Whistlestop Blog

Happy as kings: Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson died of a stroke in Samoa on December 3, 1894.  He was 44 by less than a month.  Forty-four.  He had health problems throughout his life, but he managed to travel far and wide in all kinds of company, from refined and high in London to rough peasantry in Scotland and France.  He enjoyed America and praised the Susquehanna River for the few moments he saw it.  He sailed in many seas, not exactly the invalid's pastime.  He had a romantic soul, a keen and critical eye sometimes at war with that soul, a deep reserve but an open hand, a savagery of opinion that was often turned on himself (who least deserved it), and a loving marriage that began scandalously and ended as if blessed by God.

Forty-four.  He wrote enough and published enough in his lifetime to fill a four-foot shelf, if you are lucky enough and wise enough to have his complete works in your library.  Publications after his death, including the brilliant letters thrown out to his friends and admirers, would push the collection well beyond four feet.  A constellation of his colleagues, from Henry James to Marcel Proust to Ernest Hemingway to Jorge Luis Borges to Vladimir Nabokov, thought he was one of the finest writers ever to ply the English language.  He was a writer's writer in the very highest sense of the phrase, someone who could gracefully convey the perfect words in just the right economy of style, someone who could be funny, ironic, terrifying, sentimental, awe-inspiring, thrilling, nostalgic, matter-of-fact, and unpretentiously wise.

Yet none of his inimitable characteristics as a writer that dazzled all other writers for a hundred years now got in the way of reaching children just beginning to read to restless teens to men and women in their prime to experienced oldsters in the twilight of their life.  Stevenson could have stopped with A Child's Garden of Verses, for goodness sake, and he would have been immortal.  Add Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Catriona, The Black Arrow, The Master of Ballantrae.  Sure, don't forget The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  The Wrong Box is still one of the funniest books in the past century.  Did you remember the short stories, especially my favorite, one of the most bone-twisting dark horror stories, "Thrawn Janet"?  And we did not begin to list the essays, the travel books, and his invaluable thoughts on writing that could still train you to be writer if you take them to heart, a writer of skill and worth and integrity.  All the while, too, he wrote his letters, that gift to a future that came so suddenly.  He was forty-four.

His poem of journey and experience as a pilgrimage to rest, the poem he had carved as his epitaph, by itself in its perfection assures him of yet another facet of immortality: 

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

Memorize this.  Read Stevenson.  Read about his life.  If you have a measure of RLS, as he liked to sign himself, you have a measure of a great writer, a generous genius.  No matter how long he lived, he will live forever.

John Singer Sargent's portrait of the ever-restless, ever-thinking, ever-striving RLS (1885).