The Saranac Connection: Part I

William Ernest Henley, the inspiration for Long John Silver. (Photo provided)

The significance of Robert Louis Stevenson’s oft-called “Adirondack sojourn” is often understated or not understood by incompetent biographers where it is barely a footnote. The better ones discuss his literary accomplishments of that winter of 1887-88, namely, the Scribner’s series of 12 essays and the first half of “The Master of Ballantrae,” his first novel after “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

Also, there will be a few words about his relationship with his Adirondack physician, Dr. E.L. Trudeau. For some reason, some of them choose to dwell on the break that winter between RLS and his long-time best friend and fellow failed playwright, William Ernest Henley. Henley was a flamboyant character, so when Stevenson was fleshing out one of his famous literary villains, he thought of him and after publication, he told Henley that “it was the sight of your maimed strength (Henley had a peg leg from amputation) and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver in Treasure Island.”

In March of 1888, about a month before he left Saranac Lake, Stevenson got a letter from Henley in England, in which the latter accused the former’s wife, Fanny Stevenson, of stealing a short story from Katharine DeMattos, Louis’ cousin and the sister of Bob Stevenson.

Katharine and Bob were the children of Stevenson’s uncle Alan Stevenson, the builder of the famous Skerryvore lighthouse in the Irish Sea. Now Fanny had been falsely accused, for Katharine had given her permission to re-do the story and since Fanny apparently improved it, “The Nixie” appeared in the March, 1888 issue of Scribners magazine in which also appeared her husband’s essay “Beggars,” one of 12 written at Baker’s. If being the wife of a famous author had anything to do with “The Nixie” in Scribner’s remains a topic for conjecture.

Stevenson was absolutely enraged by Henley’s accusation against his wife and he was no Ted Cruz about it. Louis dumped him immediately and Henley never forgave him.

For Stevenson, it was an agonizing development as his letters show, and in the end he forgave Henley, but it was over, nevertheless. Henley would never forgive but instead he appointed himself to be his ex-friend’s backstabber-in-chief to the end, even after Louis was pushing up tropical daisies on top of his mountain in Oceania.

There’s nothing unusual about friends parting ways and you don’t have to be famous to do it. That some writers would rather explore Stevenson’s emotional state over Henley’s callousness to the exclusion or minimization of more significant developments brings to mind the example of the art critic who couldn’t see the big picture because he was too focused on a few brush strokes. Maybe, just maybe, it’s because many of these academics are British and they blind themselves to the obvious because their Old World pride can’t or won’t accept that a clapboard farmhouse on the outskirts of an “American” backwoods hamlet could ever be the setting for a transformation scene in the life and career of a famous 19th Century Victorian author, but it was.

How was that? Three factors converged or ‘connected’ in the existential experiment known as Robert Louis Stevenson and in a serendipitous kind of way Fate had brought him to Saranac Lake, a place he had never heard of, for it to happen. The day would come when William Ernest Henley would bitterly encapsulate the events of those days when he said, “There were two Stevensons; the one who went to America in 1887 and the one who never came back.”

The three ingredients that would come together in Saranac Lake to make the transformation were: one, sudden wealth, two, better health, and three, a wild new adventure to go on for the adventure seeking author of “Kidnapped,” one that would require numbers one and two to do it. To begin, it’s important to know that RLS in his lifetime, was more popular in the United States than his native Scotland. They disowned him early on because of his colorful way of dressing and rebellious attitude in an ultra-conservative society but his big mistake was to speak truth to power when it came to the morality or lack thereof, especially with women when he wrote his essay On Robert Burns, a poet and a symbol of national pride. To quote from Stevenson in the Adirondacks, an article by Livingston Chapman when he was the secretary of the Stevenson Society of America in Saranac Lake in 1920:

“In his letters written from Saranac Lake one realizes the improvement in his financial condition, for Stevenson, although an optimist, 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 the purchase of his writings to add to his depleted exchequer and spread his fame.”

That is all true, but he left out some important details. By 1887, Stevenson’s books featuring his classic tales and verses had sold by the millions in the United States but he was not getting paid a cent for them. At the time American publishers were sending agents overseas to scout out promising new literature to bring back here to print and sell at a 100% profit. It’s called stealing — and since Congress had yet to pass legislation to protect the interests of foreign authors, they could get away with it. So-called pirated editions of Stevenson’s works were rampant throughout the country. It had started in 1878 when he was still “unknown.” During his first and dangerous voyage to the New World in 1879 as “The Amateur Emigrant,” Louis had gone into a New York City bookstore to buy some books on American history and do you think he was not surprised to see his second book, “Travels With a Donkey,” for sale in there? Hannibal Hamlin, Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president, bought several pirated books by RLS and somehow, they ended up here in Saranac Lake, in the Stevenson Cottage.

This situation would have persisted if Stevenson had remained overseas. The timely death of his father, Thomas Stevenson, in the spring of 1887, is what started the ball rolling. It triggered the chain of events that would lead to Stevenson’s unexpected presence in Saranac Lake, five months later and one month after his transformation began in NYC before he even got off the steamship Ludgate Hill from London. On board he was surrounded by fans and reporters for the first time, making that day, Sept. 7, 1887, the first day of the rest of his life, as the saying goes.

The timing of all this was crucial. Stevenson and his family had been on their way to Colorado, and stopping in New York was expected to be just a typical tourist stopover. The first indication that it would not be typical was the sight of a crowd of people stirring on the pier that their ship was approaching. Yes, Stevenson’s ship was coming in, literally and figuratively. The city had turned out to greet the author of “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” just when the first ever and unauthorized stage production of it starring Richard Mansfield, was set to premiere at Madison Square Theatre later that very week. The culture shock that this gothic horror novelette had on the reading public was popular for some reason and within a few short years, the craze had spread around the world in hundreds of translations, and we living today live with Jekyll and Hyde as part of our cultural fabric.

To have arrived in the Big Apple when Stevenson’s 19th Century fictional schizoid man was the talk of the country was too perfect a coincidence which reinforces the suspicion held in some circles that RLS was held in high regard by some higher power, the same one that probably saved his life on a camping trip in California, eight years previous. From now on, American publishers would steal no more from Robert Louis Stevenson. Instead, they would be tripping over themselves to get at him with astronomical offers of money.

From now on, Stevenson would finally be getting paid for his books from his biggest fan club–America. To appreciate this, one must understand the context in which it happened. So far, Louis had survived to the age of 36 because his father had supported him. With his medical problems, Louis could not make it with his book sales in Britain and now, with Thomas gone, the money would soon be gone, too. His inheritance, limited to 3,000 pounds by some Scottish law was a non-renewable commodity, a fact which he doubtless pondered aboard the Ludgate Hill on his way to Colorado, with his family, including his mother.

What a relief his surprise reception in New York must have been to Louis, because with it came relief from impending financial woes, to a degree he could never have imagined. He didn’t know it yet, but the new celebrity would soon be on his way to Saranac Lake to spend the winter adjusting to his new way of life, while staring into Andrew Baker’s flaming fireplace with the snow falling outside.

To be continued.


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