1879-1880: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Early Transatlantic Network

In the eighth 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 previous posts I have discussed Stevenson’s early years of professional authorship, demonstrating his initial reliance on Sidney Colvin before his growing knowledge, confidence and connections in the literary industry enabled him to secure many of his own publishing deals. Once in America, with the vastness of the Atlantic separating him from the literary world of London, he once again became reliant on a few core members of his network. While he continued to send short ‘bright papers’ to Leslie Stephen for inclusion in Cornhill Magazine (Letters, III, 49), [1] his more substantial works of fiction or travel writing were first dispatched to mediating agents. Having written ‘The Story of a Lie’ [2] during the crossing to New York, Stevenson sent it to Colvin with instructions he was to ‘deal absolutely with’ it, assigning him significant authority in declaring: ‘I shall hold myself bound by your signature’ (Letters, III, 6). As well as sending back work to be placed, he enlisted Colvin to find out what sort of writing would be welcomed by British publications. He enquired on behalf of himself and his new familial connections in America; Joe Strong was an artist married to Fanny’s only daughter, Belle:

Soon you will receive some sketches by Joe Strong. I send them to you in a future view: see if the Graphic or Illustrated London or some of these things would have them […]. At the same time, see if my tour across ocean and continent, en amateur emigrant would not do for Pall Mall. (Letters, III, 11)

Stevenson went on to send Colvin the first part of The Amateur Emigrant in early December 1879 and, notwithstanding their animated criticism of the work, both he and Henley ‘proceeded vigorously in their efforts to find a publisher for it’ [3]. The text was accepted a few months later, first by Donald Macleod for Good Words magazine and later Kegan Paul, although it was ultimately published by neither.

William Ernest Henley became a key agent in Stevenson's transatlantic network .

William Ernest Henley became a key agent in Stevenson’s transatlantic network.

W. E. Henley played a similarly vital role in the network that enabled Stevenson’s cross-continental publishing. By the time Stevenson left for America, Henley, who Stevenson had assisted in gaining a foothold in the literary world of London, had been an editor of the short-lived magazine London (1877-9), and would shortly come into his own as editor of The Magazine of Art (1881-6). As Booth and Mehew affirm, Henley effectively acted as an unpaid literary agent for Stevenson, performing administrative duties and negotiating with publishers to get him the best deal, both during his year in America and while he recovered from the journey in Davos, Switzerland, the following winter. In November 1879 Stevenson sent Henley ‘The Pavilion on the Links’, entreating him to ‘acknowledge the “Pavilion” by return:

I shall be so nervous till I hear; as of course I have no copy except of one or two places where the vein would not run. God prosper it, poor ‘Pavilion’! (Letters, III, 27)

Stevenson was well versed in the perils of posting manuscripts: in 1875 he lamented there being ‘one masterpiece fewer in the world’ (Letters, II, 143), after Colvin lost one of his essays in his rooms in Cambridge. As well as obtaining publication for ‘The Pavilion on the Links’ in the Cornhill in September 1880, Henley secured Stevenson one of his most important (and most lucrative) publishing connections of this point in his career. Chatto and Windus paid £100 for Familiar Studies of Men and Books (1882) and £50 for New Arabian Nights (1882), this last sum, as Henley pointed out to Charles Baxter, as much ‘as Louis got for the Donkey and the Voyage put together’. Stevenson acknowledges his friend’s invaluable support during this overseas phase of his career, writing to him in April 1882:

I remember I have never formally thanked you; for that 100 quid, nor in general for the introduction to Shatter your Windows, and continue to bury you in copy as if you were my private secretary. Well, I am not unconscious of it all. (Letters, III, 321)

By travelling to America without informing his parents and against their wishes, Stevenson, for the first time, became solely reliant on writing for his income. He felt painfully the pressure to earn money, particularly as he hoped ‘to soon have a greater burthen to support’ (Letters, III, 21) in the form of Fanny and her family. These money concerns were alleviated in April 1880, when Stevenson’s father telegrammed assuring the author he could ‘count on £250 annually’. Up until this point his financial situation seemed bleak: with recurring ill-health, he simply could not produce work fast enough to sustain the living he required. One avenue Stevenson explored to supplement his income from British publications was to capitalise on the literary market in America. In December he excitedly informed Colvin he had been hired as a ‘reporter for the Monterey Californian at a salary of $2 a week!’ (Letters, III, 31). Anne Fisher, however, who knew Stevenson during his stay in Monterey, claimed ‘the $2 was contributed by friends in Simoneau’s restaurant as a means of helping [him] without hurting his pride’. Yet Stevenson did engage in more productive networking during his time in America. As early as October 1879, he wrote to Colvin:

I am told if I had a proper introduction to the Atlantic, they would give from 20 to 40 pounds for a piece of my trash. I wonder how I should go about that. (Letters, III, 19)

The Atlantic Monthly was founded in 1857 as a literary and cultural commentary magazine.

The Atlantic Monthly was founded in 1857 as a literary and cultural commentary magazine.

It was not until June next year, however, that Stevenson used his connection with Leslie Stephen to introduce himself to William Dean Howells, editor of the Atlantic Monthly (1871-81) (Letters, III, 85). From Calistoga, California, he sent Howells three poems, one of which was published in October 1880. More significant, however, is Stevenson’s recognition of the potential of the American literary market: shortly after arriving in America, he wrote to P. G. Hamerton:

 Could your recommendation introduce me to an American publisher? My next book I should really try to get hold of here. (Letters, III, 20)

Hamerton wrote a letter of recommendation to Roberts Brothers of Boston who did indeed become Stevenson’s first American publishers, publishing Travels with a Donkey, An Inland Voyage, Treasure Island, Silverado Squatters and Prince Otto for the US market.


[1] Cornhill Magazine  published ‘Yoshida Torajiro’ in March 1880 and ‘Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions’ in June.

[2] ‘The Story of a Lie’ was published in New Quarterly Magazine in October 1879.

[3] Roger G. Swearingen, The Prose Writings of Robert Louis Stevenson: A Guide (London: Macmillan, 1980), p. 43.

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