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Reintroducing Stevenson

ISSUE:  Spring 1926

The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson.
South Seas Edition. 32 volumes. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. Each volume, 90 cents. The complete set, $28.80.

A generation has passed since Robert Louis Stevenson died in far-away Samoa, a generation that has seen many political and literary changes and more than one revolution. Of the great Victorians of his day only Thomas Hardy remains, the apostle of a mild pessimism which was alien to his younger contemporary. If we should ask why Stevenson is more alive today in men’s affections than Hardy, the answer might well be found in the younger man’s temperamental optimism, though he was something of a sick man most of his short life of forty-four years. His popularitv has never waned, has grown, indeed, while the whirligig of time has been having its revenges on the older man who has also lived apart, through a lifetime, from his fellow-Britishers, not in bodily presence, to be sure, but much in spirit. Stevenson’s sense of kinship and fellowship with his native land was never dulled by intervening oceans; he was always the human Scotsman redeemed by a touch of Gallic gaiety and his freedom from the sombre fatalism of his Calvinistic forbears. Much has been written of his invalidism, his courage, his boyish buoyancy of spirit. Well, he doubtless had all these, but his universal appeal must be attributed rather to his cheerfulness, his sanity, his charm of person and style, his essentially romantic nature, and not least to his skill in preachment. This is a rare and somewhat contradictory combination of qualities which even Charles Lamb less markedly illustrated.

This new and enlarged collection of Stevenson’s works, the South Seas edition in thirty-two handy volumes, is only another evidence, and a most attractive one, of the lively interest in Robert Louis Stevenson the man, his doings, his sayings, his friendly relationships, and his so-called philosophy of life, physical and metaphysical. Here have been included a number of hitherto unpublished poems, a few more letters, prefaces by his wife and above all, the personal reminiscences by Stevenson’s stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, which have appeared during the last few years in Scribner’s Magazine. These introductions to the various volumes constitute a charming chronicle of intimate portraits of Stevenson from the age of twenty-six to his death which, in the mellowing light of memory, his American stepson and literary associate has lovingly drawn thirty years after his companion of more than fifteen years was laid to rest by Samoan chiefs on Vsea Mountain. Whether this new edition of Stevenson shall prove to be a definitive one remains to be seen; one may venture to guess, in the light of recent biographies, reminiscences, and “clarifications”, such as Steuart’s, Miss Masson’s, and Hellman’s, that more Stevensoniana are yet to come; the whole truth has apparently not been revealed. It is safe to say, however, that contemporary readers of Stevenson, whose tribe shows no sign of diminution, will find in these thirty-two little books all that is essential to a thorough enjoyment and an adequate appraisal of this friendly and vital soul who long ago attained to literary canonization. For the relatively few who are mainly interested in biographical clinics the introductory matter may not be entirely satisfying; the best advice to such, although trite, is to evaluate Robert Louis Stevenson through the medium of his own art.

Stevenson’s art is an open book wherein may be read the superiority complexes of his own life. Few authors have been more autobiographical. His essays are largely personalized experiences, conversational illuminations on his own preferences in companionship and manners, at college, in the bohemian circles of Edinburgh and of France, on shipboard, on the American plains, in San Francisco, at health resorts, and in his south-sea island home. The varied stuff of life was what interested him, depicted with humor, wisdom, always with tolerance, usually without cynicism, and often with gentle satire, except when he scented injustice. Then in righteous indignation he flamed with a fire of drastic invectives. He had in him the traits of several nationalities—British, French, American—and his interests ranged from princes to beggars, from saints to pirates, from the pipes of Pan to family prayers, from Villon to John Knox. Recall Henley’s famous sonnet-portraiture of his friend as “buffoon and poet, lover and sensualist”, with an admixture of Antony, Ariel, Hamlet, and the shorter cate-chist. One does not need to read far in the poems and essays of Robert Louis Stevenson to verify this characterization, which is still further confirmed through familiarity with his stories of dual. personality, vagabondage, and the romance of adventure, in which the spirit of playfulness is steadied by ethical ballast and etherealized by a finer idealism.

There may be a “Stevenson myth”, but the humanizing of Saint Louis, who wrote “Aes Triplex” and “Purvis et Umbra” while fighting the dragon of disease, will hardly lessen the devotion of the multitude who judge an author by what he wrote and not by what he did in his gay youth. And this is as it should be. Repressed in his early years by too rigid an application of the stern creed of the Covenanters, this romantic young Scotsman rebelled and trod for a while the primrose path of dalliance until the larger life subdued him and kept him sage and respectable somewhere in the midland zone between Cavalier and Puritan. It is in this region that he lives in the reminiscences of his stepson, who neither deifies nor degrades him. These pictures of him tone in with those which Robert Louis Stevenson unconsciously presents of himself in his own stories. Prefaces can do little more than give the occasion and the setting; the fiction or the sketch or the essay is, at its best, a criticism of life by interpretation; but bits of appreciative comment by an intimate eye-witness furnish the most dependable form of spiritual biography.

In the last analysis is it not Stevenson’s healthy tone combined with an atmosphere of adventure that makes him perennially good reading for so many people, young and old? “He cared nothing for risk or danger and went into it with an appalling unconcern”, says Lloyd Osbourne, in his account of Stevenson at forty-three. “Of all things he hated most were anxious efforts to guard his health”. The invalid threw out of the window, with the reckless impulse of youth, the mattress put between him and the hard boards. No soft coddling for this Scottish exile in Southern seas! Work, or rather a capacity for work, he held, as did Carlyle, to be a large part of genius. “I am not a man of any unusual talent,” he said to his stepson the last year of his life; “I started out with very moderate abilities; my success has been due to my really remarkable industry—to developing what I had in me to the extreme limit… .

What genius i had was for work!” This is no explanation of genius, of course; it was what he had in him that was the genius—a sense for discovery, a zest for adventure, the gift for translating life’s little ironies and even its grotesqueries into humanized and beautiful forms. The “sedulous ape” achieved originality, the “pattern of an idler” toiled terribly. Sensitive to the criticism of his own family, he threw the first “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” into the fire and did it all over; the “lost novel”, objected to by his wife presumably because it dealt with certain indiscretions of his youth, went up in flame and was never rewritten; he revised and rewrote repeatedly, and he longed for praise with the avidity of a child. The man who wrote “A Child’s Garden of Verses” and “Treasure Island” had in him much of “the childlike in the larger mind.”

Stevenson once said that we don’t live for the necessities of life; what we live for are its superfluities. This was his opinion as he reviewed his own career, with what his stepson regards as a premonition of the end. There are many who think that literature is one of the superfluities of life. Stevenson spent all of his for this superfluity, then; but it got for him the necessities, it made him independent, it made him one of a trinity he called Scotland’s “three Robbies”— Robbie Burns, Robbie Ferguson, and Robbie Stevenson— these three, but the greatest of these, if a man’s greatness is to be measured by richness and variety of experience and the artistic transmuting of it, is Robbie Stevenson.


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