A writer in the Old West
When the present writer [viz Jeff] was what Robert Louis Stevenson would Scottishly have called a halfling, a mere lad, he was quite a bookish youth, and Stevenson was in fact one of his preferred authors. Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Kidnapped were well-thumbed Arnold tomes. As Jeff grew, he retained his admiration for the Caledonian writer, going so far as to adopt a version of the author’s bohemian attire, his fondness for saloon bars and his urge to “Disregard everything our parents have taught us”. Robert Louis’s Apology for Idlers seemed a noble work.
“We are a race of gipsies, and love change and travel for themselves.” Yes, Stevenson was an inveterate traveler, notably in the Pacific, but it was in France that he met Fanny Osbourne, originally from Indianapolis, his future wife. Fanny returned to the US, traveling to San Francisco in 1878, while Stevenson wrote about his Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (another favorite) but in the summer of 1879, aged 28, against the advice of his friends and without telling his parents, Robert set off for America to be with her. He set sail on the Devonia for New York, then took a train across the continent. Being Stevenson, he wrote about his journey, and I thought I’d waffle a bit about those scribblings for today’s post, also as a preliminary to our next article, a review of a 1948 Western movie (extremely) loosely based on his adventures in California.
The first fascinating feature of the memoir, to me anyway, is linguistic. Stevenson was on the frontier in the late 1870s and early 1880s, the classic ‘Western’ period, and reading him gives us a good idea of how people expressed themselves at that time and in that place, at least in writing and up to a limited point in speech. Of course Stevenson was a foreigner, not American-born, but that was the case for a large proportion of the inhabitants of the region. Many film writers produced screenplays in the vernacular of their own time, and still do, so that it is refreshing and interesting to be immersed in the true language of the time.
The common people
Stevenson was at the time of this voyage a young (29) and indigent writer, with no financial support from home. He could not travel first class, and once in California he could not rent a fine house or live in a grand hotel. So we get some keen observations of ‘real life’ as he landed in New York and trundled slowly across the plains by rail cheek by jowl with a variety of fellow travelers from many different backgrounds.
Once aboard the first train, Stevenson found overcrowding, discomfort and a great many unpleasant odors. The cars “began to stink abominally. Several yards away, as we returned, let us say from dinner, our nostrils were assailed by rancid air.” He disliked the “inefficacy of the lamps, which often went out and shed but a dying glimmer even when they burned” and found that “the benches are too short for anything but a young child.”
He also found that “equality, though conceived very largely in America, does not extend so low down as to an emigrant.” He and his fellow passengers were treated with some scorn and contempt by anyone in a position of authority and often mocked and abused.
He was greatly impressed by the wide open spaces through which they passed. “We were at sea – there is no other adequate expression – on the plains of Nebraska” as “the train toiled over this infinity like a snail.”
“Yet one could not but reflect upon the weariness of those who passed by there in old days, at the foot’s pace of oxen, painfully urging their teams, and with no landmark but that unattainable evening sun for which they steered, and which daily fled them by an equal stride.” The “old days” of which Stevenson spoke were of course in fact quite recent: the trans-continental railroad had only opened ten years before.
Now (1879) “we are grateful to the train as to some god who conducts us swiftly through these shades and by so many hidden perils. Thirst, hunger, the sleight and ferocity of Indians are all no more feared, so lightly do we skim these horrible lands.”
If he thought Nebraska bleak, that was as nothing beside the “Desert of Wyoming”: “Not a tree, not a patch of sward, not one shapely or commanding mountain form; sage-brush, eternal sage-brush.” He added, “The plains have a grandeur of their own; but here there is nothing but a contorted smallness” and “there was not one good circumstance in that God-forsaken land.”
Stevenson was plagued by ill-health all his life and says, “I had been suffering in my health a good deal all the way; and at last, whether I was exhausted by my complaint or poisoned in some wayside eating-house, the evening we left Laramie, I fell sick outright.”
A change of railroad line
Stevenson was content when “at Ogden we changed cars from the Union Pacific to the Central Pacific line of railroad” for “we had better cars on the new line.” He found that “the cars on the Central Pacific were nearly twice as high, and so proportionally airier; they were freshly varnished, which gave us all a sense of cleanliness as though we had bathed.”
There were separate cars, one for the single men, one for the women and children, and another for the Chinese.
“Of all stupid ill-feelings, the sentiment of my fellow Caucasians towards our companions in the Chinese car was the most stupid and worst. They seemed never to have looked at them, listened to them, or thought of them, but hated them a priori.” But the Chinese washed more: “In their efforts after cleanliness they put the rest of us to shame”. And Stevenson added, “They are said to be thieves; I am sure they have no monopoly of that. They are called cruel; the Anglo-Saxon and the cheerful Irishman may each reflect before he bears the accusation.” And “their forefathers watched the stars before mine had begun to keep pigs.”
The American Indians
Stevenson also remarks on “the noble red man of old story”. He says:
“If oppression drives a wise man mad, what should be raging in the hearts of these poor tribes, who have been driven back and back, step after step, their promised reservations torn from them one after another as the States extended westward, until at length they are shut up in these hideous mountain deserts of the centre – and even there find themselves invaded, insulted, and hunted out by ruffianly diggers?”
He calls the treatment of these peoples “a chapter of injustice and indignity” and is scathing about “the extortion of Indian agents, the outrages of the wicked, the ill faith of all.”
“The silent stoicism of their conduct, and the pathetic degradation of their appearance, would have touched any thinking creature, but my fellow-passengers danced and jested round them with a truly Cockney baseness. I was ashamed for the thing we call civilization.”
Once in California, he will also have something to say about Jewish people.”Take them for all in all, few people have done my heart more good; they seemed so thoroughly entitled to happiness, and to enjoy it in so large a measure and so free from after-thought, almost they persuaded me to be a Jew.” We note the almost but certainly Stevenson had no time for racial prejudice, that is clear.
Stevenson is not expansive about one territory. “A little corner of Utah is soon traversed, and leaves no particular impressions on the mind.” OK then.
Once again he remarks on the arid terrain: “We travelled all day through deserts of alkali and sand, horrible to man, and bare sage-brush country that seemed little kindlier.” He seems to have had it in for sagebrush.
But finally he comes to the promised land. “At every town the cocks were tossing their clear notes into the golden air, and crowing for the new day and the new country. For this was indeed our destination; this was ‘the good country’ we had been going to so long.” He arrives at his goal, “the city of San Francisco, and the bay of gold and corn” which are “lit from end to end with summer daylight.”
Although he doesn’t say so, Stevenson was now very ill but he recovered enough to struggle “all alone on forty-five cents a day, and sometimes less, with quantities of hard work and many heavy thoughts.” But by the end of the winter, his health was broken again and he found himself at death’s door. Fanny was now divorced and she came to his bedside and nursed him to recovery.
Fanny and Robert were married in May 1880. She was 40; he was 29. He said that he was “a mere complication of cough and bones, much fitter for an emblem of mortality than a bridegroom.” Together with Fanny’s son Lloyd (whom Stevenson calls Sam in his book) they moved to the Frisby House, a cheap hotel, “what is called a two-bit house,” says Stevenson, with “the tablecloth checked red and white, the plague of flies, the wire hencoops over the dishes, the great variety and invariable vileness of the food and the rough coatless men devouring it in silence.” But she had little more money than he did and even this lodging soon proved too expensive, so they were obliged to eke out a more economical existence. The family moved to an abandoned mining camp on the slopes of Mount St Helena, near the settlement of Calistoga.
The words squat and squatter sound quite modern to our ears but in fact in the sense of “paupers or homeless people in uninhabited buildings,” as etymonline.com puts it, they date from 1788. The Stevensons became squatters when they took over an old vacant mine building which became their home. It is this existence that Stevenson described in The Silverado Squatters.
Stages and road agents
Stevenson now makes a brief allusion to the ‘Wild West’, saying, “We are here in a land of stage-drivers and highwaymen: a land in that sense like England a hundred years ago. The highway robber – road agent, he is quaintly called – is still busy in these parts.” Stevenson reckons that “The cultus of the stage-coachman always flourishes highest where there are thieves on the road” and “California boasts her famous stage-drivers, and among the famous, Foss is not forgotten.” Apparently, “wonderful tales are current of his readiness and skill.”
Stevenson thrills to the stagecoach and its romance, admiring the passengers who pause in Calistoga, “the blue-clad China-boy, the San Francisco magnate, the mystery in the dust-coat, the secret memoirs in tweed, the ogling, well-shod lady with her troop of girls.” He singles out one, “a burly thickset, powerful Chinese desperado, six long bristles upon either lip; redolent of whiskey, playing cards, and pistols; swaggering in the bar with the lowest assumption of the lowest European manners; rapping out blackguard English oaths in his canorous oriental voice, and combining in one person the depravities of two races and two civilizations.”
However, although the dashing driver Foss (William Bishop) is the central character of the movie inaccurately titled Robert Louis Stevenson’s Adventures in Silverado (review next time), Stevenson says he only ever saw Foss once – though spoke to him twice. “It was an odd thing that here, on what we are accustomed to consider the very skirts of civilization, I should have used the telephone for the first time.” Sadly, though, we get no more of stage robberies or gunplay. The rest of the account concerns such events as the Stevensons’ visit to the Petrified Forest (“For my part, I was mightily unmoved. Sight-seeing is the art of disappointment”), and to a Napa Valley vineyard (“The wine is merely a good wine; the best that I have tasted better than a Beaujolais, and not unlike”), and the pleasures and perils of squatting in a rickety ruined mine, a “world of wreck and rust, splinter and rolling gravel”.
Rattlesnakes were particularly prevalent. The Stevensons had been assured that their area was especially favored, like Ireland, as immune from poisonous reptiles, yet “the place abounded with rattlesnakes – the rattlesnake’s nest, it might have been called.” The human part of the Stevenson family was never harmed and “it never occurred to us to be afraid” but Chuchu the dog became positively neurotic. “Every whiz of the rattle made him bound. His eyes rolled; he trembled.” Later, the same people who had assured the family of the complete absence of snakes proudly announced that yes, there were plenty of rattlers, and indeed the snakes thereabouts were the biggest and most deadly in America.
Stevenson meets other Scots. “The happiest lot on earth,” says he, “is to be born a Scotchman.” And we meet several other colorful characters of Calistoga, such as Mr Kelmar, not Scotch but a Russian Jew, “the most serviceable of men”, “good natured, in a thriving way of business”, and his wife, “a singularly kind woman.” It is the Kelmars who recommend Silverado as residence. There is also Irvine (“He had the soul of a fat sheep”) and Rufe, who belongs to the class known as “Poor Whites or Low-Downers”, who divides his time between hunting and loafing. “His hunting suit had cost I should be afraid to say how many bucks – the currency in which he paid his way: it was all befringed, after the Indian fashion, and it was dear to his heart.” Rufe also occasionally acted as a detective too – “It was he who pursued Russel and Dollar, the robbers of the Lake Port stage, and captured them the very morning after the exploit, while they were still sleeping in a hayfield.”
At one point Stevenson samples the local beverage, “half a tumblerful of the playful, innocuous American cocktail. I drank it, and lo! veins of living fire ran down my leg; and then a focus of conflagration remained seated in my stomach, not unpleasantly, for quarter of an hour.”
Stevenson delights in the variety and differences of this existence compared with his former one, sagely deciding that “There is no foreign land; it is only the traveller who is foreign.”
Robert Louis Stevenson had the knack of writing in an informative yet entertaining way about that part of the American West. They are short books, cheaply available on Kindle, or even free, I believe, at Gutenberg, and would repay a brief browse if you like that kind of thing.