Thursday, December 10, 2009

We may ask ourselves, almost with dismay, whether such works exist at all - Robert Louis Stevenson on Thoreau

I have been reading ahead in preparation for the forthcoming Wuthering Expectations Scottish Literature Challenge*, in particular for a planned assault on the books of Robert Louis Stevenson.  Stevenson's first published book, An Inland Voyage (1878) is a clever little travelogue of Stevenson's canoe trip in northeast France with a pal.  It's a curious coincidence that Henry David Thoreau's first published book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), is about a canoe trip with his brother.

I noticed that Stevenson had published a number of earlier essays, often about nature or walking, such as "Roads" (1873) and "Walking Tours" (1876), which were presumably unrelated to Thoreau's magnificent essay "Walking" (1862), or "A Winter Walk," or "A Walk to Wachusett."

At some point, though, reading An Inland Voyage, I begin to pick up a number of strange hints of Thoreau (although Whitman, not Thoreau, is specifically mentioned).  Now I wish I had written some of them down.  I'm thinking of passages praising the simple life, or working class labor, or a number of nicely done descriptions of the rivers.  Shallow, compared to Thoreau, but the whole book is one the shallow side. 

And then consider that both men died at the age of 44, from lung ailments or complications thereof.  This could no longer be dismissed as mere coincidence.  The order of my argumentation may be off here.

And what's this, an 1880 Cornhill Magazine essay entitled "Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions."  It's a fascinating mix of respect and mockery, sympathy and repulsion.  Fundamentally, Stevenson was much more of a sensualist than Thoreau, as is almost everyone, and he refused to give Thoreau any credit for his asceticism.  A subtext of the essay, one of many, is Stevenson's aversion to Thoreau's celibacy - see Part IV (p. 134+).  The essay was published while Stevenson was on his honeymoon in Napa Valley, so I would be inclined to forgive his criticism even if I disagreed, which I don't.  I thought the "Higher Laws" section of Walden, in which Thoreau resorts to Hindu scripture to justify his asceticism, seemed weakly argued, or I badly misunderstood the argument, which is likely in that tricky book.

Thoreau made Stevenson nervous about writing, too.  Taken literally, which I'm not convinced is the right way to go, Thoreau's precepts in Walden's "Reading" chapter are unforgiving - he does not admit that too many books are worth reading.  Stevenson had not yet published a novel, but he was writing stories, and beginning to understand his talent.  After quoting Thoreau's description of great prose ("the prose writer has conquered like a Roman and settled colonies") Stevenson acidly comments: "We may ask ourselves, almost with dismay, whether such works exist at all but in the imagination of the student."  (127)  He understood that his own works, current and planned, would not qualify.

But Stevenson next turns to a demolition (accurate, as we now know) of the idea that Thoreau just sat down "nonchalantly" and naturally wrote flawless first drafts.  Stevenson is insightful about Thoreau the writer.  The digression drags in Shakespeare and Scott, and is unnecessarily long, but it's kind of cute, one writer defending another. 

That's one point of sympathy between the two men, the two writers.  Another is that Stevenson does understand Walden's basic project, or part of it:

A certain amount, varying with the number and empire of our desires, is a true necessary to each one of us in the present order of society; but beyond that amount, money is a commodity to be bought or not to be bought, a luxury in which we may either indulge or stint ourselves, like any other.  And there are so many luxuries that we may legitimately prefer to it, such as a grateful conscience, a country life, or the woman of our inclination. (123)

See what I mean about the subtext?  That woman is definitely not in Walden.

Quotations from Familiar Studies of Men and Books (1882), volume 8 of the 1914 Biographical Edition of the Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Scribner's Sons.

* Which you should not do. You should wait until mid-January. Anything you read now doesn't count. No, does not count.


  1. Cheating! You are cheating! Especially when we can't even start, because we don't know what your special rules will be, even though we have this nice illustrated Peregrine Pickle just waiting for us, and have been wanting to read Stevenson especially what with all our South Seas adventures.

  2. I have to cheat. I mean prepare, I have to prepare. The rules are different for me.

    Actually, there's no reason for you to wait. Just set aside the one book that you want me to read.

  3. I hadn't known there was any connection between Stevenson and Thoreau, but I enjoyed what you dug up. Interesting post!

  4. Interesting connection between Stevenson and Thoreau. I had no idea!

  5. Stated simply, Stevenson discovered American literature in college, and epescially fell for Thoreau, Whitman, and Hawthorne.

    Tempermentally, he's more like Whitman. I don't see how Stevenson's prose has much do to with any of them, but maybe that's something I'll learn about next year, during Scots-mania.

  6. I've been meaning to read Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey ever since I read Richard Holmes's chapter on him in his book Footsteps. If you haven't read the chapter, it might be interesting follow-up reading to Travels with a Donkey, if you plan on reading that one. Maybe I'll join you in reading some Stevenson travel writing!

  7. Dorothy - please save that thought! I'm going to read the donkey book early next year as part of the Scottish Literature Challenge.

    Thanks for the Holmes recommendation. I had no idea what was in that book. Looks like my sort of thing.

  8. Oh no! I'm reading Stevenson right now! I'm ahead of the game!