Robert Louis (Balfour) Stevenson (November 13, 1850 – December 3, 1894), was a Scottish novelist, poet, and travel writer, and a leading representative of Neo-romanticism in English literature. He was the man who "seemed to pick the right word up on the point of his pen, like a man playing spillikins", as G. K. Chesterton put it. He was also greatly admired by many authors such as Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, Vladimir Nabokov and others. Most modernist writers dismissed him, however, because he was popular and didn't write within their narrow definition of literature. It is only recently that critics have begun to look beyond Stevenson's popularity and allow him a place in the canon.
Stevenson was born Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson, in Edinburgh, Scotland, on November 13, 1850. His father was Thomas Stevenson, and his grandfather was Robert Stevenson; both were distinguished lighthouse designers and engineers, as was his great-grandfather. It was from this side of the family that he inherited his love of adventure, joy of the sea and for the open road. His maternal grandfather, Lewis Balfour, was a professor of moral philosophy and a minister, and Stevenson spent the greater part of his boyhood in his house. "Now I often wonder", says Stevenson, "what I 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." From his mother, Margaret Balfour, he inherited weak lungs (perhaps tuberculosis), that kept him constantly in "the land of the counterpane" during the winter, where his nurse spent long hours by his bedside reading from the Bible, and lives of the old Covenanters. During the summer he was encouraged to play outside, where he proved to be a wild and carefree child, and by the age of eleven his health had improved so that his parents prepared him for the University of Edinburgh by attending Edinburgh Academy, planning for him to follow his father as a lighthouse engineer. During this period he read widely and especially enjoyed Shakespeare, Walter Scott, John Bunyan and The Arabian Nights.
He entered the University of Edinburgh at seventeen, but soon discovered he had neither the scientific mind nor physical endurance to succeed as an engineer. When his father took him for a voyage he found - instead of being interested in lighthouse construction - that his mind was teeming with wonderful romances about the coast and islands which they visited. Although his father was stern, he finally allowed him to decide upon a career in literature - but first he thought it wise to finish a degree in law, so that he might have something to fall back upon. Stevenson followed this course and by the age of twenty-five passed the examinations for admission to the bar, though not until he had nearly ruined his health through work and worry. His father's lack of understanding led him to write the following protest:
- Say not of me that weakly I declined
- The labours of my sires, and fled the sea
- The towers we founded and the lamps we lit,
- To play at home with paper like a child.
Stevenson was a celebrity in his own time, but with the rise of modern literature after the First World War, he was seen for much of the 20th century as a writer of the second class, relegated to childrens' literature and horror genres. Condemned by authors such as Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf, he was gradually excluded from the canon of literature taught in schools. His exclusion reached a height when in the 1973 2,000 page Oxford Anthology of English Literature Stevenson was entirely unmentioned. The late 20th century saw the start of a re-evaluation of Stevenson's works as an artist of great range and insight, a literary theorist, an essayist and social critic, a witness to the colonial history of the South Pacific, and a humanist. He is now being re-evaluated as a peer with authors such as Joseph Conrad (who Stevenson influenced with his South Seas fiction) and Henry James, with new scholarly studies and organizations devoted to Stevenson. No matter what the scholarly reception, Stevenson remains very popular. According to the Index Translationum, Stevenson is ranked the 25th most translated author in the world, ahead of Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe.