Over the Dark River

Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage

by Richard Holmes
Pantheon, 260 pp., $23.00

Richard Holmes
Richard Holmes; drawing by David Levine

In Footsteps (1985), Richard Holmes records his first, salutary, disillusionment as a self-styled “Romantic Biographer.” In 1964, when only eighteen, he undertook to duplicate Robert Louis Stevenson’s journey through the Massif Central of France in the autumn of 1878, the trek subsequently described in Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. Wisely, remembering Stevenson’s struggles with the recalcitrant Modestine, the young Holmes declined all offers of a donkey. Otherwise, he was scrupulous about reliving Stevenson’s experience, journeying alone, along exactly the same demanding route, eager to see what his predecessor had seen, comparing his own thoughts and impressions at every step with those of the man who had walked this road almost a century before. It was at Langogne, not far along the way, that he was pulled up short.

Holmes had worked himself by now into an almost hallucinatory state in which he believed “that Stevenson was actually waiting for me, in person,” a traveling companion about to greet him from some café, hotel window, or village crowd:

And then I saw it, quite clearly against the western sky, the old bridge of Langogne. It was about fifty yards downstream, and it was broken, crumbling, and covered with ivy. So Stevenson had crossed there, not on this modern bridge. There was no way of following him, no way of meeting him. His bridge was down. It was beyond my reach over time, and this was the true sad sign.

Only after a long, troubled night did Holmes accept that just as one could not cross such bridges any more, so “one could not cross literally into the past.”

The broken bridge at Langogne gave Holmes his first real insight into the biographer’s task:

You could not play-act into the past, you could not turn it into a game of make-believe. There had to be another way. Somehow you had to produce the living effect, while remaining true to the dead fact. The adult distance—the critical distance, the historical distance—had to be maintained. You stood at the end of the broken bridge and looked across carefully, objectively, into the unattainable past on the other side. You brought it alive, brought it back, by other sorts of skills and crafts and sensible magic.

Although he was forced to abandon, at Langogne, his youthful fantasy about actual converse with the dead, Holmes’s biographical “skills and crafts” have remained those of the hunter: a man tracking “someone’s path through the past,” engaged in “a following of footsteps” that is literal as well as symbolic. He has always insisted upon visiting places of any significance for his subjects, especially those in which (however temporarily) they lived. Even when the house itself has disappeared, something may be learned from its situation, and the view its windows once embraced. His first major biography, appropriately entitled Shelley: The Pursuit (1974), led him across France,…

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