Nov. 13, 2014
Paris, May 2005
Let's just say I seem to be enjoying these three chicken drumsticks
far more than the young man doing sit-ups just across the lawn
beside his girlfriend here at the Jardin de Reuilly is enjoying himself:
after all, he's huffing and puffing, and I'm sitting here, devouring
my chicken, basking in the spring sun, but now he's rolling over,
it's push-ups he's doing, push-ups right on top of his girlfriend,
and the push-ups are getting slower and slower, just as my chicken
is disappearing, and, before long, the push-ups stop altogether, he's
merely lying there on top of her, and he seems, even from a distance,
much happier than when he was doing push-ups, then he suddenly
sits up, looks up at the heavens, and stares (with an expression
of pure longing) over at me. Oh, he seems to be saying,
I sure wish I had some chicken.
It's the birthday of writer Robert Louis Stevenson (books by this author), born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1850). He came from a family of lighthouse engineers, but he wanted to be a writer; to please his parents, he studied law, but he never practiced it. Instead, he traveled and wrote. At the age of 25, he set off with a friend on a 200-mile canoe trip through Belgium and France. It rained almost daily and was cold and windy. Describing the weather in a letter to this mother, Stevenson wrote: "I do not know that I would have stuck to it as I have done, if it has not been for professional purposes; for an easy book may be written and sold, with mighty little brains about it." The result was his first book, An Inland Voyage (1878).
Stevenson traveled on to Paris and the artists' colony at Grez, where he met the love of his life, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne. She was an American, 10 years older, with two children, separated from her husband but still married. After she went home to California, the depressed Stevenson went on a 12-day walking tour through France with a donkey named Modestine, and wrote a second book, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879).
Stevenson was determined to marry Fanny, and so against the advice of everyone he knew — including his doctor, who was concerned about his health — he set sail for America. He traveled in steerage to save money but also to gather writing material, and took a train from New York to California. His account of the trip was published posthumously as The Amateur Emigrant (1895). He arrived in California exhausted and ill, but he reunited with Fanny, who had successfully gotten divorced from her husband. They were married that spring. Stevenson wrote: "I was a mere complication of cough and bones, much fitter for an emblem of mortality than a bridegroom."
They sailed back to Scotland with her young son, and the idea for Treasure Island (1883) came from pirate stories Stevenson told the boy. Over the next few years, he wrote A Child's Garden of Verses (1885), Kidnapped (1886), and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). Stevenson wrote Jekyll and Hyde in just a few days and spent six weeks polishing it. When it was published, it sold 40,000 copies in six months and made Stevenson a celebrity.
His father died a year later, and Stevenson's health was still bad, so he and his family left Britain for America. They spent a cold winter in a cottage in the Adirondacks, and the next spring they sailed for the islands of the Pacific Ocean, where he spent most of the rest of his life. They traveled through Hawaii, the Gilbert Islands, Tahiti, New Zealand, and Samoa. In 1890, he bought 400 acres on Upolu, one of the Samoan islands. His writing from those years included the travel book In the South Seas (1890) and some adventure books co-written with his stepson. He sank into depression. Nothing he wrote achieved the popularity of his earlier books, and even the warm weather did not restore him to good health. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1894, at the age of 44, at his home in Samoa.
In Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes, he wrote: "I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilization, and to find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints. [...] To hold a pack upon a pack-saddle against a gale out of the freezing north is no high industry, but it is one that serves to occupy and compose the mind. And when the present is so exacting, who can annoy himself about the future?"
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