The amateur emigrant, part I

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“I hope to be back in a month or two … but it is a wild world.”

— RLS to Bob Stevenson

Aug. 8, 1879: “We steamed out of the Clyde on Thursday night, and on the Friday forenoon we took in our last batch of emigrants at Lough Foyle, in Ireland, and said farewell to Europe.

“The company was now complete and began to draw together, by inscrutable magnetisms, upon the deck. There were Scots and Irish in plenty, a few English, a few Americans, a good handful of Scandinavians, a German or two, and one Russian; all now belonging for 10 days to one small iron country on the deep.”

The name of this iron country, displacing 4,270 tons, was the steamship Devonia bound for New York City with a cargo of displaced emigrants on their way to the New World in search of a better day but seven years too soon to be welcomed by the Statue of Liberty. The passenger quoted above had come aboard slightly disguised as Robert Stephenson, a young writer from Scotland with two books under his belt called“An Inland Voyage” and “Travels With a Donkey” in the Cevennes by Robert Louis Stevenson. Unlike his fellow voyagers, RLS wasn’t looking for a new life in the U.S.A. He was actually out to hook up with the other half of his life as he understood it. His friends called it “an enterprise of madness,” but for Louis, this was a do or die mission in the most literal sense because so frail was our emigrant’s health, that the Grim Reaper kept close tabs on him for the duration and almost got him. This whole ‘enterprise’ had begun in France, three years past, in the summer of 1876.

“Know you the river near to Grez,

A river deep and clear?

Among the lilies all the way,

That ancient river runs today

From snowy weir to weir.

The love I hold was borne by her;

And now, though far away,

My lonely spirit hears the stir

Of water round that starling spur

Beside the bridge at Grez.”

— RLS

The subject of those pretty words is Mrs. Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne who, at the time, was living with her sister, Nellie Sanchez, in Monterey, California, the final destination of our hero. No one should be surprised by now to see that Stevenson would make copy out of all this, too, that his own personal “California or Bust” adventure would become literature.

In spite of everything, Fanny was to Louis, writing was still up front and RLS was adept at detaching a constant anxiety from the objectivity needed by a professional writer describing his travels. You can read all about this trip to California and not detect a hint of the emotional turmoil within the narrator. The Devonia had three classes of accommodation. Louis paid an extra two guineas to go second class only because a table came with it upon which to write. Of life aboard ship, he later told Henley, “I have passed the salt sea with comparative impunity … I could not eat, and I could not s—! — the whole way; but I worked.” Stevenson’s 10 days of pen-pushing on the ocean, “all written in a slandtindicular cabin with the table playing bob-cherry with the ink bottle,” would produce the 31 pages of another short story, “The Story of a Lie,” and material for the first draft of The Amateur Emigrant.

To be continued …

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