Monday, November 13, 2017

Robert Louis Stevenson — success and failure


It’s time for something from The Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the birthday of Robert Louis Stevenson (books by this author ), born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1850). He was a sickly, moderately successful essayist and travel writer, living in France, when one evening he walked to a friend’s house, looked in through the window, and fell instantly in love with a woman sitting there at the table. To make a grand entrance, he opened the window, leapt inside, and took a bow. The woman was Fanny Osbourne and she was both American and unhappily married. She had come to Europe to get away from her husband, but after spending months getting to know Stevenson, she decided to go back to California.

Stevenson got a telegram from her a few weeks after she’d returned to the United States, and he decided on the spot to drop everything and go persuade her to divorce her husband and marry him. His health, as always, was terrible, and the trip to the United States almost killed him. He collapsed on Fanny Osbourne’s doorstep, but she nursed him back to health. She did divorce her husband, and they got married in San Francisco and spent their honeymoon in a cabin near an abandoned silver mine.

They moved back to Scotland with her son from her previous marriage, and one rainy afternoon the following summer, Stevenson painted a map of an imaginary island to entertain his new stepson. The map gave him and idea for a story, and in a single month he had written his first great novel, Treasure Island (1883), about the young Jim Hawkins, who finds a treasure map and goes along on a journey to find the treasure, meeting pirates, surviving a mutiny, and getting to know a one-legged cook named Long John Silver. It has been in print now for 134 years.

Around the same time that Treasure Island was published, Stevenson woke up one morning and told his family that he did not want to be disturbed until he had finished writing a story that had come to him in a dream. It took him three days to write it, but when he read the story aloud to his wife, she said it was too sensationalistic. So he sat down and rewrote the whole thing. By the end of the week, he was fairly happy with the result, which he called Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1885), about a scientist who invents a chemical that changes his personality from a mild-mannered gentleman to a savage criminal.

Those two books made Stevenson rich and famous. He spent the rest of his life traveling from one place to the next, producing about 400 pages of published work a year. He finally settled on the island of Samoa, where his health improved greatly, and in the last five years of his life he wrote 10 more books. He died at the age of 44, not from his respiratory illness, but from a stroke. His contemporaries saw him as one of the greatest writers of his generation, but he’s now remembered mainly as a writer of adventure stories. Critics wish he had finished the last novel he had been working on, about colonial life in Samoa, because the fragments that survive are among his best work.

Robert Louis Stevenson, who said, “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” And, “Our business in life is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in good spirits.”



Personal Postscript:

As I have failed much more often than I have succeeded, I embrace Stevenson’s observation about life. 




9 comments:

  1. I think it was Vince Lombardi who once said that a loser wasn't one who got knocked down, but one who didn't get up.

    A great observation, both actually.

    Nice post for a Monday.

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    1. Fred, Mondays seem to have acquired a bad reputation, but at least Stevenson and Lombardi (and you) help make it better.

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    2. R.T., Thank you. It's flattering to be listed in such exalted company.

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  2. i didn't know he died of a stroke! i had always thought it was TB... there are a lot of things to admire re Stevenson, but i have to mention that reading his essays, years ago, i got a little weary of his, what seemed to me then, superior attitude... but i was sensitive at that period, and probably over reacted somewhat... but i still think he was a much better novelist than philosopher... nice hearing about him; i think i'll go look at some of his essays, to verify my stated ridiculous opinion... or not...

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    1. Mudpuddle, I think you’re on to something: story tellers often should stick to stories and stay away from pontificating on theory, criticism, and philosophy.

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  3. Mudpuddle, about a year or so ago, I read a number of RLS's essays. There were only two that I really enjoyed. I did finish the collection, but I skimmed through most of them.

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  4. I like Stevenson's view, too, Tim. It's not whether you fail, because we all do. It's what you do afterwards that matters, at least to me.

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    1. Margot, failure is easy, but learning from failure is difficult,

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    2. how true that is i can verify from personal experience...

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