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Sam McClure, part I

This rare Robert Louis Stevenson photo is one of only two taken of the author in Saranac Lake. It was a gift from Stevenson to Henry James, the American novelist. The James family presented it to the Stevenson Society of America in 1948, and since then it has been on display in the room of its origin.

“Samuel Sidney McClure (1857-1949) came to the USA as a poor immigrant boy from Ireland and fought his way to success in popular journalism as an editor and publisher with great energy, flair and enthusiasm. He began his pioneer newspaper syndicate in 1884 and founded and edited McClure’s Magazine 1893-1912; he was the original Pinkerton in ‘The Wrecker.’ In ‘My Autobiography’ (1914) McClure describes how on a visit to England in search of material for his syndicate he had written to RLS in February 1887 but had had no reply. Lloyd Osbourne called on McClure in New York explaining that RLS had mislaid the letter. As a result, McClure and his wife Hattie visited RLS at the Hotel St. Stephen. It must have been at this meeting that RLS rejected an offer to contribute a weekly article to the New York World.”

— The “Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson,” Vol. VI, Booth and Mehew

In September 1887, Robert Louis Stevenson was in New York City, having crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the steamship Ludgate Hill to get there. He found himself to be famous in the New World because Americans have always enjoyed making celebrities, and now he was one, too, thanks to the success of his recent Gothic horror novelette, the “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

Consequently, RLS was in demand among big-city publishers, who provided him with the necessary conditions to show off his modesty because Louis was a man who didn’t fool himself about anything. From the age of 6, he had wanted only to write because he loved doing it, but he believed that he wasn’t a “great” writer, and the astronomical offers he was hearing in America made him cringe inside — impossible to live up to, in his mind.

In October of 1887, while in Saranac Lake, Stevenson wrote a letter to George Iles, a soon-to-be dinner guest at “Chateau Baker” from Montreal. He said, “Nobody ever had such pains to learn a trade as I had, but I slogged at it, day in, day out; and I frankly believe, thanks to my dire industry, I have done more with smaller gifts than almost any man of letters in the world.”

Sam McClure didn’t know this about RLS when the latter rejected his above-mentioned offer at the St. Stephen Hotel. Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World had commissioned McClure to offer Stevenson $10,000 a year, a tremendous sum back then, for a short weekly article. Louis refused, and after settling into Baker’s for the winter, he wrote a letter to his friend William Henley and told him that “When I got to New York a paper offered me 2,000 pounds a year to do critical weekly articles for them; the sum was so enormous that I tottered.” In a deal that seems to have been struck in the Bizarro World, Scribner’s Magazine won Stevenson’s signature on a contract by bidding down and offering him only $3,500, or 720 pounds, for 12 monthly articles. “This” he said, “I could not decently refuse; and I am now a yoked man.”

McClure may have failed to get RLS for Pulitzer, but he kept his sights on him for his own syndicate. He would make several journeys from NYC to Saranac Lake that fall and winter just to talk business with the famous author, and then accidentally fell under the spell of the Stevenson persona. His last visit was in March 1888. McClure was about to make another trip to England, so RLS gave him letters to deliver to his old friends over there. Included was the autographed photo of Stevenson taken in his bedroom at Baker’s, which he had framed as a gift for Henry James. McClure delivered it and from then on praised the American expatriate author as one of Stevenson’s truest and most faithful friends.

Sam McClure would make a final trip into these mountains when he was invited to be guest speaker at the annual meeting of the Stevenson Society on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 26, 1922. From Baker’s veranda, McClure found it easy to talk for a long time about RLS to his audience seated on the lawn or lounging on the little knoll outside Stevenson’s former study. He hit on a number of themes, one of them being a surprise during his above-mentioned business trip to England:

“I was then planning a trip to England, and before I sailed, Stevenson gave me letters to a number of his friends there — Baxter, W.E. Henley, Sidney Colvin, R.A.M. Stevenson and others. … Well, I went to London, and there I found that most of Stevenson’s set was very much annoyed by the attention he was receiving in America, a most extraordinary spirit of hostility and jealousy. They were resentful of the fact that Stevenson was recognized more fully, more immediately and more understandingly in America than in England at the time. Some of Stevenson’s London friends agreed that he was a much-overrated man. And personally, I was the very essence of what was most undesirable in Americanism — I was the limit — an American editor! … They had all believed at that time that every American was ignorant — that Stevenson deserved great praise and high consideration for his efforts, but that still we didn’t know anything and were simply gone wild without appreciating his real greatness!” Henry James, as mentioned, proved to be an exception to this generality, maybe because he was American. Of James, McClure said, “He was Stevenson’s admirer. His interest in Stevenson’s health, his work, his plans for the future was wholly disinterested.”

McClure couldn’t resist bringing up the personality aspect of his subject: “Stevenson was a man, as his biography says, who combined with that great nobility of character a supreme degree of true manliness and more charm than anyone who knew him ever found in any other man. It was so. This extraordinary charm was inherent in Stevenson. It was expressed, of course, in his writings — we know this — but utterly aside from his writings he was the sort of man who commanded every sort of affection: admiration for his gifts, delights in his personal charm, and respect for his uncompromising principles. Underneath his velvet coat, his gaiety and picturesqueness, he was flint. It was probably this unusual combination of qualities in him that made one eager to serve him in every possible way. All people who knew him loved him, and loving him, they formed a natural fellowship for each other. He possessed that extraordinary spirit of friendship.”

And then McClure finally got around to one of his favorite Stevenson topics — the great South Seas cruise. To be continued.

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