Publication: The Black Prince

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My review of Adam Roberts’ 2018 novel The Black Prince, based on an original screenplay by Anthony Burgess, was published at the blog of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation on March 22.

It begins:

“The 1960s was a fine decade for films on the Plantagenets and Tudors, from Becket (1964) and The Lion in Winter (1968) to A Man For All Seasons (1966) and Anne of the Thousand Days (1969). Anthony Burgess’s unproduced screenplay The Black Prince, written in 1970 for the producer Michael Holden, similarly attempts the English history genre, although Burgess’s work was not derived from a successful contemporary play. Less dialogue-dependent than those others and more panoramic, his screenplay is keener to drag us through the medieval muckheap of war, plague, and truly revolting meals. ‘Our aim is to diminish the pretentions of the fourteenth century,’ Burgess notes. He succeeds….”

Continue reading at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation blog.

Online course: American Cinema in the 70s: A New Look at New Hollywood

AMERICAN CINEMA IN THE 70s:
A NEW LOOK AT NEW HOLLYWOOD

A 12-WEEK ONLINE COURSE
(March-May, 2021)

PRESENTED BY MATTHEW ASPREY GEAR

The 1970s is one of the richest periods in American film history. In this original 12-week online course, to be delivered via the Google Meet platform, we’ll study 16 key films of the New Hollywood era from such essential directors as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Elaine May, Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah, Sidney Poitier, John Huston, Orson Welles, George Lucas and William Friedkin.

The lectures will explore these films through the stories of their production and in the wider context of American society, history, and politics. We’ll examine the transformation of traditional genres such as the western and the detective film, and the massive changes in the film industry before the rise of the blockbuster era. We’ll also examine the careers of the major directors and writers.

Classes are limited to a maximum of 12 students. Each week I’ll give an original fifty-minute multimedia lecture on a set film and theme and then lead an in-depth group discussion. All participants will have a chance to contribute. The only weekly homework will be to watch a film (or two) in preparation for the session. There will be no final exam or essay. This course is designed purely for enjoyment and discovery. All are welcome.

I will be running two identical sessions each week to accommodate different international time zones. Choose whichever you prefer:

American session: Sundays 12pm PT/3pm ET.
European session: Tuesdays 7:30pm GMT/8:30pm CET.

(NB. The lecture portion of the session will be recorded and available for download if you are unable to attend a live session and need to catch up.)

Price per student: US$120. Please email me at matthewaspreygear@gmail.com to book your place in the course.

LECTURE PLAN

March 7th (US)/9th (EU)
Lecture 1: The Dawn of New Hollywood
Movie: FIVE EASY PIECES (Bob Rafelson, 1970)

March 14th (US)/16th (EU)
Lecture 2: The Revisionist Western
Movie: BUCK AND THE PREACHER (Sidney Poitier, 1972) & ULZANA’S RAID (Robert Aldrich, 1972)

March 21st (US)/23rd (EU)
Lecture 3: Nixon at the Movies
Movie: THE CONVERSATION (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

March 28th (US)/30th (EU)
Lecture 3: The Nostalgia Industry
Movies: FAT CITY (John Huston, 1972) & AMERICAN GRAFFITI (George Lucas, 1973)

**ONE WEEK BREAK**

April 11th (US)/13th (EU)
Lecture 5: Men and Women on the Road
Movies: SCARECROW (Jerry Schatzberg, 1973) & ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (Martin Scorsese, 1974)

April 18th (US)/20th (EU)
Lecture 6: New Hollywood and its Discontents
Movie: THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (Orson Welles, 1970-6/2018)
Special Guest: Josh Karp, author of Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind and co-producer of the Netflix documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead.

April 25th (US)/27th (EU)
Lecture 7: Winning Streaks
Movie: CALIFORNIA SPLIT (Robert Altman, 1974) & MIKEY AND NICKY (Elaine May, 1976)

May 2nd (US)/4th (EU)
Lecture 8: Crimes on the Edge of America
Movie: NIGHT MOVES (Arthur Penn, 1975)

May 9th (US) /11th (EU)
Lecture 9: Transgressing the Border
Movie: BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (Sam Peckinpah, 1974)

May 16th (US)/18th (EU)
Lecture 10: The Wages of Fear
Movie: SORCERER (William Friedkin, 1977)

May 23rd (US)/25th (EU)
Lecture 11: Napalm in the Morning
Movie: HEARTS OF DARKNESS: A FILMMAKER’S APOCALYPSE (Fax Bahr/George Hickenlooper/Eleanor Coppola, 1991)

May 30th (US)/June 1st (EU)
Lecture 12: Permanent Vietnam
Movie: CUTTER’S WAY (Ivan Passer, 1981)

Online Orson Welles course: The Other Side of The Shadow

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THE OTHER SIDE OF THE SHADOW:
A NEW LOOK AT ORSON WELLES

A 12-WEEK ONLINE COURSE
(March-May, 2021)

PRESENTED BY MATTHEW ASPREY GEAR

This original 12-week online course, delivered via the Google Meet platform, is designed for serious Orson Welles fans as well as newcomers. We’re going to have a lot of fun as we dive deeply into the work of one of the 20th century’s greatest filmmakers.

My lectures will cover the obvious Welles classics — Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, and Chimes at Midnight — but will also explore some of the lesser-known films and TV programs, including many works that have appeared posthumously (and many unproduced screenplays that have never been published). I’m also eager to share the discoveries I’ve made in the Orson Welles archives in Turin, Munich, Michigan, and Indiana.

Each week I’ll give an original fifty-minute multimedia lecture on a set film and topic and then lead an in-depth group discussion. All students will have a chance to contribute. The only weekly homework will be to watch a film (or two) in preparation for the session. Many of the films are easily available on YouTube. There will be no final exam or essay. This course is designed purely for enjoyment and discovery. All are welcome.

I will be running two identical sessions each week to accommodate different international time zones. Choose whichever you prefer. Each group will be limited to a maximum of 12 students.

American session: Sundays 3pm PT/6pm ET
European session: Mondays 7:30pm GMT/8:30pm CET.

(NB. The lecture portion of the session will be recorded and available for download if you are unable to attend a live session and need to catch up.)

Price per student: US$120. Please email me at matthewaspreygear@gmail.com to book your place in the course.

LECTURE PLAN

INTRODUCTION

March 7 (US)/8 (EU)
Lecture 1: The Myths and the Man
Movie: MAGICIAN: THE ASTONISHING LIFE AND WORK OF ORSON WELLES (documentary, 2014)

A: WELLES’S STYLE AND METHODS

March 14 (US)/15 (EU)
Lecture 2: Orson and Film Noir
Movie: THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947)

March 21 (US)/22 (EU)
Lecture 3: Inventing Independent Film
Movies: FILMING OTHELLO (1978); ORSON WELLES: ONE-MAN BAND (documentary, 1995)]

March 28 (US)/29 (EU)
Lecture 4: The Essay Film
Movie: F FOR FAKE (1973); PORTRAIT OF GINA (TV special, 1958)

** ONE-WEEK BREAK **

April 11 (US)/12 (EU)
Lecture 5: Return to Hollywood
Movie: THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (1970-76/2018)

B: WELLES’S WORLD

April 18 (US)/19 (EU)
Lecture 6: Orson’s 19th Century: Dinesen, Conrad, and Melville
Movie: THE IMMORTAL STORY (1968); Screenplay reading: THE DREAMERS (c. 1979)

April 25 (US)/26 (EU)
Lecture 7: Orson Across Europe
Movie: MR. ARKADIN (1955)

May 2 (US)/3 (EU)
Lecture 8: Orson’s Spain
Movies: AROUND THE WORLD WITH ORSON WELLES: PAYS BASQUE I (TV episode, 1955); IN THE LAND OF DON QUIXOTE: TEMPO DI FLAMENCO (TV episode, 1964)

C: WELLES AND LITERATURE

May 9 (US)/10 (EU)
Lecture 9: Adaptation
Movie: THE TRIAL (1962)

May 16 (US)/17 (EU)
Lecture 10: Shakespeare
Movie: CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1965)

D: WELLES AND AMERICA

May 23 (US)/24 (EU)
Lecture 11: Power in the Streets
Movie: TOUCH OF EVIL (1958)

May 30 (US)/31 (EU)
Lecture 12: The Post-Lincoln Republic
Movie: THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942) and CITIZEN KANE (1941)

*

STUDENT COMMENTS
 
“The Orson Welles online course The Other Side of the Shadow by Matthew Asprey Gear offers an inspiring overview of the work, inspiration, and drives of a world-class filmmaker whose relevance is often reduced to a few early-career masterpieces. I can only recommend it!”
– Matthijs Wouter Knol, CEO and Director, European Film Academy
 
“Matthew is an excellent researcher and lecturer. He put Welles and his films into a fascinating historical context that has greatly enhanced my viewing experience.”
Charles
 
“The class was a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the lesser known details of Welles’s career and to discourse over his films with like-minded enthusiasts!” 
Tyler, Chicago
 
“Matthew is very generous in sharing the fruits of the deep archival research he has done on Orson Welles. His expertise about his subject is plain to see and his thorough command of knowledge about Welles reaches well beyond the man’s work as a filmmaker to the many other media he worked in (theatre, television, radio, etc.). Matthew’s lectures are deeply informative and visually interesting. He is particularly good at drawing hidden thematic and historical connections between seemingly disparate projects in Welles’s work, helping to reveal the kernels of new ways to think about Welles as an artist. He is a great facilitator of the conversation portion of the class, helping to keep the conversation lively and guiding us toward stimulating subjects.”
Jesse
 
“Matthew Asprey Gear’s 12-week course was an opportunity to have an expert guide lead me through both familiar and obscure corners of Welles’s work. The format was an inviting way for both Welles neophytes and old Wellesians to join in a learning community and explore the unendingly fascinating films and life of a great artist.”
Josh, Texas
 
“It’s Terrific! Matthew Asprey Gear brings a wealth of Orson Welles research from firsthand sources and illuminates even the most ardent Welles fans. Come for the informative deep-dive lectures and stay for the lively discussions about Welles’ s many noses, wigs, cheap sets, and bad accents — and of course, the undeniable genius present in most of his films.”
Christian, Fort Lauderdale
 
“I highly recommend Matthew’s online Orson Welles course, for both beginners and seasoned Wellesians. The course brings new perspectives and insights to Welles’ extraordinary career.”
Ronan, Galway
 
“There was a sense of discovery even for someone who’s been interested in Orson Welles for more than a decade. A carefully planned structure made the course very intriguing.” 
Petri, Finland
 
“If you are an old Welles fan it is certainly a great opportunity to review and discuss his work and expand your knowledge on unrealized projects, screenplays, literary influences and the diverse facets of his life and work. If you are new to Orson Welles… lucky you! You will be in the right place to have a great overview of his extraordinary work that is certainly not limited to Citizen Kane. In both cases, fun and enjoyment are guaranteed!”

Elliot, Switzerland

“It was like knocking at the door where Orson is sleeping and wake him up with sweets and going down in the garden with the dog for a walk each Monday. Sometimes we talk sometimes we just walk, and it’s great the same.”
Emiliano, Rome
 
“Incomplete projects and hired-gun work in Welles’ filmography have usually worked against his reputation. But Welles scholars and aficionados, Matthew Asprey Gear among them, find in those inexhaustible plans, projects, and versions-of-projects, an artistic strength. If the truism is true that artworks are never completed, only abandoned, then Welles more than most artists gives us a rare chance to engage living projects as something more than a passive viewer. At least this is true of “The Magnificent Ambersons” or “Mr. Arkadin” or “Other Side of the Wind” – and of course Welles has just as many “traditionally completed” films as “Kane”, “Chimes at Midnight”, “The Trial”, etc. (Somewhere in between lay “F For Fake”, a finished film definitively about incompletion and fragmented points of view!) In any case, Matthew Asprey Gear’s class offers a robust survey of the completed and the uncompleted in Welles’ oeuvre, using the former to better understand the latter; and offering details from the archives at Michigan and Indiana and Munich one normally wouldn’t be able to come by (for instance, the weekly “unproduced screenplay of the week” feature). Highly recommended!”
Marc, San Francisco
 

Publication: Lewis Lux (a novella)

Last seen in 2016’s Lewis L’Amour, Arthur James Lewis returns for another comic misadventure.

Lewis intends to spend the summer of 2019 at his regular table at Le Jardin d’Eden in Edinburgh. On a diet of croissants and coffee, under the Gérard portrait of Madame Récamier, he will write Maranatha: Above the Eagles, his latest magisterial novel of Ancient Rome.

Alas, Lewis’s tranquility is disturbed by yet another family crisis — the threat of repossession of their home. Ever resourceful, Lewis races across Europe to recover a long-lost antiquarian book he once loaned to his PhD supervisor. Its purported value will neatly pay off the family debt, but recovery from the elusive Professor Ballantyne will not be easy. Luckily this time Lewis is accompanied by his seven-year-old grand nephew, Jerzy, who is just as eager to save their home.

From the piazzas of Venice to the deserts of Almería, Lewis Lux concludes a trilogy of comic novellas that began with Lewis and Loeb (2013) and is collectively titled Three Roads to Rome.

This novella will be available for a limited time as an ebook at Smashwords and at Amazon.

[NO LONGER AVAILABLE]

Publication: Three Dangerous Summers

My new research article ‘Three Dangerous Summers: Orson Welles’s Unrealized Hemingway Trilogy’ has been published in the Fall 2020 issue of The Hemingway Review. It examines three Orson Welles film projects left in varying states of incompletion at his death: The Sacred Beasts, The Other Side of the Wind, and Crazy Weather.

The abstract: Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles shared a romantic enthusiasm for Spanish traditions, particularly bullfighting. Nevertheless, Welles rejected Hemingway’s influential interpretation of the corrida as well as the macho archetype the writer had established for the foreign aficionado. This article draws on new archival research to examine three distinct film projects Welles developed in his later years that imaginatively engaged with Hemingway’s personality and his legacy. These projects were left in varying states of incompletion, which has meant that an important theme in Welles’s late work has remained largely invisible until recent years.

Here is a link to the article (access required) at Project Muse

Publication: Thunder of the Sun (a story)

A new story.

Morton Pike, worldwide bestselling author of historical sea novels, has lived a life of luxury and globe-trotting adventure. But now Pike is 83 and things have changed. His lifelong readers hate his new books, sales are falling, and his family life has become a tangle of bitter feuds and lawsuits.

Amid this turmoil, two ambitious juniors from Pike’s literary agency have a provocative idea. Can they persuade Pike to allow ghostwriters to write his novels? The deal could be worth a fortune, but will Pike be willing to abdicate his throne?

Set on Pike’s estate on the remote tropical coast of Queensland, ‘Thunder of the Sun’ tells the story behind the bestsellers.

Available in all ebook formats at Smashwords and for Kindle at Amazon

[NO LONGER AVAILABLE]

“A snobbish young man with more confidence than sense, a hard-working woman with a young son, a greedy old man grasping tightly to life… Matthew Asprey Gear lifts the lid on the seamy world of blockbuster fiction and finds that it stinks. Sharp-eyed, sardonic, and funny, this is a tale to gasp at and laugh over in equal measure.” – David Manderson, author of Lost Bodies (2011)

[Cover design by Anna Sark, based on a modified photograph by Vicuna R (CC BY-SA 2.0)]

Open Seas: American Bacchanal

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Counterculture Colophon: Grove Press, the Evergreen Review, and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde by Loren Glass. 272 pp. Stanford University Press, 2013 [latterly republished as Rebel Publisher by Penguin, 2018].

Barney Rosset’s Grove Press published some of the most important and controversial writers of the 20th century and almost single-handedly conquered literary censorship in the USA. It did this with bravura and style. So where are the tributes, the retrospectives, the museum exhibitions? A small group of recent books and documentaries have begun to counter the strange neglect of Grove’s legacy. Loren Glass’s Counterculture Colophon, republished in paperback as Rebel Publisher, goes beyond Grove’s famed obscenity trials and explores its successful dissemination of avant-garde literature in postwar America.

In my twenties I used to find old Grove Press titles in obscure corners of Gould’s Book Arcade in Sydney’s Newtown. It was appropriate. Proprietor Bob Gould was a veteran Trotskyite and anti-war activist who’d battled Australia’s embarrassingly provincial censorship in the old days. That regime had been tougher, more narrow-minded, and more enduring than in the USA. Several times raided by the New South Wales Vice Squad, Gould had been charged in 1969 for selling posters of erotic Aubrey Beardsley drawings. After a long and ridiculous trial he was fined fifty cents.

Literary censorship effectively ended in Australia with the election of the Whitlam Government in 1972, although films were still occasionally banned. In his later years Gould would sit white-bearded and gruff behind the front counter of his chaotic, warehouse-sized bookshop. The shop was a perenial haunt for seekers of the happy oblivion of late night browsing under cold white flourescent bulbs. The size of his inventory was in absurd excess of anything manageable or sensible — a million or so disorganised books, towering in the shadowy upper-floor aisles or spilling across the dirty linoleum. In my experience he never refused to buy or exchange a pile of old books. His acquisitional habit was nothing short of a mania. “Bob wanted to have more books than anyone else on the planet,” his daughter Natalie told the Guardian in 2017. That’s why I consider it a matter of quiet pride that Gould once deemed my own book-buying habits as “pathological.” (I was at the time rummaging in a box beneath a trestle table at a huge charity book sale; Gould, evidently on his own scout, had lifted the tablecloth and squinted at me with disdain.)

Those Grove Press books I discovered in the vast depository at Gould’s were relics of the US censorship wars and its bacchanalian aftermath. Many had been printed in the US long before the Australian Government would have permitted their import. I was intrigued by the mystery of their trans-Pacific journey to Newtown. Gould sold categories of books that would never turn up elsewhere in Sydney; he’d also at some point acquired caches of books published behind the Iron Curtain by Progress Publishers (Moscow) and Seven Seas Books (Glinkastrasse, East Berlin). Most of these titles had sat on his shelves for years with pencilled prices oblivious to inflation.

1950s and 1960s Grove editions are worth collecting if only for their consistently stunning dust jackets or paperback covers designed by Roy Kuhlman, which should be as fetishized, reprinted, and monographed today as Reid Miles’s contemporaneous LP covers for Blue Note. Over the years I’ve bought a smattering. Although I can’t say I got around to reading them all, they give a representative indication of the publisher’s mission. (None of these books, you may notice, was written by a woman.) I’ve owned Grove’s unexpurgated editions of classic banned books—Henry Miller’s Tropics (1934-39), Quiet Days in Clichy (1956), and the Rosy Crucifixion trilogy (1949-59), Jean Genet’s Thief’s Journal (1949), and Frank Harris’s My Life and Loves (1922-27). I bought Breton’s Nadja (1928), Ionesco’s plays, Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle (1948), André Pieyre de Mandiargues’s The Girl Beneath the Lion (1956), and Borges’s Ficciones (1956) and A Personal Anthology (1961). Grove also published young American writers, and because its imprimatur seemed a sufficient recommendation I ended up with either the very good or the very dated (and sometimes a mix of both): Robert Gover’s Here Goes Kitten (1964), Michael Rumaker’s Gringos (1967), the Tales of LeRoi Jones (1967), and the works of San Francisco Bay Area novelist Floyd Salas, whose novels Tattoo the Wicked Cross (1967) and especially What Now My Love (1969) remain on my shelves. In fact, I ended up publishing Floyd’s more recent work when I edited the journal Contrappasso. Probably the best of all my Grove bargain buys were The Olympia Reader (1965) and The Evergreen Review Reader 1957-1967 (1968), two fat anthologies derived respectively from the backlists of Maurice Girodias’s Paris-based English-language press and Grove’s wonderful house journal. The range of important international writers in each, amid the odd merely pornographic item, is extraordinary.

Loren Glass’s Countercultural Colophon draws on Max Weber’s concept of a ‘charismatic community’ to explain how Grove functioned under Barney Rosset’s leadership. Grove seems to have been less a commercial business—although it had its share of bestsellers—than a creative manifestation of Rosset’s lifelong political agitation and enthusiasms for sex and experimental art. Born to great wealth, Rosset was both an admirable class traitor and a singularly heedless businessman. He ultimately “squandered his entire fortune on Grove Press.” Bravo.

In the 1950s avant-garde art was slowly seeping into the American mainstream. Glass cites Serge Guilbaut’s research on abstract expressionist painting and how it contributed to New York’s eventual dislodgment of Paris as the international cultural centre. Grove’s literary activities down in Greenwich Village paralleled this historic shift. Glass writes:

“Grove effectively siphoned cultural capital from Paris to New York in the 1950s and 1960s, reprinting and translating authors it had acquired from Éditions de Minuit, Éditions Gallimard, Éditions du Seuil, and the Olympia Press, thereby establishing a reputation as the premier American disseminator of European avant-garde literature, especially drama. However, Grove championed the idea of an indigenous avant-garde as well, providing an early publication venue for the Beats, the New York school, and the Black Mountain school, publishing multiple scholarly studies of American jazz, adopting abstract expressionist designs for its book covers, and affirming the San Francisco Bay Area as itself a ‘cultural capital’ in a burgeoning national scene.”

According to Guilbaut, the wide acceptance of the American avant-garde in the McCarthy era relied upon the supposed political neutrality of both its intellectual champions and the aesthetics of abstract expressionism itself. Grove, however, was increasingly a vehicle for radical politics alongside its radical literature and essentially repoliticized the avant-garde in the countercultural 1960s.

Glass’s chapters, grounded in the cultural politics of the postwar world, cover a variety of Grove’s activities. They published a stunningly cosmopolitan ‘world literature’ that ranged from the novels of Beckett, Genet, and Alain Robbe-Grillet—the “triumvirate of Parisian late Modernist literary innovators”—to works that emerged from “the decolonization of the European empires and the inception of the American century.” Grove promoted leading international experimental playwrights (Beckett, Artaud, Ionesco, Arrabal) and sold countless books by “marketing the printed text in conjunction with student performances.” Meanwhile Grove’s numerous biographical and critical works celebrated and helped to cement their canon of contemporary writers.

The obscenity trials are covered in detail, and so is Grove’s support for radical politics (Latin American revolution, Black Power, and the Post-Colonial struggle) through the publication of books by Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Régis Debray, and many others. Grove’s attempt to transform the movie business was far less successful, although its American distribution of the sexually explicit Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967) became a controversial hit after a brief banning in 1969. Glass elaborates the important contribution Grove made to academic film culture in the USA by publishing the scripts and critical commentary on the most important foreign language art films including Hiroshima mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad, Rashomon, and The 400 Blows. Pre-VHS, these books “provided a curriculum for film studies courses during this foundational period; it also helped establish the cinematic text as a legitimate object of close reading modeled on the formal analysis of literary texts.” Glass identifies these books as the prototypes of the deluxe DVDs released by the Criterion Collection.

Although remarkably progressive in its publication of explicitly homosexual works by Genet, William S. Burroughs, and John Rechy, Grove’s support of radical emancipation was not unlimited. It published few women writers, its company structure was male-dominated, and its relentlessly libertine agenda was sometimes at odds with the contemporary feminist movement. Opposition to Grove’s “popularization of pornography” did not only come from the church and conservative groups. “By democratizing access to previously forbidden texts,” Grove had made the question of obscenity “more directly accessible to political, rather than moral or aesthetic, critique.”

Nevertheless, Rosset’s successful legal campaign to defend his right to publish the unholy trio of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and The Naked Lunch enabled freedom of the written word in America. Counterculture Colophon is a worthy but not uncritical study of a rare independent publisher who transformed American culture.

Edinburgh, May 2020

[Header image: detail of Roy Kuhlman’s cover design for Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Parama]

 

 

Open Seas: From the Clyde to Silverado

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The Amateur Emigrant & The Silverado Squatters by Robert Louis Stevenson. 231 pp. Folio Society, 1991 [1883, 1892, 1895].

Throughout my life I’ve often found myself, purely by chance, in the former haunts of Robert Louis Stevenson. When I was a blonde-haired lad of five I scurried across the white beaches and slid down the cascading waterfalls of Western Samoa, his ultimate destination. This was no precocious literary pilgrimage across the Pacific from Sydney; my mother won this trip to paradise in a competition run by a brand of canned tropical fruit. Ironically, amid the wild bananas and pawpaws of Samoa, I quickly discovered canned fruit was passé. The Samoan kids showed me how to pierce a freshly fetched coconut with a machete blade and drink the milk fresh out of the shell.

I was also taken the long way up Mount Vaea, above Vailima, to visit Stevenson’s tomb, famously engraved:

Here he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

More recently I compared 1980s Samoan experiences with Nicholas Rankin, a decidedly more intentional follower of Stevenson’s itineraries, indeed the author of the excellent Dead Man’s Chest: Travels After Robert Louis Stevenson (1987) . We discovered he’d beaten me to the tomb by three years. In contrast to us both, the peripatetic Paul Theroux didn’t bother to make the climb up the hill when he visited Vailima, grumbling in The Happy Isles of Oceania (1992) that graves depress him, destinations “for pilgrims and hagiographers.”

When I moved to Edinburgh I again found myself in Stevenson’s old vicinities. I briefly lived up the street from his school in Canonmills and worked around the corner from 17 Heriot Row, the Stevenson family home from 1857. But Edinburgh, suffering “one of the vilest climates under heaven,” was not for the sickly yet adventurous Stevenson. “For all who love shelter and the blessings of the sun,” he wrote, “who hate dark weather and perpetual tilting against squalls, there could scarcely be found a more unhomely and harassing place of residence.” He sought epic New World landscapes and Pacific island landfalls, as well as the “virginity of sense” granted to the outsider. Valuable stuff for a writer. My apparently reverse Stevensonism—fleeing the sun of the Pacific for Scottish gloom—is probably just another form of the same seeking.

Stevenson’s permanent departure from Scotland was not until 1887, but back in 1879 he’d boarded the SS Devonia for New York City and almost immediately taken the Union Pacific railway to San Francisco. His quest was to marry Fanny Osbourne, but Stevenson doesn’t mention that in his account of the journey, The Amateur Emigrant. He claims a journalistic objective, “an anxiety to see the worst of emigrant life.” He followed it up with The Silverado Squatters, an account of his colourful honeymoon. These books were not originally published entire or in chronological sequence. The Silverado Squatters appeared in 1883, the same year as Treasure Island, but The Amateur Emigrant was not published as a complete book during Stevenson’s lifetime. The ‘Across the Plains’ section was published as a stand-alone book in 1892. The author’s account of his Atlantic crossing, which appeared in a posthumous 1895 essay collection, was by then significantly abbreviated by his over-cautious editors. The earliest complete publication from the Amateur Emigrant manuscript was in From Scotland to Silverado (edited by James D. Hart, 1966), which not only coupled it with its sequel but included between them a four-part essay ‘The Old and New Pacific Capitals’ (i.e. Monterey and San Francisco). The Folio Society’s 1991 edition of the two books also restores the full manuscript text of The Amateur Emigrant (plus some lost passages from the 1883 magazine serials of both books) but strangely omits the buffering essay. I usually find Folio Society volumes cumbersome and pretentiously designed, but it is a thoughtfully edited text, a necessity for books with such a complicated textual history.

I admit I’ve not yet sailed in Stevenson’s wake from Scotland to America, so I had a lot to discover. The first part of The Amateur Emigrant, the Atlantic crossing, is an intellectually rigorous and cliché-busting set of observational essays on the motives and aspirations of the Scottish diaspora in the late 19th century. Stevenson vividly sketches the Devonia‘s dreadful steerage conditions of claustrophobic confinement, illness, and indifferent neglect by the ship’s officers. The common grub is porridge and “soup, roast fresh beef, boiled salt junk, and potatoes.” He elects to travel by second cabin, and explains why the extra two guineas is worth paying—supplied bedding and dishes, a table (upon which he wrote ‘The Story of a Lie’), and marginally better food. Officially a gentleman, he’s entitled to a grim ‘Irish stew’ and what appear to be the scrapings of plates from the saloon. He can choose between coffee or tea; the only perceptible difference is “a smack of snuff in the former” and “a flavour of boiling and dishcloth in the second.” Instead of mere duff twice a week he’s entitled to “a saddle-bag filled with currants under the name of plum-pudding.”

Suppressing his slight snobbery, Stevenson enjoys the community of the steerage passengers and their nightly singing, dancing, and tale-telling. He confesses hostility when a couple of saloon class passengers deign to visit down below. The poor emigrants defy Stevenson’s expectations. They are neither young nor adventurous, but “for the most part quiet, orderly, obedient citizens, family men broken by adversity, elderly youths who had failed to place themselves in life, and people who had seen better days.” They’d suffered hard times. “We were a company of the rejected; the drunken, the incompetent, the weak, the prodigal, all who had been unable to prevail against circumstances in one land, were now fleeing pitifully to another; and though one or two might still succeed, all had already failed.”

I have Scottish ancestors whose New World emigrations—to Australia rather than to the United States—both pre- and post-date Stevenson’s sailing on the Devonia. No plum-pudding for them; whether they were large families with babies feverish with pneumonia, or loners like my grandfather’s grandfather, they were all squashed into steerage. The latter, a Shetlander, emigrated around 1865 after an obscure youth as a lowly ship’s trimmer that had taken him to far-flung locales “beyond the telegraph cables and mail-boat lines,” as Conrad would put it in Lord Jim. Perhaps he’d already glimpsed the Pacific. I can’t particularly speak for the extent of my ancestors’ desperation nor their motives beyond a better life under the eucalypts, but Stevenson here provides a provocative glimpse into contemporary ordeals.

The second half of The Amateur Emigrant is titled ‘Across the Plains’ and recounts the rail journey across the continent. Stevenson was seriously ill and this leg of the trip was sometimes as uncomfortable as the Atlantic crossing. Awaiting a ferry across the Hudson River to the Jersey City railway terminal, cramped inside a chaotically crowded shed, he saves a child’s life from a crashing barrowful of spilled boxes. He is pushed along in a “dense, choking crush.” On board, the plains of Nebraska provoke a more existential dread in their endless monotony. Stevenson essays his fellow travellers and condemns the widespread “a priori” hatred of the Chinese, who are assigned to their own carriage.

The Silverado Squatters is a kind of sequel that picks up Stevenson’s Californian adventures in what would later be considered Jack London country. Stevenson had by now married Fanny and acquired a stepson, Lloyd (a future literary collaborator). The family decide to squat in an abandoned mine above the Napa Valley. Again, we learn almost nothing about Stevenson’s private life or the reasons for this unusual honeymoon. Resembling The Amateur Emigrant, the format is a series of thematic essays on his encounters and observations, with evocative sketches of this part of California. He visits a petrified forest exhibited by a far-drifting Scot and speaks to early Napa wine growers. Around Silverado he meets a set of frontier characters including a Jewish family—Stevenson here somewhat uncritically indulges in antisemitic stereotypes—and a class of “Poor Whites or low-downers.” One of these, a lazy handyman, a veritable “Caliban,” stirs the grumbling Tory in our narrator. The mine itself is remote, perilous, but perched over a spectacular natural landscape. At night the sky is so breathtaking “it seemed to throw calumny in the teeth of all the painters that ever dabbled in starlight.” Most magical is Stevenson’s account of the season’s one-off occurrence, the silent “sea fogs,” a rush of clouds into the mountains. It is, he writes, “as though I had gone to bed the night before, safe in a nook of inland mountains, and had awakened in a bay upon the coast.”

These are powerfully evocative writings. I’ve never been as far north of San Francisco as Silverado—I’ve merely cycled across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito—but precedent suggests I will again find myself walking in Stevenson’s footsteps up the mountain.

Edinburgh, May 2020

[Header image: detail from The Broomielaw, Glasgow (c. 1889) by John Atkinson Grimshaw]