Submit a Poem
Get Your Premium Membership
spacer
 


Back | Comment on Article

An Essay on Robert Louis Stevenson

An Essay on Robert Louis Stevenson

In the early eighties, and in an epoch when the ideals of George Eliot were still controlling, the figure of Stevenson rose with a sort of radiance as a writer whose sole object was to entertain. Most of the great novelists were then dead, and the scientific school was in the ascendant. Fiction was entering upon its death grapple with sociology. Stevenson came, with his tales of adventure and intrigue, out-of-door life and old-time romance, and he recalled to every reader his boyhood and the delights of his earliest reading. We had forgotten that novels could be amusing.

Hence it is that the great public not only loves Stevenson as a writer, but regards him with a certain personal gratitude. There was, moreover, in everything he wrote an engaging humorous touch which made friends for him everywhere, and excited an interest in his fragile and somewhat elusive personality supplementary to the appreciation of his books as literature. Toward the end of his life both he and the public discovered this, and his railleries or sermons took on the form of personal talk.

Beneath these matters lay the fact, known to all, that the man was fighting a losing battle against mortal sickness, and that practically the whole of his work was done under conditions which made any productivity seem a miracle. The heroic invalid was seen through all his books, still sitting before his desk or on his bed, turning out with unabated courage, with increasing ability, volume after volume of gayety, of boys' story-book, and of tragic romance.

There is enough in this record to explain the popularity, running at times into hero-worship and at times into drawing-room fatuity, which makes Stevenson and his work a fair subject for study. It is not impossible that a man who met certain needs of the times so fully, and whom large classes of people sprang forward to welcome, may in some particulars give a clew to the age.

Any description of Stevenson's books is unnecessary. We have all read them too recently to need a prompter. The high spirits and elfin humor which play about and support every work justifies them all.

One of his books, The Child's Garden of Verses, is different in kind from the rest. It has no prototype, and is by far the most original thing that he did. The unsophisticated and gay little volume is a work of the greatest value. Stevenson seems to have remembered the impressions of his childhood with accuracy, and he has recorded them without affectation, without sentimentality, without exaggeration. In depicting children he draws from life. He is at home in the mysteries of their play and in the inconsequent operations of their minds, in the golden haze of impressions in which they live. The references to children in his essays and books show the same understanding and sympathy. There is more than mere literary charm in what he says here. In the matter of childhood we must study him with respect. He is an authority.

The slight but serious studies in biography—alas! too few—which Stevenson published, ought also to be mentioned, because their merit is apt to be overlooked by the admirers of his more ambitious works. His understanding of two such opposite types of men as Burns and Thoreau is notable, and no less notable are the courage, truth, and penetration with which he dealt with them. His essay on Burns is the most comprehensible word ever said of Burns. It makes us love Burns less, but understand him more.

The problems suggested by Stevenson are more important than his work itself. We have in him that rare combination,—a man whose theories and whose practice are of a piece. His doctrines are the mere description of his own state of mind while at work.

The quality which every one will agree in conceding to Stevenson is lightness of touch. This quality is a result of his extreme lucidity, not only of thought, but of intention. We know what he means, and we are sure that we grasp his whole meaning at the first reading. Whether he be writing a tale of travel or humorous essay, a novel of adventure, a story of horror, a morality, or a fable; in whatever key he plays,—and he seems to have taken delight in showing mastery in many,—the reader feels safe in his hands, and knows that no false note will be struck. His work makes no demands upon the attention. It is food so thoroughly peptonized that it is digested as soon as swallowed and leaves us exhilarated rather than fed.

Writing was to him an art, and almost everything that he has written has a little the air of being a tour de force. Stevenson's books and essays were generally brilliant imitations of established things, done somewhat in the spirit of an expert in billiards. In short, Stevenson is the most extraordinary mimic that has ever appeared in literature.

That is the reason why he has been so much praised for his style. When we say of a new thing that it "has style," we mean that it is done as we have seen things done before. Bunyan, De Foe, or Charles Lamb were to their contemporaries men without style. The English, to this day, complain of Emerson that he has no style.

If a man writes as he talks, he will be thought to have no style, until people get used to him, for literature means what has been written. As soon as a writer is established, his manner of writing is adopted by the literary conscience of the times, and you may follow him and still have "style." You may to-day imitate George Meredith, and people, without knowing exactly why they do it, will concede you "style." Style means tradition.

When Stevenson, writing from Samoa in the agony of his South Seas (a book he could not write because he had no paradigm and original to copy from), says that he longs for a "moment of style," he means that he wishes there would come floating through his head a memory of some other man's way of writing to which he could modulate his sentences.

It is no secret that Stevenson in early life spent much time in imitating the styles of various authors, for he has himself described the manner in which he went to work to fit himself for his career as a writer. His boyish ambition led him to employ perfectly phenomenal diligence in cultivating a perfectly phenomenal talent for imitation.

There was probably no fault in Stevenson's theory as to how a man should learn to write, and as to the discipline he must undergo. Almost all the greatest artists have shown, in their early work, traces of their early masters. These they outgrow. "For as this temple waxes, the inward service of the mind and soul grows wide withal;" and an author's own style breaks through the coverings of his education, as a hyacinth breaks from the bulb. It is noticeable, too, that the early and imitative work of great men generally belongs to a particular school to which their maturity bears a logical relation. They do not cruise about in search of a style or vehicle, trying all and picking up hints here and there, but they fall incidentally and genuinely under influences which move them and afterwards qualify their original work.

With Stevenson it was different; for he went in search of a style as Coelebs in search of a wife. He was an eclectic by nature. He became a remarkable, if not a unique phenomenon,—for he never grew up. Whether or not there was some obscure connection between his bodily troubles and the arrest of his intellectual development, it is certain that Stevenson remained a boy till the day of his death.

The boy was the creature in the universe whom Stevenson best understood. Let us remember how a boy feels about art, and why he feels so. The intellect is developed in the child with such astonishing rapidity that long before physical maturity its head is filled with ten thousand things learned from books and not drawn directly from real life.

The form and setting in which the boy learns of matters sticks in the mind as a part of the matters themselves. He cannot disentangle what is conventional from what is original, because he has not yet a first-hand acquaintance with life by which to interpret.

Every schoolboy of talent writes essays in the style of Addison, because he is taught that this is the correct way of writing. He has no means of knowing that in writing in this manner he is using his mind in a very peculiar and artificial way,—a way entirely foreign to Addison himself; and that he is really striving not so much to say something himself as to reproduce an effect.

There is one thing which young people do not know, and which they find out during the process of growing up,—and that is that good things in art have been done by men whose entire attention was absorbed in an attempt to tell the truth, and who have been chiefly marked by a deep unconsciousness.

To a boy, the great artists of the world are a lot of necromancers, whose enchantments can perhaps be stolen and used again. To a man, they are a lot of human beings, and their works are parts of them. Their works are their hands and their feet, their organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions. To a man, it is as absurd to imitate the manner of Dean Swift in writing as it would be to imitate the manner of Dr. Johnson in eating. But Stevenson was not a man, he was a boy; or, to speak more accurately, the attitude of his mind towards his work remained unaltered from boyhood till death, though his practice and experiment gave him, as he grew older, a greater mastery over his materials. It is in this attitude of Stevenson's mind toward his own work that we must search for the heart of his mystery.

He conceived of himself as "an artist," and of his writings as performances. As a consequence, there is an undertone of insincerity in almost everything which he has written. His attention is never wholly absorbed in his work, but is greatly taken up with the notion of how each stroke of it is going to appear.

We have all experienced, while reading his books, a certain undefinable suspicion which interferes with the enjoyment of some people, and enhances that of others. It is not so much the cream-tarts themselves that we suspect, as the motive of the giver.

"I am in the habit," said Prince Florizel, "of looking not so much to the nature of the gift as to the spirit in which it is offered."

"The spirit, sir," returned the young man, with another bow, "is one of mockery."

This doubt about Stevenson's truth and candor is one of the results of the artistic doctrines which he professed and practised. He himself regards his work as a toy; and how can we do otherwise?

It seems to be a law of psychology that the only way in which the truth can be strongly told is in the course of a search for truth. The moment a man strives after some "effect," he disqualifies himself from making that effect; for he draws the interest of his audience to the same matters that occupy his own mind; namely, upon his experiment and his efforts. It is only when a man is saying something that he believes is obviously and eternally true, that he can communicate spiritual things.

Ultimately speaking, the vice of Stevenson's theories about art is that they call for a self-surrender by the artist of his own mind to the pleasure of others, for a subordination of himself to the production of this "effect" in the mind of another. They degrade and belittle him. Let Stevenson speak for himself; the thought contained in the following passage is found in a hundred places in his writings and dominated his artistic life.

"The French have a romantic evasion for one employment, and call its practitioners the Daughters of Joy. The artist is of the same family, he is of the Sons of Joy, chose his trade to please himself, gains his livelihood by pleasing others, and has parted with something of the sterner dignity of men. The poor Daughter of Joy carrying her smiles and her finery quite unregarded through the crowd, makes a figure which it is impossible to recall without a wounding pity. She is the type of the unsuccessful artist."

These are the doctrines and beliefs which, time out of mind, have brought the arts into contempt. They are as injurious as they are false, and they will checkmate the progress of any man or of any people that believes them. They corrupt and menace not merely the fine arts, but every other form of human expression in an equal degree. They are as insulting to the comic actor as they are to Michael Angelo, for the truth and beauty of low comedy are as dignified, and require of the artist the same primary passion for life for its own sake, as the truth and beauty of The Divine Comedy. The doctrines are the outcome of an Alexandrine age. After art has once learnt to draw its inspiration directly from life and has produced some masterpieces, then imitations begin to creep in. That Stevenson's doctrines tend to produce imitative work is obvious. If the artist is a fisher of men, then we must examine the works of those who have known how to bait their hooks: in fiction,—De Foe, Fielding, Walter Scott, Dumas, Balzac.

To a study of these men, Stevenson had, as we have seen, devoted the most plastic years of his life. The style and even the mannerisms of each of them, he had trained himself to reproduce. One can almost write their names across his pages and assign each as a presiding genius over a share of his work. Not that Stevenson purloined or adopted in a mean spirit, and out of vanity. His enthusiasm was at the bottom of all he did. He was well read in the belles lettres of England and the romanticists of France. These books were his bible. He was steeped in the stage-land and cloud-land of sentimental literature. From time to time, he emerged, trailing clouds of glory and showering sparkles from his hands.

A close inspection shows his clouds and sparkles to be stage properties; but Stevenson did not know it. The public not only does not know it, but does not care whether it be so or not. The doughty old novel readers who knew their Scott and Ainsworth and Wilkie Collins and Charles Reade, their Dumas and their Cooper, were the very people whose hearts were warmed by Stevenson. If you cross-question one of these, he will admit that Stevenson is after all a revival, an echo, an after-glow of the romantic movement, and that he brought nothing new. He will scout any comparison between Stevenson and his old favorites, but he is ready enough to take Stevenson for what he is worth. The most casual reader recognizes a whole department of Stevenson's work as competing in a general way with Walter Scott.

Kidnapped is a romantic fragment whose original is to be found in the Scotch scenes of the Waverley Novels. An incident near the beginning of it, the curse of Jennet Clouston upon the House of Shaws, is transferred from Guy Mannering almost literally. But the curse of Meg Merrilies in Guy Mannering—which is one of the most surprising and powerful scenes Scott ever wrote—is an organic part of the story, whereas the transcript is a thing stuck in for effect, and the curse is put in the mouth of an old woman whose connection with the plot is apocryphal, and who never appears again.

Treasure Island is a piece of astounding ingenuity, in which the manner is taken from Robinson Crusoe, and the plot belongs to the era of the detective story. The Treasure of Franchard is a French farce or light comedy of bourgeois life, of a type already a little old-fashioned, but perfectly authentic. The tone, the mise-en-scène, the wit, the character-drawing, the very language, are all so marvellously reproduced from the French, that we almost see the footlights while we read it.

The Sieur de Maletroit's Door embodies the same idea as a well-known French play in verse and in one act. The version of Stevenson is like an exquisite water-color copy, almost as good as the original.

The Isle of Voices is the production of a man of genius. No one can too much admire the legerdemain of the magician who could produce this thing; for it is a story out of the Arabian Nights, told with a perfection of mannerism, a reproduction of the English in which the later translators of the Arabian Nights have seen fit to deal, a simulation of the movement and detail of the Eastern stories which fairly takes our breath away.

It is "ask and have" with this man. Like Mephistopheles in the Raths-Keller, he gives us what vintage we call for. Olalla is an instance in point. Any one familiar with Mérimée's stories will smile at the naïveté with which Stevenson has taken the leading idea of Lokis, and surrounded it with the Spanish sunshine of Carmen. But we have "fables," moralities, and psychology, Jekyl and Hyde, Markheim, and Will O' the Mill. We have the pasteboard feudal style, in which people say, "Ye can go, boy; for I will keep your good friend and my good gossip company till curfew—aye, and by St. Mary till the Sun get up again." We must have opera bouffe, as in Prince Otto; melodrama, as in The Pavilion on the Links; the essay of almost biblical solemnity in the manner of Sir Thomas Browne, the essay of charming humor in the style of Charles Lamb, the essay of introspection and egotism in the style of Montaigne.

Let us not for a moment imagine that Stevenson has stolen these things and is trying to palm them off on us as his own. He has absorbed them. He does not know their origin. He gives them out again in joy and in good faith with zest and amusement and in the excitement of a new discovery.

If all these many echoing voices do not always ring accurately true, yet their number is inordinate and remarkable. They will not bear an immediate comparison with their originals; but we may be sure that the vintages of Mephistopheles would not have stood a comparison with real wine.

One of the books which established Stevenson's fame was the New Arabian Nights. The series of tales about Prince Florizel of Bohemia was a brilliant, original, and altogether delightful departure in light literature. The stories are a frank and wholesome caricature of the French detective story. They are legitimate pieces of literature because they are burlesque, and because the smiling Mephistopheles who lurks everywhere in the pages of Stevenson is for this time the acknowledged showman of the piece.

A burlesque is always an imitation shown off by the foil of some incongruous setting. The setting in this case Stevenson found about him in the omnibuses, the clubs, and the railways of sordid and complicated London.

In this early book Stevenson seems to have stumbled upon the true employment of his powers without realizing the treasure trove, for he hardly returned to the field of humor, for which his gifts most happily fitted him. As a writer of burlesque he truly expresses himself. He is full of genuine fun.

The fantastic is half brother to the burlesque. Each implies some original as a point of departure, and as a scheme for treatment some framework upon which the author's wit and fancy shall be lavished.

It is in the region of the fantastic that Stevenson loved to wander, and it is in this direction that he expended his marvellous ingenuity. His fairy tales and arabesques must be read as they were written, in the humor of forty fancies and without any heavy-fisted intention of getting new ideas about life. It will be said that the defect of Stevenson is expressed by these very qualities, fancy and ingenuity, because they are contradictory, and the second destroys the first. Be this as it may, there are many people whose pleasure is not spoiled by elaboration and filigree work.

Our ability to follow Stevenson in his fantasias depends very largely upon how far our imaginations and our sentimental interests are dissociated from our interest in real life. Commonplace and common-sense people, whose emotional natures are not strongly at play in the conduct of their daily lives, have a fund of unexpended mental activity, of a very low degree of energy, which delights to be occupied with the unreal and the impossible. More than this, any mind which is daily occupied in an attempt to grasp some of the true relations governing things as they are, finds its natural relaxation in the contemplation of things as they are not,—things as they cannot be. There is probably no one who will not find himself thoroughly enjoying the fantastic, if he be mentally fatigued enough. Hence the justification of a whole branch of Stevenson's work.

After every detraction has been allowed for, there remain certain books of Stevenson's of an extraordinary and peculiar merit, books which can hardly be classed as imitations or arabesques,—Kidnapped, Weir of Hermiston, The Merry Men. These books seem at first blush to have every element of greatness, except spontaneity. The only trouble is, they are too perfect.

If, after finishing Kidnapped, or The Merry Men, we take up Guy Mannering, or The Antiquary, or any of Scott's books which treat of the peasantry, the first impression we gain is, that we are happy. The tension is gone; we are in contact with a great, sunny, benign human being who pours a flood of life out before us and floats us as the sea floats a chip. He is full of old-fashioned and absurd passages. Sometimes he proses, and sometimes he runs to seed. He is so careless of his English that his sentences are not always grammatical; but we get a total impression of glorious and wholesome life.

It is the man Walter Scott who thus excites us. This heather, these hills, these peasants, this prodigality and vigor and broad humor, enlarge and strengthen us. If we return now to Weir of Hermiston, we seem to be entering the cell of an alchemist. All is intention, all calculation. The very style of Weir of Hermiston is English ten times distilled.

Let us imagine that directness and unconsciousness are the great qualities of style, and that Stevenson believes this. The greatest directness and unconsciousness of which Stevenson himself was capable are to be found in some of his early writings. Across the Plains, for instance, represents his most straightforward and natural style. But it happens that certain great writers who lived some time ago, and were famous examples of "directness," have expressed themselves in the speech of their own period. Stevenson rejects his own style as not good enough for him, not direct enough, not unconscious enough; he will have theirs. And so he goes out in quest of purity and truth, and brings home an elaborate archaism.

Although we think of Stevenson as a writer of fiction, his extreme popularity is due in great measure to his innumerable essays and bits of biography and autobiography, his letters, his journals, and travels and miscellaneous reminiscences.

It was his own belief that he was a very painstaking and conscientious artist, and this is true to a great extent. On the day of his death he was engaged upon the most highly organized and ambitious thing he ever attempted, and every line of it shows the hand of an engraver on steel. But it is also true that during the last years of his life he lived under the pressure of photographers and newspaper syndicates, who came to him with great sums of money in their hands. He was exploited by the press of the United States, and this is the severest ordeal which a writer of English can pass through. There was one year in which he earned four thousand pounds. His immeasurable generosity kept him forever under the harrow in money matters, and added another burden to the weight carried by this dying and indomitable man. It is no wonder that some of his work is trivial. The wonder is that he should have produced it at all.

The journalistic work of Stevenson, beginning with his Inland Voyage, and the letters afterwards published as Across the Plains, is valuable in the inverse ratio to its embellishment. Sidney Colvin suggested to him that in the letters Across the Plains the lights were turned down. But, in truth, the light is daylight. The letters have a freshness that midnight oil could not have improved, and this fugitive sketch is of more permanent interest than all the polite essays he ever wrote.

If we compare the earlier with the later work of Stevenson as a magazine writer, we are struck with the accentuation of his mannerisms. It is not a single style which grows more intense, but his amazing skill in many which has increased.

The following is a specimen of Stevenson's natural style, and it would be hard to find a better:—

"The day faded; the lamps were lit; a party of wild young men, who got off next evening at North Platte, stood together on the stern platform singing The Sweet By-and-By with very tuneful voices; the chums began to put up their beds; and it seemed as if the business of the day were at an end. But it was not so; for the train stopping at some station, the cars were instantly thronged with the natives, wives and fathers, young men and maidens, some of them in little more than night-gear, some with stable lanterns, and all offering beds for sale."

The following is from an essay written by Stevenson while under the influence of the author of Rab and his Friends.

"One such face I now remember; one such blank some half a dozen of us labor to dissemble. In his youth he was a most beautiful person, most serene and genial by disposition, full of racy words and quaint thoughts. Laughter attended on his coming.... From this disaster like a spent swimmer he came desperately ashore, bankrupt of money and consideration; creeping to the family he had deserted; with broken wing never more to rise. But in his face there was the light of knowledge that was new to it. Of the wounds of his body he was never healed; died of them gradually, with clear-eyed resignation. Of his wounded pride we knew only by his silence."

The following is in the sprightly style of the eighteenth century:—

"Cockshot is a different article, but vastly entertaining, and has been meat and drink to me for many a long evening. His manner is dry, brisk, and pertinacious, and the choice of words not much. The point about him is his extraordinary readiness and spirit. You can propound nothing but he has either a theory about it ready made or will have one instantly on the stocks, and proceed to lay its timbers and launch it on the minute. 'Let me see,' he will say, 'give me a moment, I should have some theory for that.'"

But for serious matters this manner would never do, and accordingly we find that, when the subject invites him, Stevenson falls into English as early as the time of James I.

Let us imagine Bacon dedicating one of his smaller works to his physicians:—

"There are men and classes of men that stand above the common herd: the soldier, the sailor, and the shepherd not unfrequently; the artist rarely; rarelier still the clergyman; the physician almost as a rule.... I forget as many as I remember and I ask both to pardon me, these for silence, those for inadequate speech."

After finishing off this dedication to his satisfaction, Stevenson turns over the page and writes a NOTE in the language of two and one-half centuries later. He is now the elegant littérateur of the last generation—one would say James Russell Lowell:—

"The human conscience has fled of late the troublesome domain of conduct for what I should have supposed to be the less congenial field of art: there she may now be said to rage, and with special severity in all that touches dialect, so that in every novel the letters of the alphabet are tortured, and the reader wearied, to commemorate shades of mispronunciation."

But in this last extract we are still three degrees away from what can be done in the line of gentility and delicate effeteness of style. Take the following, which is the very peach-blow of courtesy:—

"But upon one point there should be no dubiety: if a man be not frugal he has no business in the arts. If he be not frugal he steers directly for that last tragic scene of le vieux saltimbanque; if he be not frugal he will find it hard to continue to be honest. Some day when the butcher is knocking at the door he may be tempted, he may be obliged to turn out and sell a slovenly piece of work. If the obligation shall have arisen through no wantonness of his own, he is even to be commended, for words cannot describe how far more necessary it is that a man should support his family than that he should attain to—or preserve—distinction in the arts," etc.

Now the very next essay to this is a sort of intoned voluntary played upon the more sombre emotions.

"What a monstrous spectre is this man, the disease of the agglutinated dust, lifting alternate feet or lying drugged in slumber; killing, feeding, growing, bringing forth small copies of himself; grown upon with hair like grass, fitted with eyes that move and glitter in his face; a thing to set children screaming;—and yet looked at nearlier, known as his fellows know him, how surprising are his attributes."

There is a tincture of Carlyle in this mixture. There are a good many pages of Gothic type in the later essays, for Stevenson thought it the proper tone in which to speak of death, duty, immortality, and such subjects as that. He derived this impression from the works of Sir Thomas Browne. But the solemnity of Sir Thomas Browne is like a melodious thunder, deep, sweet, unconscious, ravishing.

"Time sadly overcometh all things and is now dominant and sitteth upon a sphinx and looketh upon Memphis and old Thebes, while his sister Oblivion reclineth semi-somnous upon a pyramid, gloriously triumphing, making puzzles of Titanian erections, and turning old glories into dreams. History sinketh beneath her cloud. The traveller as he passeth through these deserts asketh of her 'who builded them?' And she mumbleth something, but what it is he heareth not."

The frenzy to produce something like this sadly overcomes Stevenson, in his later essays. But perhaps it were to reason too curiously to pin Stevenson down to Browne. All the old masters stalk like spectres through his pages, and among them are the shades of the moderns, even men that we have dined with.

According to Stevenson, a certain kind of subject requires a certain "treatment," and the choice of his tone follows his title. These "treatments" are always traditional, and even his titles tread closely on the heels of former titles. He can write the style of Charles Lamb better than Lamb could do it himself, and his Hazlitt is very nearly as good. He fences with his left hand as well as with his right, and can manage two styles at once like Franz Liszt playing the allegretto from the 7th symphony with an air of Offenbach twined about it.

It is with a pang of disappointment that we now and then come across a style which we recognize, yet cannot place.

People who take enjoyment in the reminiscences awakened by conjuring of this kind can nowhere in the world find a master like Stevenson. Those persons belong to the bookish classes. Their numbers are insignificant, but they are important because they give countenance to the admiration of others who love Stevenson with their hearts and souls.

The reason why Stevenson represents a backward movement in literature, is that literature lives by the pouring into it of new words from speech, and new thoughts from life, and Stevenson used all his powers to exclude both from his work. He lived and wrote in the past. That this Scotchman should appear at the end of what has been a very great period of English literature, and summarize the whole of it in his two hours' traffic on the stage, gives him a strange place in the history of that literature. He is the Improvisatore, and nothing more. It is impossible to assign him rank in any line of writing. If you shut your eyes to try and place him, you find that you cannot do it. The effect he produces while we are reading him vanishes as we lay down the book, and we can recall nothing but a succession of flavors. It is not to be expected that posterity will take much interest in him, for his point and meaning are impressional. He is ephemeral, a shadow, a reflection. He is the mistletoe of English literature whose roots are not in the soil but in the tree.

But enough of the nature and training of Stevenson which fitted him to play the part he did. The cyclonic force which turned him from a secondary London novelist into something of importance and enabled him to give full play to his really unprecedented talents will be recognized on glancing about us.

We are now passing through the age of the Distribution of Knowledge. The spread of the English-speaking race since 1850, and the cheapness of printing, have brought in primers and handbooks by the million. All the books of the older literatures are being abstracted and sown abroad in popular editions. The magazines fulfil the same function; every one of them is a penny cyclopedia. Andrew Lang heads an army of organized workers who mine in the old literature and coin it into booklets and cash.

The American market rules the supply of light literature in Great Britain. While Lang culls us tales and legends and lyrics from the Norse or Provensal, Stevenson will engage to supply us with tales and legends of his own—something just as good. The two men serve the same public.

Stevenson's reputation in England was that of a comparatively light weight, but his success here was immediate. We hailed him as a classic—or something just as good. Everything he did had the very stamp and trademark of Letters, and he was as strong in one department as another. We loved this man; and thenceforward he purveyed "literature" to us at a rate to feed sixty millions of people and keep them clamoring for more.

Does any one believe that the passion of the American people for learning and for antiquity is a slight and accidental thing? Does any one believe that the taste for imitation old furniture is a pose? It creates an eddy in the Maelstrom of Commerce. It is a power like Niagara, and represents the sincere appreciation of half educated people for second rate things. There is here nothing to be ashamed of. In fact there is everything to be proud of in this progress of the arts, this importation of culture by the carload. The state of mind it shows is a definite and typical state of mind which each individual passes through, and which precedes the discovery that real things are better than sham. When the latest Palace Hotel orders a hundred thousand dollars' worth of Louis XV. furniture to be made—and most well made—in Buffalo, and when the American public gives Stevenson an order for Pulvis et Umbra —the same forces are at work in each case. It is Chicago making culture hum.

And what kind of a man was Stevenson? Whatever may be said about his imitativeness, his good spirits were real. They are at the bottom of his success, the strong note in his work. They account for all that is paradoxical in his effect. He often displays a sentimentalism which has not the ring of reality. And yet we do not reproach him. He has by stating his artistic doctrines in their frankest form revealed the scepticism inherent in them. And yet we know that he was not a sceptic; on the contrary, we like him, and he was regarded by his friends as little lower than the angels.

Why is it that we refuse to judge him by his own utterances? The reason is that all of his writing is playful, and we know it. The instinct at the bottom of all mimicry is self-concealment. Hence the illusive and questionable personality of Stevenson. Hence our blind struggle to bind this Proteus who turns into bright fire and then into running water under our hands. The truth is that as a literary force, there was no such man as Stevenson; and after we have racked our brains to find out the mechanism which has been vanquishing the chess players of Europe, there emerges out of the Box of Maelzel a pale boy.

But the courage of this boy, the heroism of his life, illumine all his works with a personal interest. The last ten years of his life present a long battle with death.

We read of his illnesses, his spirit; we hear how he never gave up, but continued his works by dictation and in dumb show when he was too weak to hold the pen, too weak to speak. This courage and the lovable nature of Stevenson won the world's heart. He was regarded with a peculiar tenderness such as is usually given only to the young. Honor, and admiration mingled with affection followed him to his grave. Whatever his artistic doctrines, he revealed his spiritual nature in his work. It was this nature which made him thus beloved.




Comments