Open Seas: From the Clyde to Silverado

John_Atkinson_Grimshaw_The_Broomielaw_Glasgow

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]