Selections from Robert Louis Stevenson
The life of Robert Louis Stevenson is almost coextensive with the last half of the nineteenth century. He was bom in the middle of that century (Nov. 13, 1850), and died a little before its end (Dec. 3, 1894). His birthplace was Edinburgh; and in spite of many journeys hither and thither, this city may be considered his permanent home until he left Scotland for the Western Hemisphere.
Almost from the cradle, he showed that tendency to physical weakness and insidious disease which pursued him all his life. As a result of delicate health, his schooling was irregular, and his early education was chiefly drawn from wide general reading at home. Furthermore, in that harsh northern climate, he was forced to spend much of his time indoors.
This restriction must have been a heavy disappointment to the boy; for his spirit was as ambitious as his body was frail, and more than one clever prank of his boyhood shows the love of adventure which later produced Treasure Island. Stevenson's father, uncle, and grandfather before him had been civil en^eers, famous for their work in building lighthouses.
The love of this bold, out-of-door life with its great possibilities of accomplishment had become a family tradition; and, as a result, Stevenson himself was intended for the same career. But though he was full of enthusiasm for his father's work and wondered later in life if he had not made a mistake in substituting literature for it, he never showed any strong inclination to become an engineer.
Unquestionably Stevenson had some of the scientific ability hereditary in the family as well as some of the family's love for danger and achievement and the mysterious fascination of life ocean, but his precarious health and inborn passion for writing drew him too powerfully another way. His attempt to become a lawyer was equally unsatisfactory.
He was admitted to the Scottish Bar in 1875 but made almost no attempt to practice. His heart was elsewhere. Fortunately, his family were in comfortable circumstances; and his father, though disappointed at the boy's attitude toward engineering, was loving and generous. Hence, Steven, son was not forced by want into a distasteful profession but was allowed to mature at leisure his natural gift as an author. His first works were short essays, setting forth his own original views on the most widely differing topics, from the characteristics of a landscape to the dangers of falling in love. Although some of these essays have since won a high rank for their literary polish and vivid individuality, they attracted but little notice at the time.
Then came a series of travel- sketches, in which the author's success was due to the very ill health that pursued him. His tendency to lung disease forced him frequently to flee out of the inclement air of Scot- land to some wanner region, France, Italy, or Belgium, These trips not only fulfilled his romantic longings to see men and countries, they also gave him a great fund of interesting material, which he worked up into such delightfully picturesque narratives as the Inland Voyage and Travels with a Donkey, his first published books. Gradually various essays and stories of his friend were placed in different magazines; and, although they won little notice from the general public, they did make an impression on a few discerning critics and thereby laid a foundation for Stevenson's future success.
By degrees, also, he made the acquaintance of literary men older and more prominent than himself, who by their criticism aided him in his work and by their influence helped him to find publishers and readers. Among these was Sidney Colvin, recently elected Slade Professor of Fine Arts at Cambridge University, who later became Stevenson's lifelong friend; the poet, W. E. Henley; and the well-known critics and authors, Edmund Gosse and Andrew Lang.
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