Monday, October 4, 2010

A little Robert Louis Stevenson travel writing roundup

How about a Robert Louis Stevenson travel writing roundup?  Well, how about it?  As long as it doesn’t go on too long.  I hear ya.

My list, books I done read:

An Inland Voyage, 1878, a canoe trip with a college chum on the rivers and canals of northern France.

Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, 1879, a well-titled book.

The Amateur Emigrant, 1895, a badly-titled book, Stevenson crosses the Atlantic to the United States, second-class, itchy and ill, and thankful every day he’s not in steerage with the rest of the Scotch immigrants.

“Across the Plains,” 1883, Stevenson on the immigrant train, from New York City to San Francisco.

The Silverado Squatters, 1884, another terrible title, about Stevenson’s honeymoon in the ruins of a northern California silver mine.

Unread is In the South Seas (1896), another posthumous book, clearly titled.  Stevenson’s South Seas fiction is so good that I have no doubt his non-fiction is enlightening.  Someday.

The first two travel books are also Stevenson’s first two books.  He took the trips through France with the intent of writing books about them.  They are self-conscious in their search for material.  Stevenson was young and inexperienced, and a sort of undergraduate jokiness mars both books, An Inland Voyage especially.  A year later, though, in the donkey book, he is writing like this:

On the day of my departure I was up a little after five; by six, we began to load the donkey; and ten minutes after, my hopes were in the dust.  The pad would not stay on Modestine's back for half a moment.  I returned it to its maker, with whom I had so contumelious a passage that the street outside was crowded from wall to wall with gossips looking on and listening.  The pad changed hands with much vivacity; perhaps it would be more descriptive to say that we threw it at each other's heads; and, at any rate, we were very warm and unfriendly, and spoke with a deal of freedom.  (“The Donkey, the Pack, and the Pack-saddle”)

Modestine is, of course, the donkey.  Stevenson is already a master of the complex-compound sentence. Enormously enjoyable, to me, and the romance of wandering through the French countryside with a donkey is indisputable.  In terms of content, a minor book; in terms of ironic high spirits and charm, a masterpiece.  Much vivacity, yes.  A good part of the charm is veiled.  Stevenson, poor fellow, wandering with his donkey, was in love, a fact that somehow leaks out once in a while.

Please note the scrambled publication order of the last three items in my list.  I put them in the order of actual events.  Stevenson’s lady friend, in California, finally gets a divorce.  Stevenson travels from Scotland to California to marry her, nearly killing himself in the process.  They – Stevenson, new bride Fanny, and her teenage son Lloyd – honeymoon in Napa.  Napa, in 1880, was not quite the luxury destination it is now.  That’s right, the Stevensons honeymooned with a teenage boy.  Yes, Stevenson immediately published a book about his honeymoon.  This is odd, right?

Stevenson got some material out of the trip, as well as an entire family – a book and a pile of magazine writing.  His editors removed a good part of what a modern reader will enjoy most – repulsive smells, skin disease, anti-Chinese prejudice (not Stevenson’s, but his fellow railroad passengers'), that sort of thing.  If at all possible, this material should be read in the restored text, From Scotland to Silverado (1966), ed. James D. Hart.  Anyone interested in how immigrant travel worked will find these short books to be appealing, lively and forthright.  Anyone not so interested should probably not bother.  Except, except, except.

These are all minor books.  They contain any number of fine passages and keen, if small, insights.  One of those passages is better than fine – it’s the second-best thing Stevenson ever wrote.  See back here for the third-best.  Tomorrow for the second.


  1. You still excel at making 'minor books' sound utterly unmissable -- or perhaps because I'm currently in Scotland and grew up in California, sort of near Napa, and I have a feeling I could picture it all clearly. Even the donkey!

    I obviously need to read some Stevenson.

  2. Ah, yes - see today's post. Anyone interested in Napa Valley - there's a good reader for The Silverado Squatters.

    All of these books are quite short - except In the South Seas, which might be why I didn't get to it. And that donkey is genuinely charming.

  3. I know I needn't second Marieke, but I must say this "Across the Plains" business sounds like a must-read for me. And really The Silverado Squatters as well, but the title is almost impossibly terrible!

    I was really wishing I had some more nice short Stevenson in the house when I was packing for my trip, but alas. The Beach at Falesa is one of those books that, every time I think about it, I like even more. Of course it won't all be that good, but everything you quoted here last week seemed tempting.

  4. That's funny. We actually bought some Stevenson books from the North-side Powells several years ago just to take on a trip. Short, punchy, fun to read aloud. We left a sand-filled copy of The Master of Ballantrae in Timbuktu.

    If you have any interest in the subjects, these books are well worth reading. I would have a hard time recommending them in the way I might recommend a novel, that's all.

    Stevenson could be so bad with titles. His title for Treasure Island was The Ship's Cook! His publisher was wiser.