Here to return to
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
STEVENSON was one of the happy few: he knew his life’s business from childhood. He was to write books. Happier still, and one of even a smaller minority, he early discovered that authorship is an art requiring a long and rigorous apprenticeship; that, if a man is to write, he must first study how, putting himself under tuition and devoting himself to practice; that an author no more than a pianist can begin with “pieces” and a public performance. In short, Stevenson had from the beginning an idea of literary composition as a fine art, — an art not to be picked up some pleasant day by the roadside (as later in life he essayed, for whim’s sake, to pick up the art of writing music), nor carried away, as a matter of course, along with other more or less useful odds and ends of knowledge, from the grammar school or university, but to be acquired, if at all, by years on years of drill. Another man may write “well enough,” and perhaps successfully, so far as material rewards go, by nature and the rule of thumb; but the artist aims at perfection, — perfection for its own sake, That aim, the pursuit of that ideal, is what makes him an artist. And such was Stevenson.
“All through my boyhood and youth,” he says, “I was known and pointed out for the pattern of an idler; and yet I was always busy on my own private end, which was to learn to write. I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in. As I walked, my mind was busy fitting what I saw with appropriate words; when I sat by the roadside, I would either read, or a pencil and a penny-version book would be in my hand, to note down the features of the scene or commemorate some halting stanzas.”
So he “lived with words.” And the point of the confession is that these “childish tasks,” as he calls them in another place, were done “consciously for practice.” “I had vowed that I would learn to write. That was a proficiency that tempted me; and I practiced to acquire it, as men learn to whittle, in a wager with myself.”
But he did more than to practice. A man does not learn to whittle, or to paint, or to play the flute, by the primitive process of merely trying his hand, be it ever so patiently. The fine arts are no longer things to be invented, every man for himself. Others have whittled and painted; one generation has bequeathed its increment of skill to the next; here and there a master has arisen, and the masters have set up a standard; and now, the standard being established, the essential matter is, not to paint or write to the satisfaction of village critics, but to prove one’s self a workman beside the best of the craft. For this there needs acquaintance with the masters’ work, — such acquaintance, or so young Stevenson was persuaded, as could come from nothing but an imitative study of it. And he set himself to imitate. He had never heard the dictum, or he disbelieved it, that a boy should read the best writers, but pattern after nobody. Wherever he saw excellence of a kind that appealed to him, he took it for the time being as his model, a mark to aim at. This he did consciously and unashamed.
Such a course would never give him originality; but no matter. For the present it was not originality he was seeking; he was not yet writing books: he was learning his trade. Whether, having learned it, he should turn out to have original genius to go with his knowledge and put it to use, was a question that the event alone could determine. Originality is a gift of the gods; it is born with a man, or it is not born with him. The technique of a prose style, on the other hand, could be learned, and Stevenson’s present business was to learn it, in the only way of which he had any knowledge, the way in which his masters themselves had learned it, — practice based on imitation.1
How could the boy have done better? He was called to write; he had “the love of words” which, as he says, marks the writer’s vocation; and for such a boy “to work grossly at the trade, to forget sentiment, to think of his material and nothing else, is, for a while at least, the king’s highway of progress.” Yes, “for a while;” and after the while, if he is not merely one of the many that are called, but one of the few that are chosen, he will have found his own line, and such originality as nature endowed him with at birth (or before) will declare itself in the way appointed.
Stevenson had the name of an idler, he tells us, and it must be said that he wore it jauntily, — as he wore his old clothes. Whatever he did or failed to do, it would have been hard to catch him without defense. He wrote “An Apology for Idlers,” which, as he confided to a correspondent, was “an apology for R. L. S.;” and to this day it sounds like a good one. It would do many a hard-working man and useful member of society a service to read it. He believed that, for the young especially, a certain kind and measure of idleness is a profitable kind of industry; while they are seemingly unemployed they may perchance be learning something that is really worth while: “to play the fiddle, to know a good cigar, or to speak with ease and opportunity to all varieties of men.”
For himself, like many another man of genius, he was very little of a scholar in the traditional sense of the word. What the schools had taken upon themselves to teach were mostly not the things that he had taken upon himself to learn. At the university he devised “an extensive and highly rational system of truantry,” and no one “ever had more certificates (of attendance) for less education.” Like his antitype in Mr. Barrie’s novel, he could always find a way. No doubt his personal attractiveness counted for much here, as it did everywhere. One of his earlier teachers had pronounced him without exception the most delightful boy he ever knew;” and his mother’s testimony is that his masters found it pleasanter to talk with him than to teach him. How his wits and his fine gift of plausibility helped him over a hard place in one of the last of his examinations — for admission to the bar — is related as from himself, by Mr. Balfour. The subject in hand was “Ethical and Metaphysical Philosophy,” and a certain book had been prescribed. “The examiner asked me a question,” Stevenson says, “and I had to say to him, ‘I beg your pardon, but I do not understand your phraseology.’ ‘It’s the text-book,’ he said. ‘Yes; but you could n’t possibly expect me to read so poor a book as that.’ He laughed like a hunchback, and then put the question in another form. I had been reading Mayne, and answered him by the historical method. They were probably the most curious answers ever given in the subject. I don’t know what he thought of them, but they got me through.”
It is a good story, and thoroughly characteristic. There was nothing academic in Stevenson’s turn of mind, whether in youth or manhood. “I was inclined to regard any professor as a joke,” he remarks, in his “Memoir of Fleeming Jenkin,” and the words may be taken as fairly expressive of his attitude toward the whole business of what is called education. The last thing he meant to be was a conventional man, — “a consistent first-class passenger in life,” — and why should he disquiet himself over a conventional training? Allow him his own subject and his own method, and he would be studious with anybody.
So throughout his early years, as we have seen, he studied the art of authorship. Then, as happens to all artists, came the critical point of production or non-production. Would the plant so sedulously watered and tended, so promising in the leaf, prove to be fertile or sterile? Having so lofty an idea of his art, so exalted a standard of excellence in it, would he go on indefinitely putting himself off with preparations, “prelusory gymnastic,” as he saw so many painters doing at Barbizon (“snoozers” instead of painters, covering their walls with studies, and never coming to the picture), and as is so easy for art students of all kinds to do, or, having learned the handling of his tools, would he set himself to use them in the performance of a man’s work?
Such a question is by no means one that answers itself. In any particular case there is perhaps more than an even chance that the student will never have the industry, the courage, and the intellectual and moral stuff to accomplish, or even seriously put his hand to, any of the great things for which he has so long been making ready. Stevenson himself, from all that appears, may have had at the beginning a period when the issue hung more or less in doubt. “I remember a time,” he wrote afterward, “when I was very idle, and lived and profited by that humor.” Now, he says, the case is different with him, he knows not why. Perhaps it is “a change of age.” He made many slight efforts at reform, “had a thousand skirmishes to keep himself at work upon particular mornings;” the life of Goethe affected him, as did also some noble remarks of Balzac, but he was never conscious of a struggle, “never registered a vow, nor seemingly had anything personally to do with the matter.” “I came about like a well-handled ship,” he concludes. “There stood at the wheel that unknown steersman whom we call God.”
In his twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth year, at all events, he was really getting under way, though for the present, as was becoming, with small ventures; and from that time, except for the frequent occasions when illness and the likelihood of speedy death constrained him to “twiddle his fingers and play patience,” he kept his pen busy as few men of anything like his physical disabilities and his roving disposition have ever done. For it is important to note that he was by inheritance a wanderer. Even had his health allowed it, he could never have sat month after month at the same desk, turning off so many hundred words as his daily stint. Once, when he has lived for six months at Davos, he writes to his friend Colvin that he is in a bad way, — a result, he believes, of having been too long in one place. “That tells on my old gypsy nature; like a violin hung up, I begin to lose what music there was in me.” And when his mother complained that he was little at home, he bade her not be vexed at his nomadic habits. “I must be a bit of a vagabond; it’s your own fault, after all, isn’t it? You shouldn’t have had a tramp for a son.”
For a man who had studied authorship, and wished to write not mainly from books, but from the experience of his own mind and body, this ineradicable gypsy strain was of the highest value. How much it imported to Stevenson should be evident even to those who know his books only by the backs of them. Bodily health excepted, he had all the qualifications of a traveler. Happy man that he was, he was always a boy, rich to the last in some of the best of youthful virtues, — buoyancy, curiosity, “interest in the whole page of experience,” and the capacity for surprise. The world for him was never an old story. When he saw a ship or a train of cars, he wished himself aboard. Discomforts and dangers were nothing; nay, they could be turned into excellent fun, and after that into almost as excellent copy. His spirit was habitually strung up to out-of-door pitch, to borrow his own expression. He felt “the incommunicable thrill of things.” Not for him a staid life in drawing-rooms or city clubs. He would be out in the open, where men still live a man’s life.” At forty he wrote his own formula thus: “0.55 artist, 0.45 adventurer.” Near the same time, being just from the island of Molokai, where he had played croquet with seven leper girls (and would not wear gloves, though cautioned to that effect, lest it should make the girls unhappy to be reminded of their condition), he writes to a friend: “This climate; these voyagings; these landfalls at dawn; new islands peaking from the morning bank; new forested harbors; new passing alarms of squalls and surf; new interests of gentle natives, — the whole tale of my life is better to me than any poem.” A lucky combination it was, both for the man himself and for the world of readers, — fifty-five per cent artist, and forty-five per cent adventurer.
And the adventures, of course, need not be so extraordinarily venturesome, with an artist’s pen to put them on the paper. In 1887 Stevenson had been once more at the gates of death with hemorrhages, this time so often repeated that they had ceased almost to be exciting, and were rather grown tiresome; and when the doctors prescribed another change of climate, he sailed for America. The steamer turned out to be loaded with cattle, — “a ship with no style on, and plenty of sailors to talk to;” and this is how the consumptive patient describes the voyage: “I was so happy on board that ship, I could not have believed it possible. We had the beastliest weather, and many discomforts; but the mere fact of its being a tramp-ship gave us many comforts; we could cut about with the men and officers, stay in the wheel-house, discuss all manner of things, and really be a little at sea. . . . My heart literally sang. . . . It is worth having lived these last years, partly because I have written some better books, which is always pleasant, but chiefly to have had the joy of this voyage.”
Later, in the South Seas, he ran more than once upon the very edge of shipwreck, but always with the same brave heart and the same gayety. “We had a near squeak,” he writes to a friend, after one such experience. “The reefs were close in with, my eye! what a surf! The pilot thought we were gone, and the captain had a boat cleared, when a lucky squall came to our rescue. My wife, hearing the order given about the boats, remarked to my mother, ‘Is n’t that nice? We shall soon be ashore!’ Thus does the female mind unconsciously skirt along the verge of eternity.” And thus, be it added, does the artistic masculine mind turn even the face of death itself “to favor and to prettiness.”
By this time Stevenson had almost settled it with himself that he should never again leave the sea. “My poor grandfather, it is from him that I inherit the taste, I fancy, and he was round many islands in his day; but I, please God, shall beat him at that before the recall is sounded. . . . Life is far better fun than people dream who fall asleep among the chimney-stacks and telegraph wires.” One feels like saying again, What a blessing it was for the world that a man so perennially boyish, so endowed with the capacity for enjoyment, so conscious of his life, so incurably in love with the romantic side of things, was also the master of a style and an industrious lover of the art of writing!
His remark, quoted above, about the “plenty of sailors to talk to” suggests another thing: his exceeding fondness for rubbing elbows with what are called, inappropriately enough, common people, — people who have lived free from the leveling, uniformity-producing, character-dulling, commonizing influences of too many books and an excess of social sophistication. This, too, was a real fairy’s gift to a man destined for literature. “He was of a conversible temper” (he is speaking of himself in his youth), “and insatiably curious in the aspects of life.” Like Will o’ the Mill, “he had a taste for other people, and other people had a taste for him.” As we read of his journeyings hither and thither, and the friends he made almost as often as he opened his mouth, we are reminded of what David Balfour’s father said of his offspring: “He is a steady lad and a canny goer; and I doubt not he will come safe, and be well liked where he goes.” Perhaps it was from his own experience that Stevenson was writing when he said that a boy might learn in his truant hours “to know a good cigar, or to speak with ease and opportunity to all varieties of men.”
Stevenson’s books, the narratives of travel and the essays not less than the novels, — perhaps even more, — are galleries of portraits. Wherever he went, he found men: not caricatures, mere burlesques and oddities, cheap material for print, creatures of a single crying peculiarity, so easily drawn and, for one reading, so “effective;” nor lay figures simply, wire frames (literature is populated with them) on which to hang “the trappings of composition;” but breathing men, full, like the rest of us, of complexity and paradox, nobly designed, perhaps, but — still like the rest of us — more or less spoiled in the making; men who had known, each for himself, the war in the members (happy for them if they knew it still!), and had drunk, every one, of the mingled cup of tragedy and comedy. He loved the sight of them; their talk, wise or foolish, was music to his ears; and the queerest and ugliest of them, under his capable and affectionate hand, wear something of a human grace upon the canvas.
It is a great gallery. Who that has ever walked there will forget the old soldier turned beggar, the borrower of poets’ books? — “the wreck of an athletic man, tall, gaunt, and bronzed; far gone in consumption, with that disquieting smile of the mortally stricken in his face; but still active afoot, still with the brisk military carriage, the ready military salute.” We can see him, “striding forward uphill, his staff now clapped to the ribs of his deep, resonant chest, now swinging in the air with the remembered jauntiness of the private soldier; and all the while his toes looking out of his boots, and his shirt looking out of his elbows, and death looking out of his smile, and his big, crazy frame shaken by accesses of cough.” His honest head may have been “very nearly empty, his intellect like a child’s,” but he loved the unexpected words and the moving cadence of good verse. We know his talk; a little more, and we should hear it: “Keats, — John Keats, sir, — he was a very fine poet.”
A book like “The Amateur Emigrant” is full of such sketches, every one done from life, and hit off with a perfection that might well render it and the volume, as foolish mortals say, “immortal.” It would be long to enumerate them, though it is a short book. There is Jones the Welshman, for example, — “my excellent friend Mr. Jones,” owner and dispenser of the Golden Oil; “hovering round inventions like a bee over a flower, and living in a dream of patents.” He had been rich, and now was poor, but, like all dabblers in patents, he had a nature that looked forward.” “If the sky were to fall to-morrow, I should look to see Jones, the day following, perched on a step-ladder and getting things to rights.” What we should have cared most to see was Mr. Jones and Mr. Stevenson walking the deck by the hour and dissecting their neighbors; for Jones was first of all a student of character. Whenever a quaint or human trait slipped out in conversation, you might have seen Jones and me exchanging glances; and we could hardly go to bed in comfort till we had exchanged notes and discussed the day’s experience. We were then like a couple of anglers comparing a day’s kill.” And there is the fiddler, “carrying happiness about with him in his fiddle-case,” a “white-faced Orpheus cheerily playing to an audience of white-faced women,” with his fiery bit of a brother, who “made a god of the fiddler,” and was determined that everybody else should do the same; and Mackay, the cynic and debater, who professed to believe in nothing but what had to do with food (“that ‘s the bottom and the top”), but who once grew so eager in maintaining this noble thesis that he slipped the meal hour, and was compelled, with a smile of shamefacedness, to go without his tea; and Barney the Irishman, the universal favorite, so natural and happy, with his “tight little figure, unquenchable gayety, and indefatigable good will,” who could sing most acceptably and play all manner of innocent pranks, but whose “drab clothes were immediately missing from the group” when, after the ladies had retired, some one struck up an indecent song; and the sick man (poor soul), who thought it was “by” with him, and who had a good house at home, and “no call to be here;” and the two stowaways, so fond of each other, yet so strikingly contrasted, — one so ready to work for his passage, the other “a skulker in the grain,” and like the devil himself for lying.
And besides these there are numbers more nearly or quite as telling; but they must be let pass, though it is pleasant to pick good things out of a book that, comparatively speaking, seems to have been little made of, either by the author or by his admirers. To one of these, at least, “The Amateur Emigrant” seems, not one of Stevenson’s greatest books, indeed, but certainly one of the most enjoyable, say on the sixth or eighth reading.
It is a point of grace with any writer, and a very sine qua non with the essayist, that he should be able to speak often of himself without offense, as Montaigne and Lamb did, to mention two shining and incontestable examples. And the trick (though it is not a trick, but an admirable quality, and almost as far as honesty from being common) is none of your easy ones. To begin with, the venturer on such an experiment must be interested in himself, which is by no means an ordinary happening. Most men, we may say, count for nullities under this head; they recognize their outward presentments in the glass, no doubt, and are letter-perfect with their names and occupations; but for a knowledge of their inner selves, the story of their real lives, the “wonderful pageant of consciousness,” one might almost as well interrogate the lamp-post on the next corner. They have never kept company with their own thoughts, nor been in the least degree inquisitive about them. Life, as they live it, is a matter of externals, of eating and drinking and being clothed, of getting and spending more or less money, of being amused, of movings up or down on a social ladder. As for the past, the past of themselves, -- which with another man is his dearest possession, — it is mainly as if it had never been. They must have had a boy’s dreams once, one would think, but that was long, long ago, and the dreamer is dead, and his dreams with him.
But if a man is to tell the world about himself, and charm it into attention, he must not only be in love with his subject; he must have a natural frankness, an unaffected and almost unconscious delight in self-revelation, — tempered by a decent sense of personal privacy, — such as infallibly commends itself and makes its way, the listener cannot tell how. In other words, and in a good sense, the man must be still a boy, endowed with a boy’s winning attributes, and entitled, therefore, to something of a boy’s privilege. And with all the rest, and among the most important, he must be favored with the gracious quality of humor. Of all talk whatsoever, talk about one ‘s self must not be too serious. No man (or none but a great poet) can safely indulge in it unless it is natural for him to see the funny side of his own foibles, and at the right minute to make his point at his own expense. All of which is perhaps no more than to say that the writer in the first person must be a man of taste, knowing (a wisdom which nobody under the sun can teach him) what to say and what not to say, and, chiefest of all, how and when to say it.
Stevenson did not talk of himself so freely as Montaigne (how could he, in these proper days?) nor, the present scribe being judge, so adorably as Lamb. Nature herself is little likely to hit the white centre of perfection twice, and we shall perhaps see another Shakespeare as soon as another Lamb; but few have loved a personal theme better, and in the handling of it there were none among the living to surpass him. He had every qualification for the work. A pity he died at forty-four, — a pity in every aspect of the case, but especially when it is considered what treasures of youthful reminiscence he would have left behind him had he lived even to the approaches of old age. Such a devotee of his own past should have been spared to see it through a bluer haze. Yet even in middle life how fair it looked to him, and how lovingly he laid its colors as he transferred the picture to the page! Hear him speak of his grandfather, in a passage no better than is common with him, and dealing with nothing out of the ordinary:
“Now I often wonder what I have inherited from this old minister. I must suppose, indeed, that he was fond of preaching sermons, and so am I, though I never heard it maintained that either of us loved to hear them. He sought health in his youth in the Isle of Wight, and I have sought it in both hemispheres; but whereas he found and kept it, I am still on the quest. He was a great lover of Shakespeare, whom he read aloud, I have been told, with taste; well, I love my Shakespeare, also, and am persuaded I can read him well, though I own I never have been told so. He made embroidery, designing his own patterns; and in that kind of work I never made anything but a kettle-holder in Berlin wool, and an odd garter of knitting, which was as black as the chimney before I had done with it. He loved port, and nuts, and porter; and so do I, but they agreed better with my grandfather, which seems to me a breach of contract. He had chalkstones in his fingers; and these in good time I may inherit, but I would much rather have inherited his noble presence. Try as I please, I cannot join myself on with the reverend doctor; and all the while, no doubt, and even as I write the phrase, he moves in my blood, and whispers words to me, and sits efficient in the very knot and centre of my being.”
A man could talk of himself in that strain till the sun put the stars out, and nobody would vote him tiresome or blame him for an egotist. Yes, a misfortune it was that he could not have lived to write a dozen books full of essays like “The Manse,” “Old Mortality,” “Memoirs of an Islet,” and especially “A Gossip on a Novel of Dumas’s.” So appreciative a reader and so entertaining a talker could never have wearied us with gossip of his favorite books, “the inner circle of his intimates;” and the more first-personal and confidential he became, the better we should have liked it.
Well, since we cannot have the finished essays, we will be the more thankful for the letters. How good they are! — so varied, so spontaneous, so free-spoken, so humanly wise and so deliciously nonsensical; now bubbling over with jest, now touching the deepest springs of thought and action; fit expression of a man who was himself both Ariel and Prospero; “an old, stern, unhappy devil of a Norseman,” yet with “always some childishness on hand;” the “grandson of the Manse,” who would rise from the grave to preach, and has “scarce broken a commandment to mention,” yet owning it as his darling wish to be a pirate. Whim and opinion, settled conviction and passing mood, alike find utterance in them; and best of all, perhaps, many of them are most engagingly rich in matter connected with his own pursuit. A selection of these in a handy volume (why must letters always be put up in a form too cumbersome for lovers’ convenience, as if they, more than other books, were expected to stand forever upon a shelf?) would go far to supply the place of that treatise on “The Art of Literature” which their author spoke so frequently of making.
Here would be found a letter to Mr. Marcel Schwob, a letter one page long, but weighty with the subtlest and pithiest criticism, not of Mr. Schwob’s writings alone (that might not seem so very important), but of writing in general, and in particular of Stevenson’s. For it is impossible to read it without perceiving that the critic is passing judgment (no unkind one) upon his own early books of sentimental travel. His correspondent has sent him a volume of verses. He has read it through twice, and is reading it again, — a handsome compliment, to start with. It is essentially graceful, he says, but is a thing of promise rather than a thing final in itself. “You have yet to give to us — and I am expecting it with impatience — something of a larger gait; something daylit, not twilit; something with the colors of life, not the flat tints of a temple illumination; something that shall be said with all the clearnesses and the trivialities of speech, not sung like a semi-articulate lullaby. It will not please yourself as well, but it will please others better. It will be more of a whole, more worldly, more nourished, more commonplace — and not so pretty, perhaps not even so beautiful. No man knows better than I that, as we go on in life, we must part from prettiness and the graces. We but attain qualities to lose them; life is a series of farewells, even in art; even our proficiencies are deciduous and evanescent. So here with these exquisite pieces, . . . you will perhaps never excel them. . . Well, you will do something else, and of that I am in expectation.”
Happy poet! to be caressed so affectionately and lanced so beneficently with one stroke of the master’s hand; and happy critic, no less! having sentences of this quality to drop without a second thought, like small change from the hand of wealth, into the oblivion of private correspondence.
In truth, Stevenson could afford to be generous; he had always good things enough and to spare. His was a mind incessantly active. He was always covering paper. If only disease would leave him strength enough to hold the pen, he could be trusted to keep it going. Ideas thronged upon him; books by the dozen, one may almost say, stood waiting for him to make them. The more wonder that, with all this excess of fertility, he could yet rewrite and rewrite, and then write again, still on the search for perfection. Surely the artist was strong in him.
His fame was of slow growth, surprising as the fact seems now, till he wrote novels. These, as all the world knows, since all the world reads them, are nothing like the ordinary modern novel of carpet knights and pairs of happy or unhappy lovers. They are romances in the heroic vein, spun mostly of a single thread, with no lack of high lights, plenty of blood-letting, a good spice of humor, dialogue that is closely pared and talks of itself, character displayed in action, not dissected, and movement to delight the lover of a story.
The lode was struck, almost by accident, when Stevenson’s schoolboy stepson, backed by another “schoolboy in disguise,” — namely, Stevenson’s father, — begged him to “write something interesting.” The response to this reasonable request was “Treasure Island,” which not only filled the schoolboys’ bill, but captivated so stout-hearted a disbeliever in things romantic as Mr. Henry James. As it was this story that introduced its author to a wider public, he used to speak of it (possibly with a shade of irony, though that does not certainly appear) as his first book.
It may be that the gift of romance was the highest of his endowments. Some, at least, have thought so, and have reckoned the novels as not only the most popular, but the greatest of his works. As to the choice among them, the question of their comparative excellence among themselves, that is a matter not under discussion here, the writer of the present paper having no sort of competency for dealing with it. His own special delight is in “David Balfour” (the two parts) and “Treasure Island.” These he hopes to read — now and then a chapter, if no more — as long as he reads anything. He likes the men, — and the women, — and he likes the talk. Mr. James’s comment upon “Treasure Island,” that one seems to be reading it over a schoolboy’s shoulder, strikes him as extremely ingenious and pretty, but he is conscious of nothing of that nature himself. He reads it, if he may be allowed to say so, on his own hook, and for the time being is himself the schoolboy, — which may or may not be the better fun. He likes the story and the pictures, — for every chapter is a picture, — and he likes the writing.
Concerning this last point, so often discussed, what shall be said? As Stevenson’s nature was complex and his themes varied, so he wrote in many keys. His prose was never “far from variation and quick change.” When he put pen to any work, — essay, travel, sketch, tragedy, or comedy, — the first thing was to strike “the essential note.” He would not begin a funeral march in A major, nor a sailor’s hornpipe in C minor; a requiem for the friend of his youth was one thing, and a description of his fellow passengers in the steerage was another: and, strange to tell, here and there a wise critic, wise above what is written, has discovered in this change of key proof of a want of originality. “Behold,” he cries, “the man has no style of his own; to-day he writes in one manner, and to-morrow in another.” The same sharp-eyed reviewers are certain to be troubled because Stevenson talks freely of style, openly professing to have cultivated one, — to have cared not only for what he said, but almost or quite as much for the way in which he said it. “How can a man be concerned with the niceties of expression, and yet be true to himself?” they seem ready to ask. A question to which, it must be admitted, there is no answer, or none worth the offering to any who need to ask for it.
To be greatly occupied with matters of form is doubtless to subject one’s self to peril. Careful writing may easily become mannered (as careless writing also may, and with less excuse); but what then? Danger is the common lot. An author, not less than other men, must face it, whether he will or no. He may choose between one set of pitfalls and another, but he will find no path without them. As for the risk of mannerism, Stevenson escaped it substantially unharmed. Compared with some of the more famous of his style-loving contemporaries, he may be said to have come off without a scratch. Whether his style is better or worse than theirs (and touching a point so delicate an unprofessional critic may prudently reserve his opinion) is a different matter; at least, it is less tagged with peculiarity. It was formed, as style should be, by the study of many models, not of one; and it has many virtues, including in good measure one of the highest, rarest, and most elusive, the quality of pleasurableness, or charm, — a quality not to be acquired by labor, nor to be exactly defined; a something added to a thing already complete, like the bloom on the grape or the perfume of the rose.
If the style has failings, also; if one feels now and then, in the more closely wrought of the essays especially, a certain excess of precision, a seeming hardness of outline, a lack, shall we say, of flexibility; if, after a time, one experiences a sensation as of walking in too continuously strong a light, with the sun, as it were, standing still at high noon; if one misses those momentary glimpses of invisible truth, those hints and adumbrations of things beyond the writer’s and the reader’s ken (a feeling as if twilight were coming on, and shadows were falling across the page), those touches of distance and mystery which make the peculiar attractiveness of another order of writing; if this, and perhaps more than this (an occasional want of absolute success in the use of the file; a failure, that is to say, to leave the phrase looking only the more unstudied for the labor bestowed upon it), — if things like these are felt at times by the sensitive reader, what does it all signify but that, in the perception and expression of truth, as in the making of moral character, one excellence of necessity excludes or dwarfs another, and perfection is still to seek? As the French martyr said (“a dread confession,” Stevenson called it, in one of his moods), “Prose is never done.”
The estimate which the author himself placed upon his style (though this is a point of little consequence) seems not to have been exalted. He had his gift, he knew, and had done his best to improve it; but other men had greater ones. He was an enthusiastic reader, and while still fresh from the enjoyment of “A Window in Thrums,” he wrote to Mr. Barrie: “There are two of us now [two Scotchmen] that the Shirra might have patted on the head. And please do not think, when I seem thus to bracket myself with you, that I am wholly blinded with vanity. Jess is beyond my frontier line; I could not touch her skirt; I have no such glamour of twilight on my pen. I am a capable artist; but it begins to look to me as if you were a man of genius. Take care of yourself for my sake.”
A handsome thing for a man to write, and a pleasant thing for his lovers to remember, but, as we say, not to be interpreted too strictly, as if it settled anything. The more considerable a man’s gifts, the more likely he is to speak disparagingly of them. To take his own word for it, Stevenson was a poor letter-writer, “essentially and originally incapable.” So he assures one of his correspondents; and then, the mood coming on him, he proceeds to cover page after page with the very scintillations of epistolary genius, — compliment, gossip, humor, brilliant description, verbal felicities, sweetness of personal feeling, everything, in short, that goes to the making of a perfect letter. No doubt he smiled at the incongruity of the thing as he folded the sheet (for no doubt he knew he had done well), but what shall we conclude as to the value of an honest author’s depreciatory judgment of his own work? If it is not a proverb, it ought to be, that self-dispraise goes little ways.
The welcome of Stevenson to his younger Scotch contemporary was characteristic of the man. In all his letters there is not a glimmer of professional jealousy nor a word of belittling criticism. With all his boyishness, — partly because of it, it might be truer to say, — he had a manly heart. Generosity and courage were matters of course with him, native to the blood. In his novels there is plenty — some would say a superfluity — of battle, murder, and sudden death; Cut and Thrust were two of his favorite heroes; he loved the breath of danger, and when, for the first and last time, he saw armed men taking the field, “the old aboriginal awoke” in him, and he sniffed the air like a war horse; he could be stern as the Judgment Day itself against injustice and cruelty; in such a cause he would break a lance, though all the world should call him, what he was once overheard to call himself, another Don Quixote; but withal, few men were ever more tender-hearted. At twenty-one, as he told the story more than twenty years afterward, he enjoyed a great day of fishing; the trout so many and so hungry that in his eagerness he forgot to kill them one by one as he took them from the water. In the small hours of the night his conscience smote him; he saw the fishes “still kicking in their agony;” and he never fished again. Whoever was in distress was sure not only of his sympathy, but of his hand and purse. He would walk the streets of a city half the night with a lost child in his arms, invalid though he was; and when he comes to clear the land of his new South Sea domain, he wonders whether any one else ever felt toward Nature just as he does. He pities the vines and grasses that he uproots: “their struggles go to my heart like supplications.” Since his death, says his biographer, the native chiefs — ”gentle barbarians,” truly — have forbidden the use of firearms on the hillside where he is buried, “that the birds may live there undisturbed.”
Stevenson believed in the supremacy of the soul. He would not be put down by things material. Many years he lived face to face with death, and to the last his testimony was that he found his life good. To a critic who thought him too little appreciative of the darker side of human existence he wrote: “If you have had trials, sickness, the approach of death, the alienation of friends, poverty at the heels, and have not felt your soul turn round upon these things and spurn them under, you must be very differently made from me, and, I earnestly believe, from the majority of men.” Such was his brave confession; and his life, from all we see of it, was in full accordance with his faith. It might be said of him what Lowell said of Chaucer: he was “so truly pious that he could be happy in the best world that God chose to make.”
Toward the last, it is true, he fell into a state of depression, and for a time was alarmingly unlike his old self. His power of work seemed to be gone, and the “complicated miseries” that surrounded him weighed hard upon his spirits. Even then, however, he protested his belief in “an ultimate decency of things; ay, and if I woke in hell, should still believe it.” This was his natural religion, which the early loss of his ancestral creed — that “damnatory creed” with which his childhood was “pestered almost to madness” — had only deepened and irradiated. And the dark and sterile mood was no more than a mood, after all. Soon he was writing again, more successfully than ever. And then, with everything bright before him, his powers working at their easiest and best, his prayer for “courage, gayety, and the quiet mind” fully answered, all at once the end came. The brief candle, that so often had flickered and burned low, was suddenly blown out. He had gone round more islands than his lighthouse-building grandfather, as it amused him once to boast, and now, like his grandfather, he had reached “the end of all his cruising.”
“Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.”
Over his grave, almost before his body could be lowered into it, there rose the inevitable buzz of critical surmise and questioning. Human nature is impatient. It believes in ranks and orders, and must have the labels on at once. Were Stevenson’s books really great, it desired to know, — as great as those of such and such another man? Or were his admirers — whose regrets and acclamations, it must be owned, made at that minute a pretty busy chorus — setting him on too lofty a pedestal and stirring about him too dense a “dust of praise”? A few disinterested souls seemed surely to believe it, and were in great perturbation accordingly. To listen to them one might have supposed that the very foundations were being destroyed. And then what should the righteous do?
They need not have troubled themselves. The world will last a long time yet, and our little breath of praise or blame will speedily blow itself out and be forgotten. As was said of Hazlitt, so it must be said of Stevenson: Time will tell. Not that it will of necessity tell the truth; since what we dignify as the verdict of Time is, after all, in a certain way of looking at it, nothing but the opinion of the majority; but at least it will have the force of a last word, — there will be nobody to dispute it.
Meanwhile, there is no reason in the nature of things why those who admire Stevenson, or any other contemporary, should be frightened out of saying so. Our judgment may be wrong, of course; but also it may be right; and right or wrong, if it be modestly held, there can be no law against its utterance. And if we are to speak at all, we must speak while we can, — unless, to be sure, we are to call no man happy till after we are dead.____________________________
1 After he began writing, the-question of an individual style took on, as was inevitable, a different complexion. In his early days he Would not read Carlyle, and (more surprising) at forty or thereabout he discontinued the reading of Livy; dreading in both cases an injury to his own manner.