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Robert Louis Stevenson:
"Tusitala" 1850-1894

By Barbara Smith

Parents should know their children's friends - including favorite authors. Robert Louis Stevenson is one literary companion we may think we know because his books, Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Kidnaped, The Black Arrow , or The Master of Ballantrae , introduced many of us to thrilling romance adventures. He was a matchless imaginative writer, and A Child's Garden of Verses lead many of us to love poetry, and we enjoy introducing our children to the engaging verses that capture a child's opinion of the world.

He was a versatile writer in fiction, essay, poetry and drama, believing that romance was a necessary element in life, and that fiction was as necessary to grown people as play to children. For Stevenson, the highest point of romance to him was fine conduct, springing from loyalty and a sense of duty. (British Poetry and Prose: A Book of Readings ).

The literary world affectionately remembers Robert Louis Stevenson as a man who never grew up, and his verses reveal a child's attitudes. He wrote sympathetically in A Child's Garden of Verses in 1885:

"When I am grown to man's estate
I shall be very proud and great
And tell the other girls and boys
Not to meddle with my toys."

Nevertheless, this disarming poet wrote other works that are not guileless children's tales!

Some of his writing may be an exciting read around the dining room table, but he may not have been the best choice of a guest! A selection follows from a disturbing short story, Markheim:

"Murder is to me no special category," replied the other. "All sins are murder, even as all life is war. I behold your race, like starving mariners on a raft, plucking crusts out of the hands of famine and feeding on each others' lives."

Stevenson wrote well, but evil is a recurring theme. In his well-known books, he scrutinized the evil that lurks in some men's lives and hideously overflows in others. Yet, compared with many contemporary children's books that glorify the macabre, Robert Louis Stevenson's work is outstanding, and surveying his life can help us introduce his writing to our children. Are there lessons then we can glean from his stories, from his life?

His protagonists are often children or ingenuous adults. Literary critic Irving Saposnik says these characters are, "thrown upon adventure because they are odds with the established authority which they have been taught to recognize . . . As adults, [they] are estranged from their family or burdened with familial responsibility for which they are unprepared . . . Heroism is found not in victory but in resistance to inevitable defeat." * ( * Irving S. Saposnik. Robert Louis Stevenson, Twayne Publishers, 1974, p. 104.)

This summary of Stevenson's fictional characters aptly illustrates portions of Stevenson's life. He was born in 1850 in Edinburgh. His loving, godly Scottish parents are frequently depicted as strict Calvinists. His father and grandfather were prosperous, prominent engineers who wanted the young Stevenson to pursue engineering. However, the boy did not inherit an aptitude for building; rather, he inherited his mother's weak lungs.

During his life he battled tuberculosis, and continually sought milder climates than Scotland. A sickly child confined to his home, he escaped his physical limitations through books. Tales of Scottish history and literature kindled a life-long passion for open air, the sea and adventure. His parents, fretting that he was lonely, encouraged his friendship with an older cousin, Bob, who may have helped harden Stevenson's heart to the Lord Jesus.

At Edinburgh University, Stevenson abandoned engineering, and switched to law. Though he passed the bar, he never practiced law, and instead attempted writing. He also launched a lifestyle of carousing, and drinking - further impairing his health. Then disowning Christ, he embraced agnosticism. At 22 he wrote: "It was really pathetic to hear my father praying pointedly for me today at family worship, and to think that the poor man's supplications were addressed to nothing better able to hear and answer than the chandelier. I could have bit my tongue out . . . "

Soon after, Stevenson, in his early twenties, began writing accounts of his travel adventures for magazines. An eager traveler despite his poor health, he took two uncommon excursions as young man. One by canoe through the rivers and canals of Belgium and France, became the basis of his first book, An Inland Adventure (1878). He describes his second journey in Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes Mountains (1879).

In 1880, he crossed the Atlantic and the United States to follow Fanny Osbourne, a married woman, 11 years his senior. He had become grievously ill, but quickly married her after her divorce. The mother of two children, Fanny promptly devoted herself to nursing her new husband, protecting and encouraging him to write the works for which he is remembered. Money problems persisted as ill health and restlessness compelled Stevenson to wander, first to St. Helena, California, and later to a sanitarium at Saranac, New York. It was for his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, that Stevenson wrote Treasure Island in 1883. It is full of suspense, plot and contrast in moral codes. However, once written, Stevenson never read his thrilling novel. In 1885 he published A Child's Garden of Verses , his only book of verses, but with this one volume, he became one of the great children's poets.

He continued to write, achieving critical and commercial success. Then, Stevenson hired a yacht and sailed the South Seas, eventually settling on a plantation in Samoa in 1890. He became friendly with the Samoans who named him "Tusitala" - Teller of Tall Tales. His initial enchantment with the island's charm - and its distance from Europe - dissolved into disappointment with the barbarism, indolence, superstition and depravity of the natives. Money worries compounded the disillusionment, and Fanny suffered grave emotional problems. His final years were filled with the premonition of death, and he died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage in 1894.

His grave upon a mountain in Samoa is marked with words from his own the moving poem Requiem:

"Here he lies where he longed to be; Home is the sailor, home from the sea, And the hunter home from the hill."

He could not reconcile Christ's sayings . . . "But the truth of his teaching would seem to be this: in our own person and fortune, we should be ready to accept and to pardon all; it is our cheek we are to turn, our coat that we are to give away to the man who has taken our cloak."(British Poetry and Prose: A Book of Readings p.1315) The "Teller of Tall Tales" is often portrayed propped up in bed, writing to escape the agony of his infirmities. Sadly, he pursued destruction, rather than the Lord, and spurned the only Physician who could truly relieve his distress.

Read Robert Louis Stevenson to your children and encourage them to read A Child's Garden of Verses , Treasure Island and Kidnaped for the pleasure of enjoying well-crafted writing. Remember though, Robert Louis Stevenson's talent is literary skill, not spiritual insight. Be mindful of the moral issues his novels raise in light of the author's life. The Bible clearly speaks on the concerns that harass and baffle Stevenson's characters. Be sure you can answer those questions from the word.


  • British Poetry and Prose: A Book of Readings, edited by Paul Robert Lieder, Robert Morss Lovett, and Robert Kilburn Root, Houghton, Mifflin Co., 1928.
  • Robert Louis Stevenson, by James Pope Hennessy, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1974.
  • Robert Louis Stevenson, by Irving S. Saposnik, Twayne Publishers, a division of G.K. Hall, & Co., Boston, 1974.
  • The Oxford Illustrated History of English Literature Edited by Pat Rogers, Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • The Short Oxford History of English Literature, Andrew Sanders, 0xford University press, 1994.
  • The Who's Who of Children's Literature Complied and edited by Brian Doyle, Schoken Books, New York, 1968

ęBarbara W Smith


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