- Historic Sites
When Robert Louis Stevenson Was One Of Us
Out of an agonizing American experience, the frail Scots author mined a treasure and carried it away with him
December 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 8
There was to come a time when Stevenson would, in his own words, “adore America,” but his first impression could hardly have been worse. He was tormented by the itch and was feverish from lack of sleep. The rain fell in such torrents that he was soaked to the skin as he hurried about New York all day long, “to banks, post-offices, railway offices, restaurants, publishers, booksellers, money-changers,” and he had got bad news at the post office. Fanny was critically ill in Monterey, south of San Francisco; it seemed to be “inflammation of the brain.” A modern diagnosis might have suggested acute migraine or epilepsy, but this is not at all certain. There were to be periods throughout Fanny’s life when her senses blurred because of illness. In 1879 anxiety and stress must have contributed to her condition.
Stevenson knew now that he must indeed “push on far by rail,” and he wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, “I go on my way tonight, if I can; if not, tomorrow: emigrant train ten to fourteen days’ journey; warranted extreme discomfort.”
Discomfort was too mild a word. Stevenson never fully recovered from the effects of the trip that followed. After a sleepless night on the floor of a room in a cheap hotel in New York, he joined a dense crowd of men, women, and children being tunneled through a long, dark, and windy shed into a ferryboat for Jersey City. “Driven stupidly crazy” by their fatigue and confusion, the mob of passengers panicked when they reached Jersey City. Stevenson, exhausted, sat down on his valise to wait for the doors of the emigrant train to be unlocked.
He sat up all that night in the train. Because of some accident farther along the line, there were no meals the next day, but RLS felt “like a man who had come into a rich estate”: the sun was shining, the Pennsylvania hills charmed him, and he fell in love with the name Susquehanna. This euphoria passed. By the time the train reached Ohio, Stevenson was so tired he no longer knew who he was.
It was night again when the passengers reached Chicago and were transferred to another crowded train. Stevenson sank down onto a seat “like a bundle of rags,” nearly fainting.
At Council Bluffs, Iowa, a third train awaited the westbound emigrants, and the passengers were reshuffled. Families were put into one car. Another was entirely filled with Chinese, the only men aboard who kept themselves clean, Stevenson noted. White men, like Stevenson, overflowed a third car. Wooden boards and straw-filled pads could be bought to make rough bunks of the seats, and on these bunks the men lay two by two at night, snoring or tossing restlessly. RLS found the floor preferable. On the floor at least he could breathe. In Nebraska, to get the fresh air his lungs craved, he climbed to the roof of a freight car and sat by the hour while the train crawled over the unchanging plains.
In spite of the crowd in the men’s car, in spite of his unquenchable friendliness, it was a lonely trip. One day, as they crossed Nebraska, Stevenson felt so ill he could swallow nothing but tea and enough laudanum to give him an hour or so of sleep. Incredibly, his fellow passengers thought this funny and played practical jokes on him. He wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, “I smile rather sickly at their jests.” These men were “mostly lumpish fellows,” many of them “broken men,” European or American, who had already failed several times farther east; some were chronic drinkers. Perhaps it entertained them to see this Scot stretched out unconscious after a drink from his little bottle.
Stevenson seldom realized how strange he looked. He was unnaturally thin, refused to wear the conventional clothes bought for him by his parents, and chose instead odds and ends so bizarre that most people took him for a lunatic or a tramp. But however he appeared, he knew he was a gentleman. At home in Edinburgh his speech and manner marked him as a gentleman. He was the son of the eminent Mr. Thomas Stevenson, a gentleman. But the word meant something more to him; it meant gentleness, kindness. He cared very much about kindness. Now it partly amused and partly mystified him that coarse and uncouth Americans saw nothing in him but a comical scarecrow. Two men on the train even refused to share a bunk with him. Yet time and time again, after giving him harsh or arrogant words, Americans gave him kindness. He spoke of it as “that uncivil kindness of Americans.”
From Ogden, Utah, the travelers had a newer and cleaner train, but desert alkali, sand, and burning heat were nearly killing Stevenson. He had almost reached the limit of his endurance when the emigrant train began to descend the slopes through California’s fragrant pine forests and over rushing mountain rivers. “All the passengers on board threw off their sense of dirt and heat and weariness and bawled like schoolboys, and thronged with shining eyes upon the platform, and became new creatures within and without.” On August 30, 1879, Stevenson crossed San Francisco Bay by ferry. He saw ships loaded with gold and wheat for the ports of the whole world. The sun shone on Mount Tamalpais. “The air seemed to awaken, and began to sparkle. . . . The Bay was lit from end to end with summer daylight.”
Full of renewed strength and hope, Stevenson took the first available train to Salinas and a narrow-gage from there to Monterey, the picturesque little Spanish-Mexican town that had once been the capital of California. He found Fanny in a pleasant house owned by the respectable Señora Bonifacio.