‘A Chapter on Dreams’

The “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” made Robert Louis Stevenson a legend in his lifetime. When he came to Saranac Lake in the fall of 1887, he was just beginning to understand that. He had also found relief from a huge concern when he realized that his timely appearance in America would bring him financial independence for the first time in his life, when he was 36.

Almost everything in Stevenson’s life had been paid for by his father, Thomas, including the house in England he was using just before he came to Saranac Lake. Thomas took very good care of his sick boy who insisted on writing for a living, but for cultural reasons, making it in the British Isles was slow going for the wandering minstrel from Scotland, and he could not have survived on sales of his books there. When Thomas died in the spring of 1887, the well would go dry at the end of a 3,000-pound inheritance.

Stevenson began spending that money by taking his family, including his mother, to America so his American wife, Fanny, could cure her homesickness while he cured his weak lungs in Colorado Springs, a popular health resort. Before starting the trip, RLS already knew that his books were selling better in the USA than his homeland, and he had even recently written a letter to American publishers from England. He was annoyed that his popularity as a writer in the States was, in his mind, diminishing the accomplishments of the Stevenson family firm of engineers, specializing in lighthouses:

“My father is not an ‘inspector’ of lighthouses; he, two of my uncles, my grandfather, and my great grandfather in succession, have been engineers to the Scotch Lighthouse Service; all the sea lights in Scotland are signed with our name and my father’s services to lighthouse optics have been distinguished, indeed. I might write books till 1900 and not serve humanity as well.”

A bigger reading audience in a bigger country should have been a good thing, but like Charles Dickens before him, 100% of the profits from Stevenson’s books sold in the New World went to the American publishers, who were cranking them out in the millions in so-called pirated, “unauthorized” editions. Eventually, Congress would even do something, like passing a copyright bill to protect foreigners.

In the meantime, the serendipitous arrival of Robert Louis Stevenson in New York City on Sept. 7, 1887, became a genuine “first day of the rest of your life” experience for the author of “Jekyll and Hyde” as American publishers began lining up with fists full of dollars to see him. From that day forth, the American reading public would keep the author of “Treasure Island” financially afloat and “one step ahead of the law,” as he put it shortly before his untimely death in Samoa in 1894.

From “Robert Louis Stevenson in the Adirondacks,” by Livingston Chapman, secretary, Stevenson Society of America, 1920:

“In his letters from Saranac one realizes the improvement in his financial condition, for Stevenson, although an optimist to the last degree, had hard work to get along (most of the time) for a long while prior to this. To the credit of the United States be it said that they were the first nation to show full recognition and appreciation of his talent, and, by their purchase of his writing, to add to his depleted exchequer and spread his fame.”

Twenty-six days after his incredible reception in New York City, Robert Louis Stevenson settled into Baker’s for the winter. They never made it to Colorado. It was in the glow of the flames from Andrew Baker’s fireplace that fame and fortune as a new way of life would settle on Stevenson like the fresh falling snow outside. Things would never be the same. He didn’t know it yet, but he would never see Scotland again. He felt a freedom few of us ever feel. “Good Lord!” he wrote to his cousin Bob, “What fun! Wealth is only useful for two things — a yacht and a string quartette. For these two I will sell my soul.”

Only one thing could stop him now, his nemesis — “Bloody Jack,” the lifelong illness that had brought him to Saranac Lake. Stevenson’s letters testify to the wisdom of the decision to have brought him here, a true fountain of Juventus, his own phrase for a healthy place. The Adirondack air gave Louis the strength to go on his last and greatest adventure, and he never forgot it.

Stevenson understood that the cause of his new and unexpected lifestyle, with its pros and cons, could be traced back to that dream he had two years before in England. It probably seemed like an appropriate subject for the first of 12 essays he would write at Baker’s for Scribner’s magazine, and he called it “A Chapter on Dreams.”


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