by Robert Louis Stevenson
“Anybody can write a short story -- a bad one, I mean. . but not everyone may hope to write even a bad novel. It is the length that kills,” Robert Louis Stevenson wrote. But he puzzled greatly over why, after several years of turning out reams of short stories -- good ones -- poems and essays, he had not achieved a novel.
Maybe he required a certain amount of maturity to write his first novel, Treasure Island. After all, he had only turned 30 the year before beginning the novel in September 1881. It may have required a certain amount of emotional support -- he had also married the previous year, to American divorcee Fanny Vandegrift.
A stay at a Swiss sanatorium had done little either to help Stevenson’s always frail health or his writing ability. But during a Scottish summer vacation in 1881 when, biographer and fellow Scot Ian Bell notes, “The Highland weather did its Highland worst,” Stevenson began to write again.
“On a chill September morning, by the cheek of a brisk fire, and the rain drumming on the window, I began,” Stevenson wrote. “I have begun (and finished) a number of other books, but I cannot remember to have sat down to one of them with more complacency.”
It started with a map drawn either by Stevenson or his twelve-year-old stepson Lloyd. “The map was the most of the plot,” Bell writes, quoting Stevenson in his biography, Dreams of Exile. The map’s island, “like a fat dragon standing up,” bore the now-classic “X marks the spot,” designation. And it had a young boy hero, Jim Hawkins, to charm Lloyd, Stevenson’s “touchstone” for the things boys liked.
It also had one of Stevenson’s greatest characters, the tall one-legged pirate John Silver, the great mover of the story’s action. “Sometimes it is as though R.L.S. were tempting us to admire this figure whose personality swings like a pendulum,” Bell writes. “But who Long John actually is seems less important that what, by contrast, he shows the others to be.”
Jim Hawkins at last collected his share of treasure and returned safely home, but Stevenson continued to roam the world until he found his own Treasure Island, Upolu in the Samoan Islands, now part of the independent state of Samoa.
He had traveled all over the Pacific, Bell writes, and considered making his home on Hawaii. But even friendships, including the one with King Kalakaua illustrating this post, couldn’t make Stevenson settle down in a land he considered “too civilized.” Instead, he settled on Samoa, at an estate near the village of Vailima in 1893.
He surely would have left it, too, if he had lived longer. But in December 1894 he died, not from the tuberculosis that had afflicted him all his life, but from “apoplexia,” according to the copy of his death certificate at
He was buried on nearby Mount Vaea, under an epitaph from one of his poems, “Home is the sailor, home from the sea. . .”
(Next Wednesday -- In September, Adventure classics turns from the sea to stories with other young protagonists, beginning with L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.)