March 18, 2018

RLS, Kidnapped to Samoa

On this day in 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped began serialization in Young Folks magazine. Although begun "partly as a lark, partly as a potboiler," Kidnapped was an instant and huge hit; taken with the earlier Treasure Island (1883) and A Child's Garden of Verses (1885), it established Stevenson as one of England's most popular writers of "Children's Literature." The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, provoked by a dream and written in a ten-week burst during the writing of Kidnapped, was also published during this period. Though Stevenson wrote prolifically and in almost every genre, these four books from the mid-1880s are, for most, those upon which his reputation stands.

That reputation has been constantly debated and revalued. While praised by stylists such as Henry James, Jorge Luis Borges and Graham Greene, many modernists regard him as a mere tale-teller and the stuffiest of literary armchairs. Some say his essays and travel writing are his best work; others prize his short stories; still others say the unfinished Weir of Hermiston would have been his masterpiece. One of the most widely-read at the turn of the century, he was not even mentioned in the 1973 Oxford Anthology of English Literature.

Few have ever questioned the remarkable industry and spirit of a life lived in the shadow of death. A year after Kidnapped he left Scotland and southern England for America in search of adventure and a better climate for his tuberculosis. He had already been once; his fame there now was such that the two pilots who boarded his steamer for its entry into New York Harbor announced themselves as Jekyll and Hyde. One winter in upstate New York was enough, and Stevenson was soon off to the South Seas, settling in Samoa for his last four years.

Writing continued on land and sea – 400 pages a year for twenty years, reckoned his first biographer. From one letter home a year before Stevenson died:
    For fourteen years I have not had a day's real health; I have awakened sick and gone to bed weary; and I have done my work unflinchingly. I have written in bed, and written out of it, written in haemorrhages, written in sickness, written torn by coughing, written when my head swam for weakness; and for so long, it seems to me I have won my wager and recovered my glove.... And the battle goes on – ill or well, is a trifle; so as it goes. I was made for a contest....
He had 300 acres and twenty servants in Samoa, but he learned Samoan and championed the natives' anti-colonial causes so determinedly that he was almost deported. When he died in 1894, just forty-four, the Samoans carried "Tusitala" ("Teller of the Tales," though Stevenson liked it translated as "Chief White Information") to his chosen mountaintop grave. The ceremony there included a prayer which Stevenson had written: "Bless to us our extraordinary mercies ... if the day come when these must be taken, have us play the man under the affliction."

Henry James wrote Stevenson's widow that she was fortunate "to have lived in the light of that splendid life, that beautiful, bountiful being." In 1897 two plaques were placed on the mountaintop tomb, one bearing Ruth's speech to Naomi ("Entreat me not to leave thee..."), the other bearing Stevenson's "Requiem," written over a decade earlier:
    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.

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