"Out of My Country and Myself I Go": Identity and Writing in Stevenson's Early Travel Books

Article excerpt

Although Stevenson criticism has almost ignored his early travel works, these books offer valuable insights into his identity as a writer. His journeys in France and Belgium allowed him temporarily to escape the cultural constraints of home and to use this estrangement to experiment with new, though evanescent, forms of selfhood. His journeys were propitious occasions for writing because he inscribed himself thereby in mobile, aleatory narratives that eschewed purpose. His journeys and his writing united in being undertaken for their own sake. Both were "pure, dispassionate adventures" that accepted the instability of world and self, thus opening a space in which he could imagine that they were new again. Although he knew that this sense of originality might be illusory, he preferred his illusion to others' reality because it permitted him to write.

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The two books by Robert Louis Stevenson that I wish to focus on here are among his earliest published works: An Inland Voyage (1878) and Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879). Standing at the beginning of his literary career, these travel books (especially the latter) have been read by many, frequently reprinted and anthologized and quoted, and yet attended by relative critical silence. Favorable contemporary reviewers like Grant Allen settled on the double-edged word "charming" as the most appropriate descriptor (Maixner 64-66). They found in these modest travel narratives a welcome relief from mid-century earnestness and responded to their vagabond air, admiring them as much for what they did not attempt as for what they did: Neither book had a doctrinal axe to grind and both eschewed weighty disquisitions on national character and history. In his Preface to Inland Voyage, Stevenson announced to his readers this lack of seriousness:

   I wonder, would a negative be found enticing? for, from the
   negative point of view, I flatter myself this volume has a certain
   stamp. Although it runs to considerably upwards of two hundred
   pages, it contains not a single reference to the imbecility of
   God's universe, nor so much as a single hint that I could have
   made a better one myself.... 'Tis an omission that renders the
   book philosophically unimportant; but I am in hopes the
   eccentricity may please in frivolous circles. (xv-xvi) (1)

Since then, "charm" has lost its value as a term of critical approval, although the word has stuck (see, for example, Fussell 416). Stevenson's most recent biographer makes nothing of them as literary productions (McLynn 106-110, 134-137) and shares Daiches' view that critical discourse is justifiably silent before them because they are superficial and immature works (World 44). With the exception of some positive remarks in Bell's 1992 biography and Saposnik's astute, but brief, discussion of Stevenson's travel writing, this dismissive silence constitutes something of a critical consensus. (2) Thus, a general aim of this essay is to find a way of speaking about Inland Voyage and Travels with a Donkey, and to attempt a description of what they are and what they do as a way of restoring their energy as writing. This will allow us to understand how these "dulcet experiments" (Furnas 439) really matter to the development of Stevenson's identity as a writer.

We might call the narratives nonteleological, to distinguish them from travel reports that originate in some specific purpose, whether that is a destination or an intellectual discovery that makes the journey meaningful. The term nonteleological is cumbersome, but it is useful because it may be applied to both journeys and texts as a way of naming this absence of a drive towards a goal or destination or conclusion. A much-quoted passage from Travels with a Donkey specifies this intransitive spirit:

   Why anyone should wish to visit Luc or Cheylard is more than my
   much-inventing spirit can suppose. For my part, I travel not to
   go anywhere, but to go. …