‘Voyage to Windward’

Robert Louis Stevenson, foreground, aboard the schooner Equator. (Photo provided)

“Behind glass in the Stevenson Museum at Saranac Lake, New York, is preserved a black velveteen jacket, the sprig of heather in its upper pocket annually renewed by admirers of its long-dead owner. A robust girl could not possibly struggle into this narrow garment. Its wearer must have been an animated ribbon, with long arms, narrow chest, and, to judge by the lace-up boots in another case, long narrow hands and feet … through all his stages Robert Louis Stevenson always owned a velvet jacket. He wore it at the prompting of his adolescence, which was prolonged. That he retained it to his death signifies that a man may mature without necessarily aging …Some thought it a reproach to him, some an honor, some a self-betrayal that, when he died suddenly at the age of forty-four, he was still growing.”

“Voyage to Windward–The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson,” 1951, by J.C. Furnas

Joseph C. Furnas was serving the cause of freedom in World War II as one of the brains in Allied Intelligence, Pacific Theatre and already an authority on the South Seas, but born in Lebanon, New Jersey. In 1946, he was a guest at Vailima, Stevenson’s former island jungle estate in the Samoan Islands group, when it was in government use.

He was there a long time and became intrigued with the legend of “Tusitala” that went with the place. Tusitala, or “Teller of Tales,” was the name the Samoan people conferred upon this defender of their rights when those rights were being trampled upon by American and European colonial interests.

While digging into Stevenson’s background out of personal curiosity, Furnas discovered that the world was sorely in need of an adequate biography of Robert Louis Stevenson that would be comprehensive, objectively and thoroughly researched, uncensored and disciplined, to present the truest possible picture of the whole man and Furnas believed himself to be the man who could do it. In his author’s notes he says, “It has taken years and dollars and 30,000 miles of travel … Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of words of unpublished letters and manuscripts of his and his intimates have gone into the compost … new information here first explodes the legends, most discreditable, that have been allowed, for lack of facts, to grow up round Stevenson. It has amounted–strangely–to living with the man.”

Furnas threw himself into his project like a detective obsessing over a case while he globetrotted to all the Stevenson hot spots with the exceptions of Davos, Switzerland and the Marquesas Islands in Oceania. Saranac Lake was a very important site. The finished product, “Voyage to Windward– The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson,” was published in 1951 by William Sloan Associates, Inc. in New York City. In spite of numerous books about RLS published since then, the Stevenson Society of America in Saranac Lake still recommends this definitive work about Dr. E.L. Trudeau’s “illustrious patient” to anyone interested who isn’t intimidated by detail and substance. It has pictures, too.

Joseph Furnas came to Saranac Lake in spring 1948 to do his local research for “Voyage to Windward.” Dr. Hugh Kinghorn was his host of course, as president of the Stevenson Society. His account of Stevenson’s so-called “Adirondack sojourn” is thorough. You won’t find much flattery of people or places in Furnas, it’s just his style:

“What he (RLS) saw of the neighborhood daunted him. Tumbled and too low for sublimity, the Adirondacks are like the bleaker Highlands or the Cevennes furred out with timber, harsh with broken stone, impersonally inimical as the sea but without its broad, simple effects. Though fires roared all day at Baker’s, the house walls popped with contractions as the cold clutched and pounced … The village, which lived on trapping, pioneer ‘lungers’, and the tag-end of lumbering, had small opportunity to vote yes or no on Louis. Relations between the hat-box (‘hat-box on a hill, in the eye of all winds’ along with ‘Chateau Baker’ and the ‘Hunter’s Home’ are some of the epithets RLS used for his Adirondack furnished apartment in the house built by Andrew Baker) and local people consisted mostly of purchases which once led to a sharp row with the local butcher over a dubious roast.”

This is a little misleading. It was not a “sharp row,” which suggests yelling and insults. Today’s “old guard” of townspeople might remember Del Oldfield of Post Office fame. He was a descendent of Henry Enfield, said butcher. The latter had sent to the resident author, by request, some meat to eat. The food was returned to Enfield with an explanatory note from his celebrity customer. Enfield was hardly offended and carefully guarded his personal piece of literary memorabilia. When the Stevenson Society started up their little museum at Baker’s, he gave it to them so it could have company and to this day it takes up space in the author’s bedroom where it most likely came into being. The emotional intensity produced by this “sharp row” can be felt in Stevenson’s words:

“Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson presents his compliments to Mr. Oldfield and begs to return him the remainder of a joint of mutton which he refuses to either eat or pay for. Fillet of beef had been ordered as far back as Monday. Mr. Stevenson can readily understand there might arise some difficulty in supplying that; but at least Mr. Oldfield knew that Mr. S. would want something on Thursday; and Mrs. S. prefers to hope it was an error that Mr. O. sent him anything so perfectly uneatable as the joint of which he now has the pleasure to return in part.”

While researching “Voyage to Windward,” Furnas got to know the California gang of RLS enthusiasts who are still active in Monterey, San Francisco, and Napa Valley. At the time, the California Department of Parks and Recreation was taking over the flophouse in Monterey, where the author had lived for three months in 1879. They were converting it into a public museum to be called the “Robert Louis Stevenson House.”

While J.C. Furnas was in Saranac Lake, Dr. Kinghorn was in his 11th year as president of the Stevenson Society and all that time spent being the single thread holding it all together. Collapse of the society and closure of the famous shrine on Stevenson Lane might have seemed imminent to Furnas from his perspective and might have had something to do with the inventory he made here. One of the California operatives was Mrs. Anne Roller Issler, a noted authority on Stevenson’s California period. She has been quoted in this series from her book Stevenson at Silverado. Mrs. Issler was at ground zero of the Monterey museum project and was its curator from 1957 to 1962.

In his quest for support of their precious shrine, Dr. Kinghorn had enlisted the help of a Mr. J.W. Thompson, who had some potentially useful connections. In February, 1950, Kinghorn received a letter from Mr. Thompson at 478 Central Park West, New York City:

“Dear Dr. Kinghorn: … I have not been idle, and I am enclosing copies of letters from (1) Christopher Morley (2) Charles Scribner (3) N.Y. State Library Association (4) Lowell Thomas (5) Mrs. Anne Roller Issler of California. Mrs. Issler only enters the picture because I have been in correspondence with her as the author of two recent books about R.L.S. … I have nothing whatever to do, of course, with the suggestion that California might acquire the Saranac Collection. So far as I am concerned it was a bolt out of the blue. I may say, however, that I found quite a group of Stevenson enthusiasts in California.”

One imagines it was a bolt out of the blue too, for president Dr. Kinghorn. Did that bolt come with a name, maybe Joseph Furnas? Furnas and his California associates can’t be blamed if they wanted “to acquire the Saranac collection.” Fortunately, Dr. Kinghorn was a determined RLS fan. He was a very busy man who sacrificed his own time and money to keep the Stevenson Cottage viable and thanks to him the “World’s finest collection of Stevenson lore” is still on Stevenson Lane in Saranac Lake, in the “Hunter’s Home” where it belongs.


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