Robert Louis Stevenson’s letters, personal and professional, will charm your socks right off. They’ve already kept me from several tasks (including going to bed at a reasonable hour) tonight. And they’re worth every squandered minute.
To William Archer, October 1887:
I am now a salaried party; I am a bourgeois now; I am to write a weekly paper for Scribner’s, at a scale of payment which makes my teeth ache for shame and diffidence….I am like to be a millionaire if this goes on, and be publicly hanged at the social revolution: well, I would prefer that to dying in my bed; and it would be a godsend to my biographer, if ever I have one.
To Henry James, “I know not the day; but the month it is the drear October by the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir,” 1887:
Our house–emphatically “Baker’s”–is on a hill, and has a sight of a stream turning a corner in the valley–bless the face of running water!–and sees some hills too, and the paganly prosaic roofs of Saranac itself; the Lake it does not see, nor do I regret that; I like water (fresh water I mean) either running swiftly among stones, or else largely qualified with whisky. As I write, the sun (which has long been a stranger) shines in at my shoulder; from the next room, the bell of Lloyd’s typewriter makes an agreeable music as it patters off (at a rate which astonishes this experienced novelist) the early chapters of a humorous romance; from still further off–the walls of Baker’s are neither ancient nor massive–rumours of Valentine about the kitchen stove come to my ears; of my mother and Fanny I hear nothing, for the excellent reason that they have gone sparking off, one to Niagara, one to Indianapolis. People complain that I never give news in my letters. I have wiped out that reproach.
Again to William Archer, February 1888:
Why was Jenkin an amateur in my eyes? You think because not amusing (I think he often was amusing). The reason is this: I never, or almost never, saw two pages of his work that I could not have put in one without the smallest loss of material. That is the only test I know of writing. If there is anywhere a thing said in two sentences that could have been said in one, then it’s amateur work. Then you will bring me up with old Dumas. Nay, the object of a story is to belong, to fill up hours; the story-teller’s art of writing is to water out by continual invention, historical and technical, and yet not seem to water; seem on the other hand to practise that same wit of conspicuous and declaratory condensation which is the proper art of writing. That is one thing in which my stories fail: I am always cutting the flesh off the bones.
I would rise from the dead to preach!
I’m always resolving to learn more about Stevenson, who cut a rather dashing figure in the transatlantic literary scene at the end of the nineteenth century. He know most everybody and, as far as I can tell, was universally respected. It’s heartbreaking to see his illnesses turn up again and again in these late letters, where the restless vigor of his imagination and affections is so palpable. When he died in 1894, Stevenson was 44 and probably still had enough books in him to fill another lifetime on top of his truncated one.