‘Out of my country and myself I go’: Stevenson and Literary Geography

In the sixth of an ongoing series of posts, Harriet Gordon, a second-year doctoral candidate based in Cardiff’s Centre for Editorial and Intertextual Research, discusses the early steps of her project: a book historical study of Robert Louis Stevenson’s global literary networks. Harriet’s project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership (SWW-DTP).

Edward Said writes that ‘none of us is outside or beyond geography; none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography’. The life and work of Robert Louis Stevenson is, perhaps more than most, intimately bound up with his geography. From the ambivalent relationship with his home town of Edinburgh, to his exploration of the conditions and effects of emigration in the New World, to his depictions of transculturation in the contact zones of the Pacific, issues of place and space, and their relation to identity, permeate both his biography and his writing. As Andrew Thacker confirms, ‘the “where” of literature has come to occupy a central place for many literary scholars over recent years, with an approach that has been termed ‘literary geography’ gaining increasing recognition within the academy. Aiming to contribute to this growing exchange between literary studies and cultural geography, my project is concerned with the spatial dimensions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s literary productions. It is investigating the geographical movements of Stevenson’s texts as they were being produced, considering how the spaces they inhabited and moved through influenced their networks of production and publishing histories, as well as examining the representations of spaces and places within the texts themselves.

Many scholars have articulated the necessity for literary geography to go beyond simply an examination of an author’s representation of place. As Thacker asserts, investigating ‘a novel as a spatial text must amount to more than simply considering how that text represents an interesting location’. One method of complicating this approach is through a focus on the material history, as well as the content, of a text. With its joint focus on book history and textual analysis, this project interests itself with both the spaces of the text and with the texts in space. Yet I try to complicate this focus further by engaging with recent theoretical approaches in geography. Cultural geographers have for some time distinguished between space and place, with place often defined ‘as a spatial location invested with human meaning’. If, then, ‘place is space to which meaning had been ascribed’, this ‘meaning’ is not fixed or constant, but susceptible to influence and change. Doreen Massey, one of the key thinkers around such spatial theory, explains:

Instead, then, of thinking of places as areas with boundaries around, they can be imagined as articulated movements in networks of social relations and understandings.

I will be reading the spatial dimensions of Stevenson’s text with an awareness of the constructed and unstable nature of place, as well as considering their material histories through a networked conception of global space. Sheila Hones describes how past approaches to narrative geography have ‘grasped space as a container and focused on setting as the background to action’, calling instead for ‘a more complex appreciation of the ways in which text and space, fiction and location, might be understood as inseparable and co-productive.’ Through an engagement with Massey’s understanding of place as unbounded constellations of multiple trajectories, I hope to move beyond the concept of setting as background, to consider how the meanings of place are produced and understood in Stevenson’s literary texts.

Postcard of the house Stevenson stayed at in Monterey, California.

Postcard of the house Stevenson stayed at in Monterrey, California

As part of its networked understanding of space and place, this project examines Stevenson’s own literary and social networks as they spread across global space, as well as the wider networks of transport and communication that facilitated his writing and publishing practices. I also consider how Stevenson’s texts articulate a conception of space and place. In his travel writing from America, for example, Stevenson focuses largely on emigration, and the networks across land and sea that are traced in the process. In fact, trajectories of people moving seems to define Stevenson’s conception of America, his construction of place in these texts thus sharing features with current theories in cultural geography. This understanding of place is deeply rooted in its historical moment, particular to the increased globalization and migration of the late nineteenth century. Indeed, as Stevenson’s travels take him outside of Europe, his texts become increasingly preoccupied with the conditions of globalization and its effects on identity. Eric Carter explains that the conditions of modernity that began to accelerate in the late nineteenth-century (globalization and time–space compression) disrupt ‘the presumed certainties of cultural identity’. Although never a reality for certain groups, the idea of an identity that is ‘firmly located in particular places, which [house] stable cohesive communities of shared tradition and perspective’, has been increasingly disrupted. ‘Places’, as David Morely and Kevin Robins argue, ‘are no longer the clear supports of our identity’. With much of his writing concerned with the instability of personal and national identity, Stevenson’s geographical imagination is highly attuned to the unstable nature of place and its relation to the globalization he witnesses.

Stevenson embarked for America on the Anchor Line steamship, the Devonia, on August 7th 1879

Stevenson embarked for America on the Anchor Line steamship, the Devonia, 7 August 1879

As well as exploring the idea in his writing, Stevenson himself is an example of the increased globalization of the late nineteenth century. He is, arguably, the first ‘global’ author; his texts were not only circulated to a readership around the world, but were often written and produced abroad, relying on networks across global space to connect them with the main centres of literary production. Stevenson’s own movements and publishing practices are an example of the kind of trajectories which construct ‘place’, while his writing about specific locations may have contributed to the formation of specific places in the imagination of his readers. In this project, as well as considering the ways space and place influence literary texts (and vice versa), I am interested in the relationship between geography and biography. Much of Stevenson’s writing is influenced by his geographical peregrinations, such as his American travel writing and essays, or his fiction and political writing from the Pacific. The geographical (and historical) specificity of his writing makes interpretations that consider his biography appropriate or even necessary. His texts cannot be analysed simply in terms of the language on the page; geography, history and biography all interconnect in Stevenson’s literary productions. As Andrew Thacker asserts, ‘all texts are written, published and read somewhere – and it is these many “somewheres” that now require further attention’. In this project, I am considering the influence of Stevenson’s geography on his literary career, asking how the spatial dimensions of his texts affect what they mean, and participating in the growing discourse between cultural geography and literary studies.

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3 comments

  1. Stevenson as first global author is interesting: I’m sure his constant moves around the globe were a model for many later authors like D. H. Lawrence. Perhaps the only comparable earlier figure is Byron. I’ll be interested to see how you develop your thoughts later about the peripatetic author: how does this wandering state affect the way they are read now and in their lifetimes.

  2. Having inhabited Stevenson’s prose for a quarter of a century, I am led to believe, from my humble perspective, that everything Stevenson wrote and did is grounded on his marvelous notion of mobility. Stasis seems to be found nowhere in Louis, still less in his thought. It is veritably puzzling what he attained. He seems to bound off the page in the eight volumes of his correspondence.

  3. In mobility I would include constantly changing viewpoint: reality is constantly changing along with the observer, the human mind is rarely still: even the celebration of the state of nirvana in a famous passage of Inland Voyage or the wonderful entry into the lagoon in The Ebb-Tide are told in a voice that is now looking at the phenomenon with curiosity and from different points of view and testing analogies. Perhaps this is also connected with the ‘bounding off the page’ effect that JM mentions: a constant sense of thought and curiosity in action.

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