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A Man of Letters.

Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson Discusses
Life and Literature.


A Confident Reliance Upon “the Explosive Vices
of Mankind.”

By H.R. Haxton

IT HAS BEEN THE fortune of but few writers to at once attain the book-stall notoriety and win the regard of men of letters enjoyed by Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson. Some toilers in the field of literature have cut a wider swathe, and some can show a goodlier stack of the golden straw which is their labor’s secondary compensation, but none has plowed the soil more deeply or garnered a more rich a various harvest. And he has shown himself singularly free from a farmer’s vice — the idle trick of turning from productive toil to criticise the agricultural methods of his neighbors and compare their corn with his.

Portrait from a photographic image by Lloyd Osbourne.

The portrait is from a photographic image by Lloyd Osbourne.

With, however, the kindliness of a skilled soldier who admonishes a camp-follower, he has, on two or three occasions, indicated to the writer some of the distinctions between good sword-play and mere battery. And, with his reluctant permission, I have of these wayside words made some semblance of the thing he most abhors — an “interview.” The verse printed beneath his portrait is by Mr. William Ernest Henley, and — bar a touch of friendly malice — is an exceptionally close word picture.

Mr. Stevenson has early this morning weighed anchor for a long cruise in the South Seas, so that it is permissible to add a word of prose to these two portraits. No man bears more plainly on his face the mark of his vocation: genius and many-sidedness are written there with heavy hand — the pen almost tearing the paper. His eyes and many of the lines in his face, are like a woman’s, and yet he looks intensely energetic. Withal, a suggestion of latent lawlessness, an “if I thought I ought to kill you I should do so” about the man, is in curious contrast to his active kindliness and tolerance.

The marks of illness, too — but this is a sad part of a bright picture; let it suffice to say that the physician who attended Mr. Stevenson ten years ago declares he is no worse to-day than then.

Mr. Stevenson is not an admirer of what the Saturday Review called “post-card journalism,” the inquisition of a census of opinion. The man who asks him for his ten great writers, hundred best books, or thirteen most approved remedies for St. Vitus’ dance, will discover that there are but two approved methods of leaving a room, the door way and the window way, and he will wish there were twenty, so eagerly will he flee from the wrath to come. But people who are at once frivolous and crafty can get a short list of Mr. Stevenson’s favorite novelists by noting them one at a time.

“I am a true blue Meredith person,” he proclaims. “I think George Meredith out and away the greatest force in English letters, and I don’t know whether it can be considered a very encouraging thing that he has now become popular or whether we should think it a very discouraging thing that he should have written so long without any encouragement whatever. It is enough, for instance, to disgust a man with the whole trade of letters that such a book as “Rhoda Fleming” should have fallen flat; it is the strongest thing in English letters since Shakespeare died, and if Shakespeare could have read it he would have jumped and cried, ‘Here’s a fellow!’ No other living writer of English fiction can be compared to Meredith. He is the first, and the others — are not he. There is Hardy, of course. I would give my hand to write like Hardy. I have seen sentences of his that I don’t think could be bettered by any writer or in any language. Still, I serve under Meredith’s colors always.”

At another moment Henry James’ name was dropped upon the stream of his quick thought by some side wind of allusion.

“I have an extreme interest in the work of Mr. James; he is certainly a most beautiful artist, and when once he had a moment of hesitancy I made ready to mourn bitterly. He came to a moment when he seemed to have stuck in his development, and I thought he was going to do what so many other people of promise have done, and turn into a barrel-organ grinder. Just then he proceeded to strike mines in every direction, to display a remarkable spirit of adventure and invention, a versatility really dazzling. I don’t think even Guy de Maupassant has had a succession of more brilliant ideas than Henry James in the last five or six years. But see again what critics are. They learned the ready phrase, the cliché for James’ former work. When he began to open out and strike abroad, bless their poor souls, they’d wit enough to see that the cliché no longer quite applied; but their main sentiment, so far as I can see, was one of disappointment. There is another thing to sicken a man of the trade of letters: that books like ‘The Bostonians,’ ‘The Princess Casamissima’ and the volume of tales that is called after ‘The Author of Beltrafflo’ should appear with less recognition than would be given to a ‘Treasure Island.’

“And Howells — now, there is, to me, a really interesting figure, because he proves what a very genuine and real thing merit is. If I am not to suppose his papers in Harper’s Monthly a series of elaborate mystifications, I must conclude that Mr. Howells holds down to the most punctual particular the direct reverse of everything that I hold, and yet, working on these principles, is it not delightful that Mr. Howells should so often be able to stir my admiration!”

One could not but remind Mr. Stevenson how widely “Princess Casamissima” and his own “Kidnapped” differed in their genre, the one lying in the cool white light of an etcher’s screen, the other glowing with the air of out-o’-doors, fierce with incident.

“Yes,” said Mr. Stevenson, with the Scotch staccato in his speech, which shows itself when he is amused at the audacity of his own speculations. “I confess I think I have the right to write a little for my own amusement as well as for that of the public, and you would perhaps have a difficulty in believing how absolutely contemptible to me are the whole conditions of contemporary life, this whole stuffy business of living in houses and going to offices—and what is worse, to evening parties—and making believe that we are at peace because we have all the mortality and none of the exhilaration of war. I have long lived in the hope, though it is a somewhat fearful hope, that the whole fabric will be blown to the moon before we are many years older.”

One told Mr. Stevenson how the country schoolboys in Australia put corrosive sublimate on the great hills of the “bulldog” ants, and watch the creatures run mad, heaping one upon another in the melee till there is a solid ball of ants as big as one’s flat, writhing and fighting — and suggested the exhibition of this Kilkenny-cat remedy to the ignoble who dwell in houses.

“The ant will serve to illustrate my meaning as well as another parallel. It is the only creature of any high intelligence whose destiny has been developed on this earth apart from the influence of man. To the ant man’s passage is simple cataclysmal. Thus he has been able to develop himself apart — and look at the result! What has happened to our first cousins really seems to be threatening ourselves, and yet I have sufficient confidence in the explosive vices of manhood to think that before the door is shut upon the cellular prison of the ant heap we should rather fall back upon a period of almost universal warfare. It is a matter of taste-some people prefer pestilence, some competition, and I, scuffing in ditches and skulking behind hedge-rows.”

“So it is because of the strain militant in you that you work in the milieu of ‘Kidnapped’ instead of that of ‘Princess Casamissima,’ and prefer sword play to competition as a trick of clearing the stage?”

“Possibly. Mind, if I were a man with any theory of how the world was to be made better, I should delight to write contemporary novels, and I blush to confess they would be tendenz novels, to use a German word that does not take English happily, but I am simply a person who is not amused and not very highly interested by the spectacle of life as it goes on usually. So I permit myself, under even painfully close restrictions, slight approximations to a life that seems to me both more healthy and more amusing.”

“Your cruise among the South-sea islands will enable you to get at least the forms of savagery. Their vices, at any rate, are supposed to have exploded and expanded.”

“Yes, I mean to let the yacht drift far enough from the beaten tracks to enable one to make a light book of travel—as heavy as I can make it, of course, but the probability is that it will turn out pretty light—and I want to see something of uncivilized races. I regret my ignorance of them. But please do not suppose that I go among savages, ignorant as I am, with the slightest illusion as to savage life. The one little advantage that I have got out of a desultory and somewhat lucky education, is a profound belief in and a slight acquaintance with the results of the historical method. That inhuman Gorgon of a respectability which we are inclined to suppose a creature of quite modern birth has simply been the devil in the hedge since the first moment when man took into his head to have a conscience.”

“In another fashion, then, respectability torments the primitive savage as it torments us. The root idea is the same. The portly and smug-shaven butler, who watches the revolving courses of a London dinner, would, seething in the flesh pots of the anthropophagi, be equally a depository of respectable tradition — to their minds. And the savage’s respectability is the less odious of the two?”

“I am sure I do not know. Periods of bloodshed and periods of tedium appear to follow each other. Some people have a natural taste for the tedium, which I seem to lack. As to how much I care about the bloodshed, I really do not know; at least it would be a change, and at least I am very certain there are more human virtues in the act of cutting a gentleman’s throat in a corner of a battlefield than in subtilizing his money through a stock exchange, leaving him to die slowly in a garret, and proceeding to a German bath with a Bright’s disease, on the proceeds.”

“You have keyed yourself up to the moral pitch of cutting throats and can’t descend in writing to teacup dialogue?”

“I don’t put it just that way; but I don’t say that I consider the tea table the highest plane. All this is a mighty long apology for not writing contemporary novels, but I should very much deceive you if I left you to suppose that I have not several of them fully planned. The difficulty is in this: If I touch upon contemporary subjects I have no choice but to touch upon problems upon which I cannot help feeling a little bitterly, and as to which I am far from sure of the true solution. How far more agreeable for me, then, and how much more wholesome for my readers, that I should get away to whatever time or country, real or perhaps a little imaginary, where I am free to look at the complications of life only so far as they are simple, and to touch upon morality only so far as it is a matter of practically universal convention.”

IT MAY BE DOUBTED if a keener literary emotion exists than that evoked by hearing Mr. Stevenson discuss style. For the disquisition is its own example and illustration. Phrases at once intricately ingenious and classically simple insert themselves as if by a collusion of the fates: it seems a jugglery that a man should speak such considered prose. One fancies, almost, that if Mr. Stevenson rewrites his essays seven times for “structure” it is done in wantonness; that a mere shuffling of the sheets would effect the rearrangement, and that nothing of word changing could improve his diction.

“My special distaste,” he says, “is the use of any foreign word. Often and often I set one down as a memorandum. When I come to go over the work again, although it sometimes takes me a long time, I think I never fail to express the idea clearly in honest English. What sort of English word I use is a matter of the very slightest moment to me, so long as I can get the meaning close and so long as the word is in the key of what I am writing. This question of key is—I am afraid it is really incommunicable. A good example of a key perfectly held, perhaps as good as I can name, is the Church of England prayer-book. There does not seem to me one word in the whole of that which is not of near aesthetic kin to all the rest.

callout1_rls_crumb“Now, I take a great deal of trouble about this and am very sensitive to it in my own work, as well as in the work of others. But like everybody else who is at all a conscious workman, I sometimes go too far. I suppose it is that which made James talk of my coquetting with words. For one word in particular I have had a fatal passion. The number of plain unvarnished, unaffected statements that I have damned by the use of this word ‘crumb’ is a thing that I cannot explain. I don’t see much in the word now, but when I get a chance to put it in where it doesn’t belong, I not only never fail to do it, but I cannot strike it out again. I should, perhaps, never have noticed this deplorable weakness of mine if a critic had not made it the subject of commendation. I had written that Silver’s eye (in “Treasure Island”) gleamed like a crumb of glass. “An ordinary writer would have said bead,” said the critic, and oh, heavens, how I wished I had been an ordinary writer and said ‘bead’!”

“What do you think of the fellows who go to Roget’s ‘Thesaurus’ in order to annex an incongruous wing to their ramshackle vocabulary?

“The great instance of that sort of folly was Gautier, who is said to have read the dictionary for some time every morning. I don’t know if the story be strictly true, but yet I always think I can see that it was true when I read his work. It is a fact that whenever a writer comes across a word that is new to him he should make a strong effort to fix it in his mind, because some day it will come handy. But he must take great care to do so with its connotations, so that it shall be called up the harmonic of a note as soon as his mind comes upon the subject which it really suits.

“To learn words off by heart, like patches of color, is only to tempt yourself to stick them in for the fun of the thing and to load yourself, if I may make an allusion to my own malady, with crumbs. If I suffer from crumbs my critic in this matter of ‘coquetting with words’ suffers to a really alarming extent from ‘immense.’ The magnificent conclusion of ‘Roderick Hudson,’ and indeed the whole of that remarkable book, may be improved by every reader for himself by striking out that intrusive adjective wherever it occurs; it is like a wife to him—and his study is never secure from his wife’s intrusion.”

“WHAT IS YOUR RULE about the requisite probability of the reader’s understanding the meaning of a word—or do you think he ought to have a dictionary at hand and increase his vocabulary as he reads?”

“Not very long ago I was rather shocked to be told by one of my readers that not only she (for it was a lady), but quite a committee of literary friends had been driven to the dictionary. I have no wish to do this: but at the same time I am not going to make a fetish of my reader’s dullness. I try to write fair, square, expressive English, and to express my meaning at the moment as sharply as I can get the words to fit it. If the reader does not understand I am very sorry for him, but he will not be the least sorry for himself. The same person who is graveled by my humble eccentricity will doubtless pretend to read Shakespeare with enlightenment; and if you want a tough vocabulary commend me to Shakespeare. The same reader, English born and English bred, will profess to extract the keenest delight from the hardest passages in Burns, and if he has a little tincture of French you will find him speak with instructive glibness of the works of Villon. From all this I gather that readers do not want to understand that they are perfectly pleased if they can roughly gather the drift, that perhaps even when they come to a word they do not understand it gives them a certain sense of dignity and they go about their affairs rather proud of having been studying a work above the average. But I may as well tell you frankly that whether or not the public takes any interest in me, I take, I may say brutally, none in the public. I do not believe they like my literature or any man’s art for any artistic quality. I do not blame them for this, I think I admire them; but it cannot be denied that it makes their opinion eternally uninteresting to the artist.

“There is another point about style and limitations: the matter of decency. Zola says there is to him nothing obscene but what is clumsily written; that a good phrase is a good action, and that he knows no other morality in literature. And you?”

“You put me a very big question.”

“A big horse takes a big fence.”

“Zola’s opinion is like all his other utterances, falsified by the common French implicit faith in art. Art, when all is done, is only a method; the decency or indecency is in the meaning. Now we have all been so confoundedly ill brought up, we have been so swaddled in pruriency, that I think a considerable diffidence will becomes any man of our age. Take the case of M. Zola: I am willing to believe he meant honestly when he first assailed the gates of the temple of Mrs. Grundy. And you see, for any man brought up in the nineteenth century, the secret element of pruriency grows too strong at last, and even Zola’s own disciples begin to recognize in him the headmarks of that admirable character of Bunyan’s, Mr. Liuger-After-Last. They are crushed beneath ‘La Terre.’ I do not think there is any thing but what can be perfectly, becomingly and profitably referred to and described. I only doubt very much whether we of the present day are the men to do it. And I may say that here is another reason which pushes me toward that class of work you so much deplore: the adventure story. I have not much taste for fooling around what I want to say; and when I find a subject that requires it, at least in this age, and with my own deficiencies, I grow rapidly impatient.”

A MAGAZINE LAY ON the table one might open at Henry James’ recent essay on Mr. Stevenson, and he was asked what answer he made to the statement that he left women out of his books because he regarded them as “superfluous girls in a boys’ game.”

“Is it not a true James touch?” said Mr. Stevenson. “Just the ‘coquetting with words’ of which he speaks. Superfluous girls is charmingly witty and has the spice of truth which is necessary to all wit. I am not prepared to deny that he hit me there, and he hit me fairly. I take so great an interest in those sides of life in which women so rarely share. My own taste is for—to use a phrase of my own—’clean open air adventure.’ I like travel—honest vicissitudes. Women appear but little in my books because they are not important elements in the side of life with which my stories are concerned—the side of life which I myself love most. All my amusements have been cut off from me with a knife. I cared for nothing but walking, canoeing, fooling with boats, and for ten years I have been laid by the heels. But the ruling passion have proved strong in impotence. My ‘documents,’ to use the catch word of the false realists, are my longings and my memories of more robust days.”

MR. STEVENSON’S WORDS HAVE been noted with almost literal accuracy—and one cannot but be impressed by the similarity of his talk to his work. The quaint turns of phrasing, the happy extraction of fresh metal from a word which other men would think had been tortured out of everything but the useless quartz, are not, plainly enough, the result of study—they are flashes of spontaneous ignition, appearing in the quiet evening of desultory chat as often as in the set show of a book. One could not but remark this, with the comment that work must be easy to a man who ordered his dinner or muttered in his sleep with epigrams.

“Ah, you don’t know what toilful work mine is,” said Mr. Stevenson. “Talk is one thing, writing another. It is not the plums in the cake that cost the confectioner his labor, but the making of the cake. The plums stir themselves in, if the cake is careful cake. In an essay, as in a story, structure is the great thing. Arranging an essay is a most dreadful business. These recent essays of mine in Scribner’s, although I have been hurried over many of them and don’t think them at all up to the mark, have been rewritten seven or eight times. The only living man from whom I believe myself to have received direct tuition in literature is Sidney Colvin, who used to call me ugly duckling, and promised me fine feathers in the future. He actually lectured me on the subject. I used to take my manuscript to him to be picked to pieces, and when I brought him a thing I had been filing up to the nines and had stuffed full of pretty sentences and all the rest, Colvin would wag his brows over the thing and begin to pull paragraphs from the end to the beginning and from the middle to the end with the most miraculous improvement in clarity and significance.

callout_rls_start“Now, for instance, in a story (which is simple when you get started), almost the whole point is to know when to begin. If you have the moment, the real starting point (which is never the beginning) and have got four pages with the degree of detail that will suit, the problem is solved. In that starting point there is something that appeals to me almost as a fate. The number of stories—long stories—that I have laboriously planned out and begun upon the wrong foot and simply been obliged to stop, makes a dismal retrospect.

For instance, I am rather fond of the first person. I am rather fond of it for two reasons. The first is it enables you to get in one the characters with a great deal of finish, and a great deal of simplicity. The other I am rather amused to talk of, because it flies right in the face of the common opinion. It is generally supposed to be more difficult to write in the first person. Now, any writer who has even thought for two seconds of his trade knows that his chief difficulty comes in about the pronouns. In any rapid, intricate piece of narrative the ‘he’s’ and the ‘hims’ get inextricably knotted up. Thus the blessing of the first person; you have ‘I’ and ‘me’ to change off with. Really, when I think of it, I am surprised that I do not force myself to put more women in my stories, if it were only for the purpose of having ‘she’ and ‘her.’ Pleasant in hand as the first person is, it has its limitations. I have often killed a story (in the first three pages, as usual) by committing myself unsuitably to the first person.

“What strikes me so much about all this is, that it is very hard to criticise. I specially pride myself on this, that even when I used the third person I always try for every chapter or every set of chapters to keep the point of view of one of the characters, and to describe only what that person might have seen, because I am myself exceedingly sensitive to that question, ‘How did he know this?’ and it has spoiled my pleasure in many books. At the same time, the first duty of the narrator is to get along with his business. If by any light straining of probability of that kind he can spare the reader a page or two, I think he would be a bold man who would condemn the convention. Merely conventional dialogue, such as is often necessary in drama, and such as Victor Hugo grossly abused in his novels, will often save a lot of space, and, really, the more one thinks of the shortness of life the less inclined one is to condemn the artifice.

“Please do not think it is the writer’s time I am thinking of; he must be willing to give himself five hours’ work to save the reader five minutes. It all comes back to the same point, the necessity of laborious structure. In an idle hour’s gossip, like this, there are the disjecta membra of an essay for Scribner’s—more than one, perhaps, one wanders over an unconscionable field at a lazy gait—but to make an essay of it there would be wanting a beginning and an end; the whole must center about some leading idea, the points would probably require to be shifted to and fro and up and down before their full significance could be brought out; and when all that is done—to let you into a trade trick of mine—I should, in nine cases out of ten, try to work in some passage of description, some reminiscence of my own past, which (with whatever genuine connection with the subject) should be the sugar-coating of the pill. I am a good deal chaffed about being autobiographical in the essays, but now you see why it is done.

“To me, in all such work, a minor discursion of this sort is what I particularly enjoy. We have the example of the inventor of the genre; I don’t know whether you love Montaigne as I do, but of all his thousand qualities I don’t know that I enjoy anything so heartily as his exquisitely original manner of making his little personal narratives. Of course, you have read the account of the time he was thrown from his horse. It occupies pages, and so far goes against all that I approve in literature; but there is such exquisite wit in the fabric and there is something so surprisingly original in his section into the events, I read it over and over again every time I pick up Montaigne. Only when half way through you learn that is was in the course of battle that it happened.”

ALL THIS, IT SHOULD be remembered, is a sick man’s talk—a man bedridden, half the time, in pain always. If only men in health all thought as robustly!


This article was published in June 1888 in the San Francisco Sunday Examiner, and republished in an altered form by the Pall Mall Gazette in August of the same year. This web version transcribed manually from the archived pages of the Examiner for the New Series. This is its first appearance in any medium, other than microfilm, since its initial publication. Please note The Fortnightly Review [New Series] and in citations based on this transcription. For more encounters with RLS, consult Prof. R.C. Terry’s Robert Louis Stevenson: Interviews and Recollections (1996).

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