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Robert Louis Stevenson's America

HUMANITIES, November/December 2000 | Volume 21, Number 6

When Robert Louis Stevenson left his native Scotland for the United States in 1879, he had yet to gain renown as the author of such classics as Treasure Island, A Child's Garden of Verses, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Although he had experienced some early success as a travel writer, Stevenson now had a more personal reason for crossing an ocean and a continent- to resume his courtship of Fanny Osbourne.  Fanny was an unhappily married American woman he met in France and who had since returned home to California.  From the top of a train car crossing Nebraska, Stevenson wrote a friend to describe some of his first impressions of America:

Desolate flat prairie upon all hands.  Here and there a herd of cattle, a yellow butterfly or two; a patch of wild sunflowers; a wooden house or two; then a wooden church alone in miles of waste; then a windmill to pump water.... When I land for a meal, I pass my coat and feel dressed.  This life is to last till Friday, Saturday, or Sunday next.  It is a strange affair to be an emigrant, as I hope you shall see in a future work.

Fanny Osbourne would not leave her husband without a divorce, although he continued to be guilty of marital infidelity.  Stevenson remained in California and worked as a journalist while gathering material for his later fiction.  In 1880, Sam Osbourne finally relented and after the divorce, Fanny Osbourne and Stevenson were married.  After seven years back in Europe, the Stevensons returned to the United States, once again traveling across the country to embark on a tour of the South Seas.  Stops included the French Marquesas, Tahiti, and Hawai'i, which had yet to be annexed to the United States and was then known as the Sandwich Islands.  Stevenson wrote for the New York Sun about native history and culture, and the influence of Western capitalism in the region.

Stevenson's eventful journeys to the United States are the subject of Robert Louis Stevenson's America, a docudrama produced and directed by Jim Culp, president of the Film History Foundation in San Francisco.  The film will be completed in January 2001.

The project combines traditional documentary materials, such as historic photographs and the author's correspondence, with reenactments of key scenes in the author's life. 

Born in Edinburgh in 1850, the young Stevenson was an unlikely adventurer.  He was frequently sick as a child and relied on his imagination to help get him through many hours of convalescence.  In his poem "The Land of Counterpane," Stevenson portrays a child making a game out of his sickbed:

When I was sick and lay a-bed,

I had two pillows at my head,

And all my toys beside me lay

To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so

I watched my leaden soldiers go,

With different uniforms and drills,

Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets

All up and down among the sheets;

Or brought my trees and houses out,

And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still

That sits upon the pillow-hill,

And sees before him, dale and plain,

The pleasant land of counterpane.

His mother claimed that Louis decided to become an author after winning one pound sterling from his uncle for a story about Moses.  Stevenson, six years old and unable to read, dictated the winning entry to his mother.  In 1866, he broke into print for the first time with a pamphlet on Scottish history that was published anonymously and paid for by his father.

A voracious reader of history, literature, and languages, Stevenson enrolled at Edinburgh University in 1867, ostensibly to study engineering, his family's business for generations.  However, he often shunned his schoolwork to explore life in the rougher parts of the city.  His adventure in the pubs and brothels of Edinburgh were not just youthful high jinks, but an education in the living conditions of poor and working-class people.  While still at school, Stevenson became a passionate socialist, criticizing polite society's marginalization of the poor.

Although Stevenson's asprations conflicted with his father's expectations, in 1871 he confessed his desire to become a writer.  The news was not well received.  Nevertheless, Stevenson's father allowed him to pursue his writing with the family's support- on condition that he study law and pass the Scottish bar exam.  He passed the exam in 1875.  With a promised gift from his father of one thousand pounds sterling, Stevenson set off with a friend on a canoe trip from Belgium to France.  The trip would become the subject of his first novel, An Inland Voyage, published in 1878.

At the end of his jouney, Stevenson met the woman who was to become his wife.  Fanny Osbourne, an art student living in Paris, was separated from her husband and had come with her children to vacation at the artists' colony of Grez.  Stevenson was attracted to the dark-haired, outspoken woman from America, and he visited her after she returned to Paris.  But despite their mutual attraction, Fanny returned to her husband in California.  Although Samuel Osbourne contined to cheat on his wife, he refused a divorce.  Soon, Fanny became ill and was diagnosed with "inflammation of the brain."

Stevenson reached New York in August 1879 and embarked on a long train journey west to pursue Fanny.  The trip taxed his body and his conscience.  Already ill when he arrived in New York, he suffered from food poisoning in Wyoming and remained sick throughout the journey.  But he was further upset by the prejudice experienced by Chinese passengers on the train.  He would later reflect, "Of all the stupid ill-feelings, the sentiment of my fellow-Caucasians towards our companions in the Chinese car was the most stupid and the worst.  They seemed never to have looked at them, listened to them, or thought of them, but hated them a priori.... They declared them hideous vermin, and affected a kind of choking in the throat when they beheld them."

Later that month, he took the ferry from Oakland to San Francisco and then traveled more than one hundred miles south to Monterey, where Fanny was staying with her children and her sister, Nellie.

Stevenson was unprepared when, at the end of his six-thousand-mile jouney, Fanny refused to continue their relationship.  Despite her rejection, Stevenson settled in Monterey, where he earned two dollars a week writing features for The Monterey Californian.  He was entranced by the untamed coastal landscape of what was then a frontier town.  In a letter from 1879, he writes,

This is a lovely place, which I am growing to love.  The Pacific licks all other oceans out of hand; there is no place but the Pacific Coast to hear eternal roaring surf.  When I get to the top of the woods behind Monterey, I can hear the seas breaking all round over ten or twelve miles of coast from near Carmel on my left, out to Point Pinos in front, and away to the right along the sands of Monterey to Castroville and the mouth of the Salinas.

The coast of Monterey would later help inspire the setting of his 1883 bestseller Treasure Island.

In late 1879, Stevenson moved up the coast to San Francisco, where he lived for six months.  The city would be featured in "The Bottle Imp," among other short stories, and The Wrecker, an 1892 epic that Stevenson coauthored with Fanny's son, Lloyd Osbourne.

In his writings, Stevenson's cinematic eye and vivid prose style evoke California in the ninteenth century.  In an essay on San Francisco, he observes:

The streets lie straight up and down the hills, and straight across at right angles, these in sun, those in shadow, a trenchant pattern of gloom and glare; and what with the crisp illumination, the sea-air singing in your ears, the chill and glitter, the changing aspects both of things and people, the fresh sights at every corner of your walk... one brief impression follows and obliterates another, and the city leaves upon the mind no general and stable picture, but a profusion of airy and incongruous images, of the sea and shore, the east and west, the summer and the winter.

After several months, Fanny left her husband and she and Stevenson were married in May 1880.  For part of that summer, they lived in the mining town of Silverado.  Homesick and hopeful that his parents would accept Fanny into the family, Stevenson eventually set sail for Scotland with his wife and his stepson, Lloyd, in August.

When he returned to the United States in 1887, Stevenson had become a famous author with several popular volumes to his credit, including Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and A Child's Garden of VersesThe Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, his horror tale published the previous year, had been successfully adapted for the stage.  At a press conference in New York, Stevenson implored his audience to buy authorized copies of his books; he had yet to see royalties from work reissued in the United States.

The Stevensons took up residence in Saranac, a town in the Adirondack Mountains of New York.  There, Stevenson hoped to find treatment for a chronic lung condition he thought was tuberculosis, although his physicians debated this diagnosis.

In Saranac, Stevenson was visited by editor Samuel McClure, who convinced the author to charter a cruise to the South Seas.  Stevenson would recover the trip's expenses by publishing fifty letters about his travels in the New York Sun.  And it was hoped that the more hospitable climate would heal Stevenson's chronic respiratory problems.

The Stevenson family set sail on June 28.  The Casco sailed west to the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, and Tahiti.  After a two-month stop to repair damaged masts, the passengers and crew headed north, arriving in the Hawaiian Islands in January 1889.

In Hawai'i, Stevenson had firsthand experience of the whole spectrum of island life as a guest of both royalty and native villagers.  King Kalakaua, the last king of Hawai'i and staunch anti-capitalist, fêted the Stevensons and eagerly schooled the author on the history and culture of the islands.  Stevenson spent time with Honolulu's society matrons, sometimes to the detriment of his busy work schedule.

Traveling to such places as the tiny village of Ho'okena on the Kona Coast and to a settlement for victims of Hansen's Disease (then known as leprosy) on the Kalaupapa peninsula, Stevenson observed aspects of island life not seen by the typical tourist.  In June 1889, he wrote his friend, Sidney Colvin: "My dear Colvin, I am just home after twelve days' jouney to Molokai, seven of them at the leper settlement, where I can only say that the sight of so much courage, cheerfulness and devotion, strung me too high to mind the infinite pity and horror of the sights."

Stevenson grew to admire the work of Father Damien, a Roman Catholic missionary who spent his life caring for the sick at Molokai and had only recently died of leprosy.  Later, Father Damien's character was assaulted in the Sydney Presbyterian, an Australian religious publication; a reverend from Honolulu suggested that the deceased missionary contracted leprosy by sleeping with women patients.  In 1890, an indignant Stevenson fired off a response in the form of an open letter.  The letter was published privately, but it circulated widely, appearing in the Hawaiian bilingual paper Ka Elele Poakolu and elsewhere.

Stevenson also took less controversial steps to help the sick.  At the Bishop Home for sick girls, he played croquet with the residents and gave them a piano to accompany their singing.

Stevenson became an advocate for the native Hawaiian monarchy.  But at times his growing awareness of native problems in the Pacific was in conflict with the demands of his audience.  The New York Sun had originally wanted fifty letters from Stevenson about his travels, but the paper lost interest in Stevenson's weighty discussion of Polynesian culture and political controversy after thirty-four dispatches and broke its contract to print the remainder.

The author and his family left Honolulu in June 1889.  On a return visit to Hawai'i in 1893, he criticized foreign interference in the islands' government in a talk with the managing editor of the Honolulu Advertiser.

Stevenson settled in Samoa during the last years of his life.  There he built a large mountain estate, wrote prolifically, and criticized the exploitation of Samoa by German plantation owners, American traders, and the British military.

In December 1894, on a quiet evening at home, Stevenson was struck by an intense headache.  He lost consciousness and died of a cerebral hemorrhage later that night. 

Although Robert Louis Stevenson lived in the United States only for a brief time, he was greatly influenced by his stay.  A review of Stevenson's life, Culp says, provides not only a compelling story, but also a chance "to capture a taste of what America was like approaching the turn of the century."