‘Across the Plains,’ part 1

From “A Child’s Garden of Verses”

The staff at the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage in Saranac Lake have been educated more than once by visitors who know a thing or two about trains, those train buffs. They say that Stevenson’s famous narrative “Across the Plains” is a must have for the libraries of railroad enthusiasts. “Across the Plains” is Part II of “The Amateur Emigrant,” the author’s autobiographical account of his first voyage to America. The whole of it, both parts, were just too realistic for Stevenson’s friends and self-appointed censors back in England to whom RLS shipped his manuscripts. For that reason, the publication of Part I, From the Clyde to Sandy Hook, became a posthumous event for its author but Part II had better luck. Across the Plains premiered in Longman’s Magazine in 1883 minus the objectionable parts which had to wait until 1966. “I think it not only the worst thing you have done, but altogether unworthy of you,” said Thomas Stevenson to his son in 1880 when he refunded the publisher’s advance of 100 pounds to put the brakes on it temporarily. What he really said was that it was too embarrassing to have it in print how the only son of a well-to-do Edinburgh family had made such a journey in poverty, like a desperate emigrant. It’s amazing how far we’ve come. By today’s standards, there’s nothing even close to offensive in “The Amateur Emigrant.”

Tuesday, Aug. 20, 1879 — “When I awoke it was already day; the train was standing idle …” Today was the day Robert Louis Stevenson would get to dry off. On Sunday night he had gone ashore from the emigrant ship Devonia in N.Y.C. in a downpour, then had spent all day Monday walking around lower Manhattan in a downpour which continued as the ferry he was on crossed the Hudson that evening to catch a westward bound train “but the wind now came in sudden claps.” It was still raining when, “At last we (hundreds of fellow passengers) were admitted into the cars, utterly dejected, far from dry.”

Being cold and wet continuously is said to be a demoralizing circumstance which, along with other unfortunate conditions, could take the wind out of the sails of many an emigrant from Europe with romanticized pre-conceived notions of starting out fresh in the New World. But for RLS, on this Tuesday, things seemed to be looking up. “Our American sunrise had ushered in a noble summer’s day. There was not a cloud; the sunshine was baking.” As the train rolled through the countryside, our amateur emigrant writes that “I stood on the platform by the hour; and as I saw, one after another, pleasant villages, carts upon the highway and fishers by the stream…I began to exult like a man who had come into a rich estate … And when I had asked the name of a river from the brakesman, and heard that it was called the Susquehanna, the beauty of the name seemed to be part and parcel of the beauty of the land … That was the name, as no other could be, for that shining river and desirable valley.”

That is the true genesis of Stevenson’s aesthetic attraction to American place names, especially the Native ones. He said, “None can care for literature in itself who do not take a special pleasure in the sound of names; and there is no part of the world where nomenclature is so rich, poetical, humorous, and picturesque as the United States of America.”

That evening, back in the car, RLS wrote his first letter to Sidney Colvin in three days. He sounds exhausted. “There seems nothing left of me. I died a while ago; I do not know who it is that is travelling.” His mind then shifts gears into poetic mode to ramble on:

“Of where or how, I nothing know;

And why, I do not care;

Enough if, even so,

My traveling eyes, my travelling mind, can go,

By flood and field and hill, by wood and meadow fair,

Beside the Susquehanna and along the Delaware.”

Louis can’t stop himself until he completes three more stanzas, always leaving him “Beside the Susquehanna and along the Delaware.” A few years later another Native American place name would catch the author’s attention, not long before he became a resident of Saranac Lake. He heard it first in his native Scotland and it came attached to a ghostly tale with real life consequences. The story seemed to scream for a ballad about it so RLS volunteered. He produced something with a title familiar to people in the north country– “Ticonderoga, A Tale of the Western Highlands.”