The return from Saranac

Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain in Washington Square, April 1888

“Almost before the passage of time was realized, April (1888) had come and our friends were once more occupying their former quarters in the Hotel St. Stephen in Eleventh Street, which by this time had come to be known among the intimates as the Hotel St. Stevenson. The improvement in the physical condition of Stevenson was evident. He was still obliged to exercise precaution against overfatigue, but he could venture out in the middle of the day, and was able to see more people than on his previous visit.”

“A Chronicle of Friendships,” Will H. Low

“The Return from Saranac” is the title of Chapter 33 in that book. Six-and-a-half months had passed since Will Low had waved good-bye to Robert Louis Stevenson from a pier on the Hudson River in New York City. Waving back from the deck of a riverboat pointing north was his friend once again going into self-exile for the sake of his less than robust health, this time to a primitive frontier hamlet called Saranac Lake. There, with his family, the invalid author from Scotland had passed the winter of 1887-88 in a rented furnished apartment which was normally the private residence of the pioneer family for whom Mount Baker is named.

So by April 20, 1888, Robert Louis Stevenson was back again in the real world of people and business — the Big Apple, on the civilized side of this Adirondack wilderness which had served him well in spite of his complaints and he knew it. Not only had the climate been good for him, but the isolation was invaluable to someone who was new to fame and had mixed feelings about it. Like he told his friend Bart Simpson by letter in early October from Baker’s: “Fame is not so nice as people try to make out. … There are nice bits of course … but the thing at large is a bore and a fraud, and I am much happier up here, where I see no one and live my own life.” He was on the same wavelength a few days later when he wrote to Sir Percy and Lady Shelley, his former neighbors in Bournemouth, England: “I found myself quite a famous person in the States; but quite enough of that … and am now overjoyed to be out of the way of callers, and bouquets, and newspaper reporters, and quietly with myself … what a life must be that of a genuinely famous person … how much better it was to be in Bournemouth, where nobody cared a cent for me so long as I paid my bills and nobody called but the Shelleys and the Taylors, and our neighbour Miss Boodle!”

The solitude RLS had enjoyed in his mountain retreat might have seemed like a dream after resettling into the Hotel St. Stephen near Washington Square in lower Manhattan. One of the first new faces he saw was that of a young man, Edward Bok, who worked for Scribner’s magazine. Bok had delivered proofs for their celebrity client to inspect and wasn’t impressed with the scene, if you take him at his word in his own book, “The Americanization of Edward Bok.” He described Stevenson to be “not a prepossessing figure … With his sallow skin and his black disheveled hair, with finger-nails which had been allowed to grow very long, with fingers discolored by tobacco … and a general untidiness which was all his own … an author whom it was better to read than to see … yet his kindliness and gentleness more than offset the unattractiveness of his personal appearance.”

As for Will Low, he resumed his routine of paying Louis a visit at his hotel every day. Low was a member of a club called The Century Association, and their clubhouse was on Fifteenth Street near Union Square and not far from the hotel. It was not unlike Stevenson’s Savile Club in London with an agreeable atmosphere. Low gave Louis a card that let him into their impressive club library. There RLS spent a few mornings rolling and smoking his cigarettes and getting some writing in, too. A Mr. John LaFarge was there one morning looking for a book and noticed, he said, “an interesting man with the look of an invalid” looking for a match. LaFarge came to the rescue and recognized Stevenson from the news media when the latter looked up to thank him. LaFarge gave this nicotine fiend the courtesy of pretending not to have noticed who he was. Their paths would cross again, halfway around the world and down under, too, in Oceania, where they would become friends.

Robert Louis Stevenson was a natural-born friend-maker. Unfortunately, he had to limit his indulgence in the activity because he just didn’t have the stamina. In his last letter from Saranac Lake, April 12, 1888, he invited Mark Twain to come and see him in New York but added “pray keep my address secret — I cannot see many people.” Twain did go down to see him and said so in his autobiography: “It was on a bench in Washington Square that I saw the most of Robert Louis Stevenson. It was an outing that lasted an hour or more and was very pleasant and sociable. I had come with him from his hotel, where I had been paying my respects to his family. His business in the Square was to absorb the sunshine. He was most scantily furnished with flesh, his clothes seemed to fall into hollows as if there might be nothing inside but the frame for a sculptor’s statue. His long face and lank hair and dark complexion and musing and melancholy expression seemed to fit these details justly and harmoniously, and the altogether of it seemed especially planned to gather the rays of your observation and focalize them upon Stevenson’s special distinction and commanding feature, his splendid eyes. They burned with a-smouldering rich fire under the pent-house of his brows, and they made him beautiful.”

And then there was the blossoming friendship between RLS and the sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens, premeditated by their mutual friend, Will Low. “My episode with Stevenson has been one of the events of my life,” St. Gaudens wrote in a letter. It was through this connection and at this time, that RLS had his meeting with Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, U.S. Army retired. Sherman is the Civil War hero who introduced total war as the quickest way to end a war, using Georgia as an example. Louis had recently finished reading Sherman’s “Memoirs” for the second time and was thrilled with this prospect. Low recorded that “as between fellow-authors, the conversation had been animated.”

Springtime in the city for Louis had been good so far, but it couldn’t last thanks to urban pollution, even in 1888. “Toward the end of April,” Low says in his book, “I was greeted on entering the room one morning with: ‘Low, you must get me out of this.'”


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