From Scotland to Silverado
Robert Louis Stevenson and the Fiction of Adventure
When Robert Louis Stevenson died in Samoa at the age of forty-four, in 1894, Henry James wrote, “He lighted up one whole side of the globe, and was in himself a whole province of one’s imagination. We are smaller fry and meaner people without him.” The mutual regard of these two writers, which involved genuine literary admiration as well as personal friendship, may be surprising to the modern reader, who thinks of James as the great luminary of the “serious” novel, while Stevenson is remembered, if at all, simply as a writer of superior children’s books. And yet James was by no means alone in his veneration for Stevenson; there were many similar expressions of desolation at the news of his death, and a widespread opinion that a major literary talent had been prematurely extinguished. In the last few years there has been a slow but noticeable growth of interest in the “minor” writers of the late nineteenth century, and it would be surprising if Stevenson, once so much admired, had not been selected for a fresh assessment. He is fortunate in having found so perceptive a critic as Mr. Kiely to unfold his essential qualities, and to make a case for the mature Stevenson as a serious novelist.
One element in Stevenson’s appeal was, undoubtedly, the irresistibly charming personality that filters through all his earlier writings, and particularly the essays and travel books. It constantly manifests itself in From Scotland to Silverado, a newly edited collection of three of Stevenson’s travel books, The Amateur Emigrant, Across the Plains, and The Silverado Squatters (which restores a substantial amount of material suppressed in earlier editions), together with some previously uncollected essays. The book describes Stevenson’s trip from Glasgow to New York in 1879, which he made in an emigrant ship, followed by a train journey across the United States to California. In Monterey he was reunited with Fanny Osbourne, with whom he had fallen in love in Europe, and they were married in May 1880. The last section is about the rugged but happy summer they spent living at the site of a deserted silver mine in northern California. Stevenson’s charm is always present, ingratiating and at times a little too insistently self-regarding: Mr. Kiely rightly compares Stevenson’s literary persona to a precocious and highly intelligent schoolboy, very much aware of the impression he is creating. Nevertheless, the touch of the born novelist is unmistakable in his account of the voyage. Conditions were exceedingly squalid, but the emigrants kept their spirits up and Stevenson was a fascinated recorder of the odds and ends of drama and human eccentricity that life at sea manifested. He is equally vivid about the transcontinental rail journey, which was still very much an adventure in those days and nearly as uncomfortable as the voyage across the Atlantic.
YET, ENJOYABLE though his travel writings are, it is, ultimately, the novelist in Stevenson who most engages our interest—above all, the …