NOTES FROM THE RESIDENT CURATOR

HISTORIC SOCIETY APPROACHES 100th ANNIVERSARY

     As of July 1st. the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage has been open to the public for its 99th summer season. Owned and operated by the Stevenson Society of America. Inc., this venerable museum is the first of its kind to celebrate the life and genius of an iconic son of Scotland. The literary output of this short-lived author includes timeless masterpieces like Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

     A museum within is four of the six rooms occupied by Stevenson and his family from October 3rd, 1887 to April 16, 1888. They rented the apartment from Andrew Baker for $50.00 a month. Baker, a professional guide, occupied another section of the house with his wife and three children. Baker Mountain is named after them, a popular destination for hikers.

The sudden intrusion of a celebrity into the daily routine of this pioneer family had everlasting ramifications. The skeletal author was at the peak of his fame and on his way from Bournemouth, England to Colorado. It was late summer 1887. With him were his mother, Margaret, his American wife, Fanny and Lloyd Osbourne, her son from her first marriage. Osbourne is the dedicatee of Treasure Island…Valentine Roch, a Swiss servant, traveled with them.

     Born with a frail physical constitution which he later exacerbated with his love of cigarettes, Stevenson was a confirmed invalid at twenty years when he began to hemorrhage blood from his lungs. His conditioned worsened en route to Colorado and they changed their itinerary. Although his brief presence in New York City was overflowing with unexpected career opportunities, the pollution, for him, was lethal. Rapid removal to a suitable environment was imperative. Thus, the Adirondack wilderness supplanted the Rockies as the small expedition turned north.

     One sunny autumn afternoon Andrew Baker was in the village where he encountered a friend who introduced him to a couple strangers- Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne. As the advance party, they had checked into Blood’s Hotel and proceeded up Main St. inquiring about real estate to rent. Their mission was accomplished with the fore-mentioned agreement with Baker. Four days later Loon Lake stagecoach delivered the rest of the group. Weary yet exhilarated, Stevenson noted the similarities of his new surroundings to his hills of home, the Scottish Highlands “bar want of heather and wooden houses”.

    Having just their baggage, Baker’s unexpected tenants required furnishings which the woodsman-landlord provided from his own property, including his writing desk. To the author, it seemed the only thing lacking was a piano and arrangements were made to have one delivered on Oct. 25th. The wanderers settled in for their first and last winter of arctic blasts. The letters of RLS recommenced on October 6th. To Henry James:

“Saranac Lake where we are now, and which I believe we mean to like and pass the winter at. Our house – emphatically Baker’s – is on a hill and has sight of a stream turning a corner in the valley.”

    Louis, as he was known, could finally rest and reflect on events since his arrival in America on the steamer Ludgate Hill less than a month prior. Following the recent funeral of his father, Thomas, a builder of lighthouses, Louis and Fanny Stevenson felt the need for change. They had set upon this journey so Fanny could re-connect with loved ones she missed while living abroad. Being from abroad, the works of RLS had no copy right protection in the U.S.A. With such sublime literature for the taking, it’s no wonder that the creator of Long John Silver fell prey to the piracy of American publishers.

    The serendipitous timing of this visit to the New World, just when the popularity of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ was at fever pitch, justifies a well-worn metaphor – Stevenson’s ship had come in – literally and figuratively. Henceforth, a large and adoring American reading public would fill his coffers beyond his wildest dreams. That RLS had the heart of a rebel can be discerned between the lines of his writings. Perhaps that accounts for his huge appeal on this side of the Atlantic in contrast to “the cool obscurity” of his life in England as he phrased it to Henry James from Newport, R.I. September 18th, 1887.

The letters of RLS describing his U.S. reception invite comparison with Beatlemania in 1964, e.g.

“nearly died of interviews and visitors during twenty-four hours in New York”

“I have been made a lot of here, and it is sometimes pleasant, sometimes the reverse…”

“If Jesus Christ came, they would make less fuss”

    The American publishers had tipped his pen with gold. The personality of Charles Scribner of Scribner’s Magazine supplied the tipping point to accept an irresistible offer under contract for the first time. From Baker’s, RLS writes to William Archer:

“I am now a salaried party; I am a ‘bourgeois’ now…at a scale of payment which makes my teeth ache for shame and diffidence. I am like to be a millionaire if this goes on and be publicly hanged at the revolution.”

To cousin Bob, his partner from childhood, he indicates that his bohemian sensibilities will insulate him from the insidious effects of riches. He writes:

“Wealth is only useful for two things; a yacht and a string quartette, fo these two I will sell my soul.”

     By the age of thirty-six, Stevenson’s star was approaching its zenith. Limitless possibilities beckoned him. Health or lack thereof was the only mitigation factor. In that respect, the winter at Saranac produced a surprising paradox. The extreme weather became a favorite theme in his letters as he daily observed ‘thermometer that rockets about like a man on a trapeze.”

“the climate is very cold and violent and changeable and really infinitely disagreeable and yet (for some unfathomable reason) healthy”

“this harsh, gray, glum, doleful climate has done me good.”

“I could aspire to be elsewhere; but yet I do not catch cold, and yet when I come in I eat. So that Saranac, if not deliriously delectable…has proven a success.”

To quote Alfred Donaldson from A History of the Adirondacks:     

“When he was not writing he was planning the come true of some persistent old day-dreams. We know the romantic somewhat fantastic trend. They were if yachts and aimless cruising, of southern seas and sun-kissed shores where lotus-eaters dwell, of roving life among primeval folk and rich adventure in a vagabond’s contentment. And Saranac Lake became the gateway to all this. It shaped itself into the shadowed portal through which he issued from his winter prison into the dazzling sunshine of eternal summer.”

     On April 16th, 1888, Robert Louis Stevenson and company waved good-bye to the Bakers. Two months lather the yacht Casco, with all abourd, sailed from San Francisco through the Golden Gate into the sunset, never to return.

     After two years of wandering under sail RLS built a home in Western Samoa. There he was struck down by a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of forty-four. Two novels were unfinished. The Samoan people affectionately knew him as ‘Tusitala’ – ‘Teller of Tales’. They toiled all night by torchlight to blaze a trail to the summit of Mt. Vaea. There the homesick Scot was laid to rest with the sea in front, the primeval forest behind and above, the Southern Cross. A bronze plaque on his tomb bears the poem Requiem:

Under the wide and starry sky, 

Dig the grave and let me lie,

Glad did I live and gladly die.

And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:

Here he lies where he longed to be,

Home is the sailor, home from sea,

And the hunter home from the hill. -RLS

 

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