" 'Myself and the Other Fellow': Treasure Island"

This review ran in the New York Times Book Review on Sunday, November 6, 2005.

By Christopher Benfey

Robert Louise Stevenson came from a family of Edinburgh engineers who specialized in the building of lighthouses along the rugged Scottish coast. Faced with "the towers we founded and the lamps we lit," he saw his own pen-pushing profession as a sad falling off from his heroic lineage. Sickly and emaciated, Stevenson expected to die of tuberculosis in his 20's; he seemed as surprised as anyone when he survived into middle age, dying of a stroke in 1894 at the age of 44 on his adopted island of Samoa. And yet, as Claire Harman makes clear in her shrewd and sparkling biography, Stevenson remained something of a lamplighter. The perils of the night and the perils of the sea - along with the hazardous nightscape of the human psyche (the "other fellow" of Harman's title) - were his great and enduring themes.

Stevenson was the only child of parents obsessed with his spiritual and physical well-being. "Their shared hypochondria," Harman wryly observes, "became a great comfort to them." A nurse with strong Calvinist convictions would wake poor Louis - as he was called - to say his prayers. She also liked to pump him full of coffee at midnight in a dubious stratagem to get him to sleep. Stevenson dedicated his beguiling 1885 collection, "A Child's Garden of Verses," to his dear Cummy, but the waking terrors of his endless nights made their way into poems like "Shadow March": "All the wicked shadows coming, tramp, tramp, tramp, / With the black night overhead." Relief came only with the dawn - or with therapeutic trips in search of sunnier climes, invoked in such early essays as "Ordered South."

A biography of Stevenson must be a travel book as well. Stevenson traveled first for health, then to get away from his parents and finally, as tuberculosis seemed to be closing in, to keep death at bay. A meandering canoe trip along the canals of Belgium and northern France in 1876 gave him the material for his first book, "An Inland Voyage," where the parallel explorations of his own wandering psyche make the journey, as Harman notes, "even more 'inland' than he perhaps anticipated." That summer, in a funky artists' colony near Barbizon, he met the formidable Mrs. Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne, an adventuress from Indianapolis via Oakland, Calif., who had decided to reinvent herself as an artist. A "short, exotic goddess . . . smoking a hand-rolled cigarette," Fanny was 10 years older than Stevenson and had already survived a bad marriage to a feckless drifter, with whom she lived in a "scruffy encampment" in Nevada, searching in vain for silver. Stevenson, with his prosperous family and his literary flair, seemed a promising investment.

Harman, the author of previous biographies of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Fanny Burney, relishes the strange dynamics of the Stevenson marriage. She notes the "homoerotic force field" Stevenson generated, with his love of Whitman's poetry, his reluctance to include women characters in novels like "Treasure Island" and his intense friendships with men; almost everyone, except Stevenson himself, assumed he was gay. Fanny matched her husband in sexual ambiguity; he addressed her in letters as "My dear fellow" and "Dear weird woman." It's tempting to find in the twilit world of "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" a veiled avowal of homosexual anxiety, but Harman sensibly concludes that since the book is "about the secrets which respectability hides," it's fitting that the crimes of the duplicitous main character remain "unspecified."

The final chapter of Stevenson's increasingly nomadic life, as he ventured into what his admirer Joseph Conrad called "the dark places of the earth," may have the most imaginative claim on us today. The decision to take a seven-month luxury cruise among the Pacific islands, beginning in San Francisco in June 1888, was made almost on a whim - mainly, it would seem, as a torrid alternative to the previous, subzero winter spent at a clinic in Saranac, N.Y. The distinguished specialist at Saranac, Dr. Edward Trudeau, had found no trace of tuberculosis in Stevenson's lungs, and Harman makes the intriguing suggestion that whatever ailed him was something else: hypertension, heart disease or syphilis.

Zigzagging happily from the Marquesas to Tahiti and Hawaii, accompanied by a motley entourage of mother, wife, stepson and sullen crew, Stevenson, Harmon notes, "seemed cured of his hypochondria." He came to believe that the "darkness" he discerned in these islands was brought by colonizing whites rather than native customs. In his 40th year, he decided to settle in Samoa, taking an interest in the independence movement on the island and writing his great novella "The Beach of Falesá," which details the predations of "broken white folk" in the tropics.

In such works, Stevenson, childless himself, helped to engender the literature of colonialism, from Conrad to Graham Greene, as well as our own era's postcolonial literature. When he died at his redoubt of Vailima, Harman tells us, "local chiefs and their families came to pay their respects, laying on the body the fine woven mats that were Samoans' most precious currency, and saying their dignified, brief farewells."

Christopher Benfey is Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke and the author of Degas in New Orleans and The Great Wave.

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Christopher Benfey - Faculty Profile