RL STEVENSON: MAKE LIFE MORE AWFUL, WONDERFUL, HEROIC


MAKE LIFE MORE AWFUL, MORE WONDERFUL, MORE HEROIC

The STRAND Magazine recently published a rich, newly discovered essay by Robert Louis Stevenson (working on Treasure Island at the time) possibly written to his stepson, Sam, on what may come of hand holding pen laid to paper. 

“In the trash that I have no doubt you generally read, a vast number of people will probably get shot and stabbed and drowned; and you have only a very slight excitement for your money,” Stevenson wrote.

“But if you want to know what a murder really is — to have a murder brought right home to you — you must read of one in the writings of a great writer. Read ‘Macbeth,’ for example, or still better, get someone to read it aloud to you; and I think I can promise you what people call a ‘sensation.’”

Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” have a lure for breathless youth peeking through the dark shuttered slats into just beyond reach adulthood. Though he presents the cruelest and most peculiar aspects of grownups, (along with the most decent), it stands with the added capacity for the bold youngster to handle whatever comes along. It is the stunning future.

(From the AP News story):  “Apparently part of a larger work, the piece is titled “Books and Reading. No 2. How books have to be written.” The Strand managing editor Andrew Gulli said that essay “No. 1″ was auctioned off in 1914, 20 years after the author’s death, and never seen again. No. 2 turned up recently at a location very far from Stevenson’s native Scotland — the library at Syracuse University.

“There are several guesses as to who it was meant for and why it was not published,” Gulli said during a recent interview. “One guess is that it was sent to his stepson Sam or it could have been prepared for a young adult magazine called Young Folks but it was never published in that magazine.

“Stevenson devotes most of the essay to the art of capturing or even simulating reality on paper, a puzzle that Virginia Woolf and other 20th century modernists would attempt to solve. He notes that storytelling almost inevitably makes life seem more awful, more wonderful or more heroic. The writer leaves “all the dullness out.””

“Suppose you were to be asked to write a complete account of a day at school. You would probably begin by saying you rose at a certain hour, dressed and came down to morning school. You would not think of telling how many buttons you had to fasten, nor how long you took to make a parting, nor how many steps you descended,”


“The youngest boy would have too much of what we call ‘literary tact’ to do that. Such a quantity of twaddling detail would simply bore the reader’s head off.”

Gulli believes that the essay was written around 1881, when Stevenson was in his early 30s. He was likely working on “Treasure Island,” published in 1883 and the book which gave us the dastardly Long John Silver, and he counted pirates among those presented falsely in fiction. “The famous buccaneers,” as Stevenson called them, were not chivalrous adventurers, but “lubbers and swabs, and downright dunces.”

“If you read a true account of these rogues you would be thunderstruck. Again and again they try to cross the Atlantic — what hundreds of decent, respectable merchant skippers do successfully every month — and again and again they lose their way, cannot find the trade-winds, and, from sheer block-headedness, suffer the last extremities of thirst and hunger,” he writes.

“All this sort of matter, the pirate story people quietly leave out; because … it would not go down with the reader.”

               I happen to have had an adventuresome grandpa named Alfred. At the age of 12 from some unknown, fog-shrouded, treacherous European harbor my red-haired relation stowed away on a clipper cargo ship one dark-o-night. It was the late 1800’s. Two days out to sea he was discovered, likely beaten, fed, and made a cabin boy. 

           Sea captains were often given to insanity. One tasty story I read describes a played out myth that a cabin boy properly tied to the top of the mast would bring the crew good luck. Damn the storms and torpedoes.

          I have no idea what the child-grandfather may have gone through, though his ship rather exotically made stops all over the world including ports of China. Wowsa. Two years on board was enough. Grandpa Alfred jumped ship when they landed in New York. I only met this grandfather once, in my 14th spring and headed for California.

         Tucked away in scores of family photographs is an old sepia picture of Grandpa AlfredDSCF4796looking proud and grown up, in his 20’s and married to my Grandma Florence. He leans in moody repose against a nice big tree in the new century America, on dry land, dressed in smart suit, starched collar, flora in lapel, cigar in hand. I think Stevenson would have liked him.

(Top: Sargent’s Oil Portrait of RLS)

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