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Robert Louis Stevenson on his career

Robert Louis Stevenson (Public domain photo)

George Iles was a Canadian journalist living in Montreal when he received a letter from Robert Louis Stevenson, a resident of Saranac Lake for the time being. It was in the autumn of 1887. Iles had been invited by the famous author to travel south then west, up into the mountains, to visit him at Baker’s, the pioneer family who was letting him use half of their house for $50 a month and $2 a cord for firewood in case they wanted heat.

Stevenson’s letter to Mr. Iles was a form of introduction by mail, a review of his career at its apex for another writer who wanted to write about him. Read on to see how Robert Louis Stevenson saw himself in Saranac Lake on Oct. 29, 1887:

“This characteristic letter to me covers Stevenson’s career to the autumn of 1887,” Iles wrote to introduce it.

“Saranac Lake, N.Y.,

“October 29, 1887.

“Dear Mr. Iles: The undersigned was born in 1850, November the 13th, in the city of Edinburgh. He was always sick when he was a child. You will find a good deal of autobiographical matter in the new volumes of essays, ‘Memories and Portraits,’ soon to be issued by Charles Scribner’s Sons. He — oh hang this! — I was educated for a civil engineer on my father’s design, and was at the building of harbors and lighthouses, and worked in a carpenter’s shop and a brass foundry and hung about wood yards and the like. Then it came out that I was learning nothing and on being tightly cross-questioned during a dreadful evening walk, I owned I cared for nothing but literature. My father said that was no profession, but I might be called to the bar if I chose; so at the age of twenty-one I began to study law.”

“Two years after I met Sidney Colvin, who took me up and introduced my work. My first paper appeared, just after I was twenty-three, in the Portfolio, under the harmless anagram of ‘L.S. Stoneven.’ It was called ‘Roads.’ My second, written that same winter at Mentone, came out in Macmillan. It has been reprinted — ‘Ordered South.’ It took me pretty near three months to write, I imagine. No one 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. My first story (that I had dared to reprint) was ‘Will o’ the Mill,’ written in France. The scenery is a kind of hash-up of the Murgthal in Baden and the Brenner Pass in the Tyrol, over which I went when I was twelve. The next was ‘A Lodging for a Night,’ written concurrently with my study on Villon in ‘Men and Books.’ The first ‘New Arabian Nights,’ properly so called, was begun at the Burford Bridge Inn (see a gossip in ‘Romance,’ in the forthcoming volume), where I stayed to be near George Meredith; they were continued in London, Edinburgh, Paris, Barbizon, and finished at Le Monastere (see ‘Travels With a Donkey’), all within about five months; this will give you a notion of my roving ways. That same autumn I wrote ‘Providence and the Guitar,’ part at London, part in Cambridge; so that year saw me quite the story teller. It was that same spring that I had brought out ‘An Inland voyage,’ my first volume. ‘The Pavilion on the Links’ was begun in London, finished in Monterey, California. ‘Treasure Island’ begun at Braemar, finished at Davos; the whole in two bursts of about fifteen days each, my quickest piece of work. ‘Kidnaped’ was all written at Bournemouth, inside of a year, in probably five months’ actual writing, and one of these months entirely over the last chapters, which had to be put together without interest or inspiration, almost word by word, for I was entirely worked out.”

“‘Kidnapped,’ you may like to know, I consider infinitely my best, and, indeed, my only good story. ‘Prince Otto’ was written at Hyeres; it took me about five months, in the inside of a year, not counting the first chapter, which was written before at Kingussie. ‘Otto’ was my hardest effort, for I wished to do something very swell, which did not quite come off. Whole chapters of ‘Otto’ were written as often as five or six times, and one chapter, that of the Countess and the Princess, eight times by me and one by my wife — my wife’s version was the second last. ‘The Treasure of Franchard’ was mostly written at Kingussie. ‘Jekyll,’ ‘Olalla,’ ‘Markheim,’ were all written at Bournemouth. ‘The Dynamiter’ begun at Hyeres, finished at Bournemouth, ‘Thrawn Janet,’ at Kincaid, near Pitlochrie, finished at Davos. My life of Fleeming Jenkin, now in the press, is another child of Bournemouth. ‘The Silverado Squatters’ hails from Hyeres, ‘Travels With a Donkey’ from Edinburgh, ‘An Inland Voyage’ from Edinburgh and Dieppe. In a forthcoming number of Scribner’s Magazine you will find something about my dreams. This is enough gossip, I hope; if you want more let me know.”

Iles added, “In December, from the midst of storms — severe even for the Adirondacks — came this note:”

“Saranac Lake, December 14, 1887.

“Dear Mr. Iles, —

“Goodness knows what we have to thank you for, or I should say, what not. I was exceedingly interested by the new articles of Mr. Lloyd, who is certainly a capable, clever fellow; he writes the most workmanlike article of any man known to me in America, unless it should be Parkman. Not a touch in Lloyd of the amateur; and bar James, Howells, and the aforesaid Parkman, I cannot call to mind one American writer who has not a little taint of it.”

“Our news is good, in so far as it concerns myself, not so good in so far as it concerns my wife, with whom I fear Saranac does not agree. She is down in New York for a change; it howls and blows, and rains and snows, in a pleasant medley of ill weathers; and I am, from the midst of it,”

“Truly yours,

“Robert Louis Stevenson.”

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