‘Across the Plains,’ part II

Fanny Stevenson

Wednesday, Aug. 21, 1879–“We reached Chicago in the evening. I was turned out of the cars, bundled into an omnibus, and driven off through the streets to the station of another railroad.” Changing trains was almost a daily routine for Robert Louis Stevenson and hundreds of his fellow passengers as they went their way from coast to coast, on the cheap, no frills.

“For many years America was to me a sort of promised land,” wrote Stevenson in his travel book, The Amateur Emigrant. The 28-year-old Scottish author was brand new to the U.S.A. He was on his way to California to see his American girlfriend who he missed terribly. Many years later, when this girlfriend, Mrs. Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne, had become the widow of Robert Louis Stevenson, she would say about him, “Naturally his first visit to America, a land without class distinctions, was to him an event of extraordinary interest…He came to America with exaggerated views of the meaning of democracy. In the beginning, he encountered many rude shocks, but he soon readjusted his point of view, though he never ceased regretting that this great country should have been lost to England.” Of King George III, RLS said more than once, “Had it not been for that idiot, we should now be one nation.”

As a boy growing up in Edinburgh, Scotland, Louis, like boys throughout the British Empire, found delight in wild stories set on the American frontier. Of Ohio, he said, “This had early been a favourite home of my imagination; I have played at being in Ohio by the week, and enjoyed some capital sport there with a dummy gun. My preference was founded on a work which appeared in Cassell’s Family Paper, and was read aloud to me by my nurse.” Oddly, a main source of these American West stories came from France. Stories like Loyal Heart, The Trappers of Arkansas, The Pirates of the Prairies, and The Gold Seekers, were penned by Gustave Aimard, pseudonym of Oliver Gloux, a French traveler and author of adventure novels.

There was one thoroughly American phenomenon which had long held Stevenson’s attention. He was a huge fan of Walt Whitman. In Leaves of Grass, our amateur emigrant found embodied “all that bustle, courage, action, and kaleidoscopic change” that he was getting to see first hand as he travelled west in this brand-new social experiment, now under threat, called American democracy. Louis liked Whitman so much that he felt the need for an essay. He would call it Walt Whitman.

Thursday, Aug. 22–“I suppose there must be a cycle in the fatigue of travelling, for when I awoke next morning I was entirely renewed in spirits, and ate a hearty breakfast of porridge, with sweet milk and coffee and hot cakes, at Burlington upon the Mississippi. Another long day’s ride followed.” Three days of life on the rails had brought RLS into Mark Twain territory, where the real American West was supposed to begin. That long day’s ride through Iowa gave Louis a hint of things to come:

“At a place called Creston, a drunken man got in … For one stage he eluded the notice of the officials; but just as we were beginning to move out of the next station, by came the conductor. There was a word or two of talk; and then the official had the man by the shoulders, twitched him from his seat, marched him through the car, and sent him flying onto the tracks. It was done in three motions, as exact as a piece of drill. The train was still moving slowly, although beginning to mend her pace, and the drunkard got his feet without a fall. He carried a red bundle, though not so red as his cheeks; and he shook this menacingly in the air with one hand, while the other stole behind him to the region of the kidneys. It was the first indication that I had come among revolvers and I observed it with some emotion. The conductor stood on the steps with one hand on his hip, looking back at him; and perhaps this attitude imposed upon the creature, for he turned without further ado, and went off staggering along the tracks, followed by a peal of laughter from the cars. They were speaking English all about me, but I knew I was in a foreign land.”