reveal its structure and its end so swiftly and simply as in the tales of Tusitala. The world's great age will in that degree begin anew; the childhood of the earth be rediscovered; for the story-teller will once more have spread his carpet in the dust; and it will really be a magic carpet (171-2)".  


  1. (1) It's remarkable that he packed all he did in such a short timespan. Not remarkable for its era, perhaps, but remarkable to think about now, at any rate.

    (2) I really don't know RLS all that well, so this was a fascinating read. I intend to read all these works.

    (3) "What makes the Victorian Era of Letters stand out so much is how the literary climate of that period helped to cultivate a collective sense of the imaginary" Very true.

    (4) I liked reading the genesis of Treasure Island, here. Very interesting not just for the work itself but for the writing eye, cracking open, so to speak.

    (5) Beautiful screencaps, throughout. Thank you!

    1. Technically, I guess, if he were alive today, then maybe, perhaps, Stevenson would have fit the profile of a lot of the kind of amateur YouTube globetrotter types you see on place like the Discovery Channel. Just a very dumb guess.

      (2) In that case, I've done my part.

      (3) Another interesting aspect is just how strangely self-contained it all is, looking back.

      There have been comparable times, like from the 60 to 70s, where guys like Tolkien, Richard Matheson, or King sort of brought all those images up to date, yet it's sort of an open question in my mind over whether it's ever been quite as powerful or, I guess iconic is the right word I'm looking for.

      (4) Yeah, that's one of those truly amazing things where something at the back of the mind just gets triggered in a way that sets everything in motion.

      What I'm sort of curious about is how many other examples of that are out there? In other words, how many artists have found their imaginations sparked by doing tasks that seem unconnected to their creative output, which then almost turns around and presents them with the necessary inspiration. It would be interesting to see if it's a repeating pattern, and what it means in terms of general creativity

      For instance, it could be possible that the only reason Tolkien wrote "The Hobbit" was because the act of grading student papers lulled his mind into that kind dulled state where the imagination can take over and send those kind of artistic flares up every now and again.