‘The Amateur Emigrant,’ Part III
“Here I was at last in America, and was soon out upon New York streets …” — RLS
When visitors to the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage in Saranac Lake also happen to be natives of New York City, it is not surprising to see them focus on an old photograph hanging on the wall in the author’s former bedroom at Baker’s, the home where RLS and his family had passed the winter of 1887-88. What gets their attention is a view of No. 10 West St., in lower Manhattan near the Hudson, before it and everything around it was demolished to make way for the new, much of which was in turn destroyed on 9/11.
In August of 1879, No. 10 West St. was called Re-Union House, a cheap Irish hostelry remembered today only because that is where Robert Louis Stevenson spent his first night in the USA. The Scottish-born invalid writer was en route to California on his famous quest to reunite with the love of his life, Mrs. Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne. Theirs was “A Romance of Destiny,” also the title of a novel about the two lovers by Alexandra La Pierre. Destiny had brought Louis and Fanny together in France in 1876. Two years later, reality had separated them with 6,000 miles, and strong-willed Louis of feeble body was staking everything on closing that gap.
The first leg of the journey was accomplished when the steamship Devonia docked in NYC. All but invisible among a faceless crowd of emigrants, Stevenson had made his way down the gangplanks with a new friend he had made along the way during the 10 days’ voyage from Scotland, a Mr. Jones. It turned out that Jones was well known in the neighborhood, and by evening Jones was introducing his skinny fellow passenger to Michael Mitchell, proprietor of Re-Union House, and so received special treatment. Stevenson seemed to have a talent for finding new friends at critical times, a trait he passed on to some of his fictional people like David Balfour and Alan Breck in “Kidnapped,” or young Jim Hawkins and Billy Bones in “Treasure Island.”
Louis gave himself one day to get things done in the big city, that decision having been made at his first stop, General Delivery N.Y., where he had a prearranged secret forwarding address. The anticipated news from California was bad: “F. has inflammation of the brain.” That meant no time to dawdle. You can read all about Stevenson’s first day in the USA in “The Amateur Emigrant,” how he trudged around in a drenching downpour doing his errands “and wherever I went a pool would gather about my feet.”
It would have been impossible for Louis to pass up inspecting at least one American bookstore and therein was he surprised to find copies of his second book, “Travels With a Donkey,” on sale, here in America, less than three months after it went public. But that was back home, in Great Britain, where American publishers had placed agents to scout out new literature to ship back to the States for easy profit from what they call unauthorized or “pirated” editions. In the following years, millions of copies of Stevenson’s classic works would infiltrate American homes from coast to coast, and the author would get nothing but recognition and already be a household name by the time he came to Saranac Lake. Hannibal Hamlin, first vice president to Abraham Lincoln, was an RLS fan. He collected many such versions, some of which, the donkey story included, sought asylum a century ago at Baker’s, where they are protected to this day.
“Of my nightmare wanderings in New York I spare to tell. I had a thousand and one things to do; only the day to do them in, and a journey across the continent before me in the evening.” After his business around town was done, Louis returned to Re-Union House to get it together in time to catch the ferry to New Jersey.
“Mitchell hired a man to carry my baggage to the station, accompanied me thither himself, and recommended me to the particular attention of the officials. No one could have been kinder …”
When Mitchell returned to his inn, he found a pile of soaking wet clothes “as they lay a pulp in the middle of a pool upon the floor of Mitchell’s kitchen.” Louis had abandoned them by convincing himself that they couldn’t dry in time, so he could make room for his favorite purchase of the day, the six fat volumes of George Bancroft’s “History of the United States.” Louis planned to educate himself as he made his way across the plains.