The Golden Age, 1931
“A large and enthusiastic gathering assembled at the Memorial Cottage, Saranac Lake, Saturday, Aug. 22, to pay homage to Robert Louis Stevenson by attendance at this annual event. Perfect weather and a most enjoyable address delivered by one of Stevenson’s devoted admirers made the afternoon a memorable one in the history of the Stevenson Society of America. The meeting was called to order at 3:15 o’clock by the president, Colonel Walter Scott. In response to the president’s request the Reverend Hiram E. Lyon offered an invocation.”
— From the General Report for 1931, the Stevenson Society of America, Inc.
After the prayer, Scott commenced his presidential speech while standing on the veranda made famous by the famous invalid author from Scotland who gave the world “Treasure Island” and familiar verses like “How do you like to go up in a swing, Up in the air so blue?” Robert Louis Stevenson could also do good, even “classic” gothic horror with his schizoid character, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Scott began his speech by considering his subject’s ability to use the English language as well as he did by creating timeless literature of such a diverse nature. J.C. Farnas, author of “Voyage to Windward–The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson,” 1951, took “Treasure Island” as evidence: “I know of no more striking example of an artist’s taking a cheap, artificial set of commercialized values which is fair enough to the Victorian ‘boys’ story and doing work of everlasting quality by changing nothing, transmuting everything, as if Jane Austen had ennobled soap-opera.”
Genius is the subject that Scott chose to explore and communicate to his audience, specifically the genius of RLS, which he describes “like a beautiful gem with countless facets, each reflecting a beautiful play of prismatic colors, disclosing new lights, constantly varying, never the same–an intangible radiant energy suggesting the ever-changing moods of Nature.” That’s not a scientific observation. A dictionary says that genius, among many things, is “a single strongly marked capacity or aptitude” or an “extraordinary intellectual power especially as manifested in creative activity,” even “a person endowed with transcendent superiority.”
“…Or who,” continues Scott, “can definitely describe a sunset? Its beauties have never been fixed on canvas, or confined to descriptive language … And so is the genius of Stevenson. No one can contemplate the man or his works without gaining a new and different inspiration … We can not comprehend the nature of genius; it is something akin to the spiritual–a gift from God; an incomprehensible intangible faculty not acquired or inherited, nor restricted to any particular race or condition. It has touched the rich and poor alike, for like the wind, ‘wither it cometh or wither it goeth we know not.'”
Evidence of the changing times was apparent when the secretary, Livingston Chapman, read his report which included: “I regret to say that the addition of new names to our roll was considerably under that of previous years. This no doubt was owing to the world-wide business depression. Incidentally, blaming things on business depression has become one of our most popular indoor sports. …”
“Our collection has been enriched since the last meeting by the following gifts: Some sprigs of ivy from the old kirk at Glencorse, Scotland, a building intimately acquainted with R.L.S. and his forbears and mentioned by him in some of his writings,” like in The Body Snatchers, St. Ives, and his unfinished masterpiece Weir of Hermiston. The old kirk at Glencorse was and still is the ruins of a church all by itself in the Pentland Hills, an area not far beyond the Edinburgh city limits. The Pentlands and the kirk there were favorite haunts of RLS in his youth, his “Hills of Home.” Today those sprigs of ivy in their pewter frames hang safely in “Maggie’s Room” at Baker’s, just one example of several unique gifts to the Stevenson Society presented by a Mrs. L.D. Paley, a devoted life member who must have had a lot of money.”
Most of the additions that year were photographs, books, post cards, articles and the like. More photos taken by Mr. William F. Alexander, Honorary Secretary of the Robert Louis Stevenson Club of Glasgow, were received by the society. If William could visit their “sacred rooms” today he would have to be pleased to see his wonderful framed photographs respectfully placed and looking brand new. His pictures of the ancestral home of the Balfours and the Stevensons are nearby the sprigs of ivy in Maggie’s Room.
Mr. Alexander’s collection also includes two photos he took of RLS sites in Anstruther, Scotland, by the sea. Stevenson lived there in the summer of 1868 when he was a 17-year-old reluctant student of engineering at Edinburgh University. It was paternal pressure that made him do it, against which he rebelled in 1871, and succeeded. The Education of an Engineer is one of 12 essays RLS wrote here in Saranac Lake for Scribner’s magazine. In it he relives those student days when he was a master truant, who spent summers at construction sites of the family firm of civil engineers known throughout Queen Victoria’s realm as the Lighthouse Stevensons. Anstruther was such a place. That was where young Louis, the risk-taker, became the only Victorian author of note to ever descend beneath the waves in one of those old fashioned diving suits with helmet and air hose. He did it when the project engineer, his father, Thomas Stevenson, was nowhere around. Louis had bribed an enabler, one of the professional divers and described what fun it all was while living at Baker’s, writing that “It was one of the best things I got from my education as an engineer.”
Finally, the guest speaker was introduced by Scott, that being none other than Dr. Henry A. Lappin, F.R.S.L. (England), Professor of English literature at D’Youville College for Women, Buffalo, N.Y. Gone were the days of guest speakers who knew and lived with RLS back in the day. Will Low was the last, giving his talk the year before on Aug. 23, 1930. The world was changing fast because of the new dark age descending upon it. There was no escaping it, even in Saranac Lake.