‘The Clyde to California’: Robert Louis Stevenson in America

In the seventh 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).

In 1879, Stevenson boarded a steamship to New York in pursuit of a married woman, who, less than a year later, would become his wife. Despite spanning little more than a year, this period of Stevenson’s life has been seen by many commentators as a watershed moment, for both his literary career and his sense of himself in the world. This life-altering journey began on 6 August 1879 in St Pancras Station. From here, Stevenson took a night train to Glasgow, and the next day left the Clyde for New York on the steamship the Devonia. He was following Fanny Osbourne, who had returned to California and her husband a year before.

There is no record of what spurred the abrupt departure, but some have speculated that a telegram arrived informing Stevenson of a serious decline in Fanny’s health. Regardless, Stevenson did not wait to be persuaded against the decision, and purchased his passage across the Atlantic without informing his family and against the bitter opposition of his friends. Partly to save money and partly to collect material for a book, Stevenson bought a second cabin ticket; at two guineas more than the six guineas steerage fare, it bought Stevenson marginally better food and a table on which to write. [1] Nevertheless, travelling with emigrants on a ship to America brought the author into contact with conditions and characters different from any he had experienced before. The Amateur Emigrant (1895), the travelogue that records these experiences, spelled a marked departure from his previous picturesque works of travel, as the stark realities he witnessed demanded a new style of writing.

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, on 7 August 1879

Stevenson’s formative years as an author were inextricably linked with travel. Yet, at the age of 29, the journey across the Atlantic was the first time he had been out of Europe and had a profound impression on the way he perceived the world. He was overwhelmed by the signs of globalisation he observed; travelling 5,000 miles shoulder-to-shoulder with emigrants, Stevenson became particularly preoccupied with the effects and causes of migration. Although his decision to travel in the second-cabin was partly based on cost, he was also ‘anxious to see the worst of emigrant life’ [2] and document it in a book. The late nineteenth century was an era of heightened globalisation, of which migration formed an important part. Russell King explains how, ‘after 1850 the volume of international migration started to increase in an explosive way’. Reflecting the challenging economic and social conditions in Europe, as well as the growing independence of the North American economy,

Europeans came to dominate intercontinental migration in numbers which were previously unknown. Between this date and the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 around 50 million Europeans participated in international migrations. Some 70 per cent of them went to North America, chiefly to the United States. [3]

Such international migration is intimately connected with wider aspects of globalisation. As King identifies, ‘it involves the stretching across space of both the social relations of production and the more personal social networks of individual people and ethnic communities’. [4] Developments in high-speed transport (such as steamships and railways) were key, as were improvements in communication networks, including postal services, the telegraph system and, later, the telephone.

westward_sabin, 11/22/11, 9:46 AM, 8C, 5194x7682 (412+0), 100%, Custom, 1/60 s, R81.2, G67.8, B78.4

1869 photograph of Central Pacific crews from Camp Victory.

It is these aspects of time-space compression that facilitate both Stevenson’s global peregrinations and his cross-continental publishing practices. As well as becoming preoccupied with globalisation during his trip to America, Stevenson actively participates in the process: he is witnessing it and part of it, writing it and producing it. Following King’s description of migration and globalisation, Stevenson’s ‘social networks’ and the ‘social relations’ of the ‘production’ of his texts were ‘stretched across space’, in this case the Atlantic. Indeed, the routes and methods that Stevenson employs to send his writing back to Britain (and to travel across America himself), are the same that transformed the global book trade more generally. As David Finkelstein explains, it was the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century that allowed Britain to become ‘a world leader in book production and dissemination’:

Steam-driven trains and boats speeded up delivery of books and print across national and international borders. […] The first underwater telegraph cable between Europe and North America was laid in 1858, running between Ireland and Newfoundland. These developments, along with the establishment of dependable postal services, enabled quick and efficient circulation of information between authors, editors, publishers, and their readers. [6]

In America itself, an extensive railway network was built over the course of the nineteenth century, with 166,703 miles of track in operation by 1890. These integrated systems of post, rail and telegraph facilitated a national book trade in America, but also improved trans-continental and international connections. By the time Stevenson reached the shores of the New World in 1879, Britain and America had begun to operate within what we can recognise today as a modern information society.

These routes, carved out by global trade (and the international book market more specifically), enabled Stevenson’s itinerant and international publishing practices. In the next few posts I will be examining the publishing histories and geographies of his writing from America and considering how the distance and movement influenced his literary networks. I will also move onto an analysis of the content of the texts themselves, considering how Stevenson’s engagement with the effects of globalisation he witnesses is articulated through his fluid perception of ‘place’.

[1] Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew (eds), The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, 8 vols (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994–95), vol. 3, p. 1. All further references are to this edition, with the volume and page numbers given parenthetically in the text.

[2] Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘The Amateur Emigrant’, in From Scotland to Silverado, ed. James D. Hart (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), p. 4. All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text.

[3] Russell King, ‘Migrations, Globalization and Place’, in A Place in the World? Places, Cultures and Globalization, ed. Doreen Massey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 6–44 (p. 15).

[4] King, ‘Migrations, Globalization and Place’, p. 15.

[6] David Finkelstein, ‘The Globalization of the Book: 1800-1970’, in A Companion to the History of the Book, eds. Simon Eliot and Jonathan Rose (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), pp. 329-340 (pp. 329, 330).

[7] John Barnes, Bill Bell, Rimi B. Chatterjee, Wallace Kirsop and Michael Winship, ‘A Place in the World’, in The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, Volume 3: 1830–1914, ed. David McKitterick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 595-634 (p. 610).


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