Discovering the Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson

Last week I stumbled into the pleasure of reading the essays of Robert Louis Stevenson when I took this little book from our shelves…

Essays by Robert Louis Stevenson, (NY:Charles Scribner's Sons, 1918) Introduction by William Lyon Phelps

Essays by Robert Louis Stevenson, (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1918) Introduction by William Lyon Phelps

I had always associated Robert Louis Stevenson with his famous novels: Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or his poems in Child’s Garden of Verses.  I was unfamiliar with his beautifully written and thought-provoking essays.

There are twenty-four essays in this little volume.  A particular favorite is “Aes Triplex” (Latin, meaning: triple brass; a strong defense) which is about death, but actually more about living life fully.  It should leave any reader with the courage and desire to live with gusto, even though “…after a certain distance, every step we take in life we find the ice growing thinner below our feet, and all around and behind us we see our contemporaries going through.” 

There are essays in literary criticism, including revealing, well-written words on the lives and works of Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau and Samuel Pepys.

“Talks and Talkers” is his delightful piece on the art of conversation (pretty much a lost art now, wouldn’t you say?).  Stevenson himself was known to be a great talker, a master of conversation, and in his time good conversation was one of the highest forms of pleasure known to cultivated men and women.  He gives concrete examples and suggestions for creating enjoyable conversation.

In “Crabbed Age and Youth,” he rebukes our tendency to pinch pennies, fret about our future, and put off fine experiences for our old age, when reaching old age is far from certain.  A quote from this essay sums it up nicely:

“We sail in leaky bottoms and on great and perilous waters; and to take a cue from the dolorous old naval ballad, we have heard the mermaids singing, and know that we shall never see dry land any more.  Old and young, we are all on our last cruise.  If there is a fill of tobacco among the crew, for God’s sake pass it round, and let us have a pipe before we go!”

In my opinion he has much to say to today’s society, considering how we fuss over everything we eat, drink or breathe and divert much of our resources into insurance against every possible unforeseen calamity, illness and our uncertain old age.

A painting of Robert Louis Stevenson, pacing in his dining room, by John Singer Sargent

A painting of Robert Louis Stevenson, pacing in his dining room, by John Singer Sargent

Stevenson himself suffered from tuberculosis from his childhood on; yet, he managed to live vibrantly, travel extensively, and write beautifully up until the moment of his death. He lived as he wrote for us to live.

Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson, by John Singer Sargent

Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson, by John Singer Sargent

He visited and lived in the United States – including a three-week honeymoon with his American wife Fanny Osbourne at an abandoned silver mine in Napa Valley, California, which resulted in The Silverado Squatters (1883).

He spent the winter of 1887-88 in the Adirondacks of New York, at a “cure cottage” which still exists as the Robert Louis Stevenson Cottage and Museum at Saranac Lake.

In 1890 Stevenson purchased about 400 acres of land in Upolu, an island in Samoa, and after expending a great amount of work clearing his land and building a house, he established a home for he and his wife there, and became very involved with the community of Samoans.

Robert Louis Stevenson with King Kalakaua in his boathouse - Samoa (unknown photographer)

Robert Louis Stevenson with King Kalakaua in his boathouse – Samoa (unknown photographer)

Born on November 13, 1850 in Edinburgh, Scotland, he died suddenly of a stroke on December 3, 1894 at the age of 44 at his home on Samoa.  He was buried there at the top of Mount Vaea, overlooking the sea.

The tomb of Robert Louis Stevenson - Mount Vaea, Samoa

The tomb of Robert Louis Stevenson – Mount Vaea, Samoa

The Robert Louis Stevenson Museum in Apia, Samoa is housed in his beautifully restored estate.

The Robert Louis Stevenson Museum in Apia, Samoa

The Robert Louis Stevenson Museum in Apia, Samoa

Stevenson was a great admirer of the style of such writers as Lamb, Hazlitt, Defoe and Hawthorne.  He had a reputation for being a meticulous writer; revising, polishing, rewriting until totally satisfied with his work.  He never settled for mediocrity; he always put forth his best.  As a fiction writer, as a travel writer, his work has withstood the vagaries of critics and the literary marketplace–and the test of time.

As an essayist, Stevenson is first class.

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Very nice post! Thought you might be interested in my short film “Death Is No Bad Friend” about Robert Louis and Fanny Stevenson in San Francisco: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/death-is-no-bad-friend/x/1089930 Best regards, G. E.


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