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181 ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON AND HIS FAMILY OF ENGINEERS By Sara Ruth Watson (The Cleveland State University) In the last year of his life, when a natural propensity towards self-analysis and melancholia had deepened,1 Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a letter to H. B. Balldon (January 30, 1894) which seemed to presage death and to reveal a lifetime struggle which had not been resolved. Yes, if I could die Just now, or say In half a year, I should have had a splendid time of It on the whole. But it gets a little stale, and my work will begin to senesce. . . . It's a pity suicide is not thought the ticket In the best circles. But your letter goes on to congratulate me on having done the one thing I am a little sorry for; a little—not much—for my father himself lived to think that I had been wiser than he. But the cream of the Jest is that I have lived to change my mind? and think that he was wiser than I. Had I been an engineer, and literature my amusement, It would have been better perhaps . I pulled it off, of course, I won the wager, and It is pleasant while it lasts; but how long will it last? I dont know, say the Bells of Old Bow. All of which goes to show that nobody is quite sane in Judging himself. Truly had I given way and gone in for engineering, I should have been dead by now. Well, the gods know best.2 That Robert Louis Stevenson came from a family of famous engineers, that he started upon an engineering career, that family tensions resulted when he announced his decision not to become an engineer are all well known facts. J. C. Furnas, Stevenson's recent biographer, makes this statement concerning the Influence of the Stevenson engineering heritage« Though this strong family tradition was a factor in the conflicts between the engineer [Thomas Stevenson] and his obstinate son, Louis never overreacted into losing his great pride in his family's brilliance in work demanding integrity, Intelligence, and Incalculable devotion . . . . Time and again, in verse and prose, fiction and autobiography, Louis harked back to the technical glories of his forebears as if he had been an exiled Hlghlandman asserting the prestige of his clan.3 Although it is true that Robert Louis' writings reveal great pride in these family achievements, I believe that the strength of family tradition, his own early experiences in engineering, and 182 the domineering figure of his father left ineradicable traces upon Robert Louis' personality and writing, which deserve closer scrutiny than they have been given. John A. Stewart expressed the opinion that "between Stevenson and his father there were barriers which were never completely broken down, barriers of temperament, Ideals, and ambitions."4 it is my thesis that Records of A Family of Engineers, the biography of his forebears which Robert Louis was working on at the time of his death, was his attempt (albeit perhaps largely a subconscious one) to resolve an inner struggle and was written as a justification to his engineer-relations of the worth of the man-of-letters, of the artist, in a society dominated by the practical man-of-affairs, by the physically strong and active. A Family of Engineers was his attempt to compensate for what he considered a lack of virility or a weakness in his own character; it was his final offering to the family tradition which he had broken. There is a tendency to dismiss any writer of tales as a hearty, good-natured, somewhat simple soul, not profoundly motivated by ideas nor deeply aroused by emotional experiences. Of course such a generalization is always dangerous, and when applied to Stevenson, now popularly remembered as a writer of children's poetry and of adventure tales, the characterization is especially wrong. To quote Mr. Stewart again, "they understand little of Robert Louis Stevenson who picture him as a creature all fire and air, revelling puck-like in perpetual levity and llghtheartedness ."5 His was a very complex personality; his life was, in truth, stranger than fiction. In the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 181-193
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Will Be Archived 2021
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