Stevenson Prince Of Modern Story-Tellers
( Originally Published 1912 )
HIS STORIES OF ADVENTURE AND HIS BRILLIANT ESSAYS-"TREASURE ISLAND" AND"DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE" HIS MOST POPULAR BOOKS.
IT is as difficult to criticise the work of Robert Louis Stevenson as it is to find faults in the friend that you love as a brother. For with all his faults, this young Scotchman with his appealing charm dis arms criticism. Nowhere in all literature may one find his like for warming the heart unless it be Charles Lamb, of gracious memory, and the secret of this charm is that Stevenson remained a child to the end of his days, with all a child's eagerness for love and praise, and with all a child's passion for making believe that his puppets are real flesh and blood people. When such a nature is endowed with consummate skill in the use of words, then one gets the finest, if not the greatest, of creative artists.
In sheer technical skill Stevenson stands head and shoulders above all the other literary craftsmen of his day; but this skill was not used to refine his meaning until it wearied the reader, as in the case of Henry James, nor was it used to bewilder him with the richness of his resources, as was too often the case with George Meredith. With Stevenson, style had actually become the man; he could not write the simplest article in any other than a highly finished literary way. Witness the amazingly eloquent defense of Father Damien which he dashed off in a few hours and read to his wife and his stepson before the ink was dry on the sheets.
Above all other things Stevenson was a great natural story-teller. With him the story was the main consideration, yet in some of his short tales such as Markheim, or .1 Lodging for the Night, or he Sire de Maletroit's Door, the story itself merely serves as a thread upon which he has strung the most remarkable analysis of a man's soul. He has the distinction of having written in Treasure Island the best piratical story of the last century. If he could have maintained the high level of the opening chapter he would have produced a work worthy to rank with Robinson Crusoe. As it is, he created two villains, the blind man Pew and John Silver, who are absolutely unique in literature. The blind pirate in his malevolent fury is a creature that chills the heart, while Silver is a cheerful villain who murders with a smile. In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Stevenson has aroused that sense of mystery and horror which springs from the spectacle of the domination of an evil spirit over a nature essentially kind and good.
Stevenson came of a racé of Scotch men of affairs. His grandfather was the most distinguished lighthouse builder of his day and his father gained prominence in the same work that demands the highest engineering skill with great executive capacity. Stevenson himself would have' been an explorer or a soldier of fortune had he been born with the physical strength to fit his mental endowments. His childhood was so full of sickness that it reads like a hospital report. His life was probably preserved by the assiduous care and rare devotion of an old Scotch nurse, Alison Cunningham, whom he has immortalized in his letters and in his 4 Child's Garden of Verse. The sickly boy was an eager reader of everything that fell in his way in romance and poetry. Later he devoted himself to systematic training of his powers of observation and his great capacity for expressing his thoughts.
His youth was spent in migrations to the south in winter and in efforts to thrive in Scotland's dour climate in the summer. His school training was fitful and brief, but from the age of ten the boy had been training himself in the field which he felt was to be his own. His first literary work was essays and descriptive sketches for the magazines. Then came short stories in which he revealed great capacity. Recognition came very slowly. He was comparatively unknown after he had produced such charming work as An Inland Voyage and Travels With a Donkey, not to mention the New Arabian Nights. Popularity came with Treasure Island, written as a story for boys, and the one work of Stevenson's in which his creative imagination does not flag toward the end; but fame came only after the writing of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-the most remarkable story of a dual personality produced in the last century. After this he wrote a long succession of stories, not one of which can be called a masterpiece because of the author's inability to finish his novels as he planned them. Lack of patience or want of sustained creative power invariably made him cut short his novels or end them in a way that exasperates the reader.
Some months Stevenson spent in California, but this State, with its romantic history and its singular scenic beauty, appeared to have little influence on his genius. In fact, locality seemed not to color the work of his imagination. His closing years were spent in Somoa, a South Sea Island paradise, in which he reveled in the primitive conditions of life and recovered much of his early zest in physical life. Yet his best work in those last years dealt not with the palm-fringed atolls of the Pacific, but with the bleak Scotch moors which refused him a home. In his letters he dwells on the curious obsession of his imagination by old Scotch scenes and characters, and on the day of his death he dictated a chapter of Weir of Hermiston, a romance of the picturesque period of Scotland which had in it the elements of his best work.
It is idle to deny that Stevenson appeals only to a limited audience. Despite his keen interest in all kinds of people, he lacked that sympathetic touch which brings large sales and wide circulation. About the time of his death his admirers declared he would supersede Scott or Dickens; but the seventeen years since his death have seen many changes in literary reputations. Stevenson has held his own remarkably well. As a man the interest in him is still keen, but of his works only a few are widely read.
Among these the first place must be given to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, partly because of the profound impression made upon the public mind by the dramatization of this tale, and partly because it appeals strongly to the sense of the mystery of conflicting personality. Next to this is Treasure Island, one of the best romances of adventure ever written. Readers who cannot feel a thrill of genuine terror when the blind, pirate Pew comes tapping with his cane have missed a great pleasure. One-legged John Silver, in his cheerful lack of all the ordinary virtues, is a character that puts the fear of death upon the reader. The opening chapter of this story is one of the finest things in all the literature of adventure.
Of Stevenson's other work the two Scotch stories, Kidnaped and David Balfour, always seemed to me to be among his best. The chapter on the flight of David and Allan across the moor, the contest in playing the pipes and the adventures of David and Catriona in Holland—these are things to read many times and enjoy the more at every reading. Stevenson, like jack Lon-don, is a writer for men; he could not draw women well. When he brings one in there is usually an end of stirring adventure, just as London spoiled The Sea Wolf with his literary heroine.
Of Stevenson's short stories the finest are The Pavilion on the Links, a tale of Sicilian vengeance and English love that is full of haunting mystery and the deadly fear of unknown assassins; Markheim, a brilliant example of this author's skill in laying bare the conflit of a soul with evil and its ultimate triumph; The Sire de Maletroit's Door, a vivid picture of the cruelty and the autocratic power of a great French noble of the fifteenth century, and A Lodging for the Night, a remarkable defense of his life by the vagabond poet, Villon. Other short stories by Stevenson are worth careful study, but if you like these I have mentioned you will need no guide to those which strike your fancy.
The vogue of Stevenson's essays will last as long as that of his romances; for he excelled in this literary art of putting his personality into familiar talks with his reader. He ranks with Lamb and Thackeray, Washington Irving and Donald G. Mitchell. Read those fine short sermons, Pulvis et Umbra and Aes Triplex, the latter with its eloquent picture of sudden death in the fulness of power which was realized in Stevenson's own fate. Read Books Which Have Influenced Me, A Gossip on Romance and Talk and Talkers. They are unsurpassed for thought and feeling and for brilliancy of style.
But above everything looms the man himself–a chronic invalid, who might well have pleaded his weakness and constant pains as an excuse for idleness and railings against fate. Stoic courage in the strong is a virtue, but how much greater the cheerful courage that laughs at sickness and pain! Stevenson writing in a sickbed stories and essays that help one to endure the blows of fate is a spectacle such as this world has few to offer. So the man's life and work have come to be a constant inspiration to those who are faint-hearted, a call to arms of all one's courage and devotion.
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