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RLS on dreams

“We only guide ourselves, and only know ourselves, by these air-painted pictures of the past.” — RLS, Saranac Lake

The first thing Thomas Stevenson did when he first beheld his first and last newborn baby was to give him his first nickname, “Smout” — Scottish lingo for the small fry of salmon, because Robert Louis Stevenson was small and would always be small.

A future friend would call him that “youth unspeakably slight.” His mother, Margaret Isabella Balfour Stevenson, was physically delicate, a trait which may have been passed on more extremely to her son. But to neither parent can be traced his capacity for nervous energy that worked overtime after the child closed his eyes at bedtime to enter “The Land of Nod”:

“All by myself I have to go

With none to tell me what to do —

All along beside the streams,

And up the mountainsides of dreams.”

“The strangest things are there for me,

Both things to eat and things to see,

And many frightening sights abroad …”

Dreams turned into nightmares in Smout’s “Land of Nod.” Sometimes, especially in bad weather, he would lay awake in a sweat, afraid to go back to sleep, because he knew the “night-hag” was waiting for him there to grab “him by the throat, and pluck him, strangling and screaming.” Then Thomas would park himself outside the boy’s door and talk out loud to no one about nothing, but it seemed to work as he enabled Louis to return to the domain of the hag in “The Land of Nod.”

Thomas and Margaret needed help. They went shopping for a nurse and never looked back after they hired a single, 30-year-old fisherman’s daughter from Fife. This live-in caregiver became and remained family long after her work there was done. In retrospect, it seems like a miracle that such a perfect match could be made. Her charge was aware of that and made a display of gratitude when he put this dedication in the front of his collection of poems known around the world in many languages as “A Child’s Garden of Verses”:

TO ALISON CUNNINGHAM

“Cummy”

FROM HER BOY

“For the long nights you lay awake

And watched for my unworthy sake:

For your most comfortable hand

That led me through the uneven land:

For all the story-books you read:

For all the pain you comforted:

For all you pitied, all you bore,

In sad and happy days of yore: —

My second Mother, my first Wife,

The angel of my infant life —

From the sick child, now well and old,

Take, nurse, the little book you hold.”

“And grant it, Heaven, that all who read

May find as dear a nurse at need,

And every child who lists my rhyme,

In the bright, fireside, nursery clime,

May hear it in as kind a voice

As made my childish heart rejoice!”

Thomas and Margaret Stevenson were Presbyterian Scottish Christians, and their new nurse was an enthusiast of the Calvinist persuasion. Cummy’s influence was significant. By age 10, “Lou” probably knew the Bible better than most practitioners in its name, then and now, while his indoctrination through Cummy was enhanced by the Calvinistic flair for bloodthirsty Jehovahs and eternal torments. For Smout, this was more dream stuff, but as he matured, he lost his fear of night visions and even realized their potential in his future when, at 6 years of age, he had finally decided what he wanted to be — an author.

How did that happen? His maternal grandfather, the Rev. Dr. Lewis Balfour, of high reputation with 13 children, had challenged all the young cousins with an essay contest. Smout was intrigued. The title of Robert Louis Stevenson’s first literary burp is “Moses,” and Cummy helped him do it, but her “boy” did the attached watercolor illustrations of the exodus all by himself.

As a creative artist, RLS had no problem admitting that dreams were in his toolkit, a source factory of stories and ideas from the subconscious that the wizard in Louis could conjure up into the light by using his magical word matrix “and then to lead a double life — one of the day, one of the night.”

As the years rolled on, the dreamer in Louis refined his methods and “he began to write and sell his tales” using his nocturnal escapades with increasing effect to inform the activity of his pen. Of tale-worthy dreams he said, “The stories must now be trimmed and pared and set upon all fours, they must run from a beginning to an end and fit (after a manner) with the laws of life.” And then, “I dress the whole in the best words and sentences that I can find and make.” And then, one night in the fall of 1885, while Smout was wandering through the Land of Nod, he hit the jackpot in Dreamworld. About two years later, Stevenson was living with the Baker family in Saranac Lake, when he wrote an essay about it, source of several of the quotes above:

“I had long been trying to write a story on this subject, to find a body, a vehicle, for that strong sense of Man’s double being which must at times come in upon and overwhelm the mind of every living creature!”

Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson’s 18-year-old stepson, takes it up:

“One day Louis came down to lunch in a very preoccupied frame of mind, hurried through his meal — an unheard of thing for him to do — and on leaving said he was working with extraordinary success on a new story that had come to him in a dream, and that he was not to be disturbed even if the house caught fire. Hearing his first draft, my mother insisted that it would be better as an allegory, not a mere ‘crawler.’ After violent protest, Louis burned the draft and completely rewrote it, opening up the allegorical aspect. It took such hold of him that he finished the rough in three days — a tremendous stint of work.”

That is of course, the genesis of the “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Published in 1886, it was a sleeper until a single, excited review in The Times gave it legs. A classic with culture shock was thus born, and the rest is history, but with a new catchphrase.

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