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70 ...... Teaching B urns would have been no Scotchman,” wrote one of the poet’s biographers, “if he had not loved to moralise.”1 Stevenson was delighted with this observation, for it excused his own penchant to step up to the pulpit. In his letters , of course, he pontificated magnificently. But he also recognized early in his career the opportunities of the essay form as a vehicle for his inner preacher, and by the time he reached his thirties, Stevenson had developed a reputation as a superb essayist. Stevenson’s openness and his welcoming, familiar voice became his signature traits, both as a writer and a public figure. Readers who felt such intimacy with his authorial persona were pleasantly surprised to find that Stevenson was pretty much the same in person as in print. Many of his acquaintances noted this. “I never learned to love a man so much in so short a time,” wrote Edward Eggleston. “He had no fences. He had no secrecy. He gave me out of his heart. ... His was a sweet personality—a singularly unveiled soul. There were no hedges about him.”2 An American reporter wrote, “Mr. Stevenson’s talk is very like his writing; it is fresh, racy, redolent of the soil out of which he has grown.... He sees everything from his own point of view, and puts his case, not dogmatically, but pictorially, graphically, with pith and force of a perfectly direct and sincere nature.”3 Stevenson wrote with the earnestness and warmth of a man who was eager for a good talk; and in the essay, “On Talk and Talkers,” he made patent the relationship between the art “ 71 ...... of writing and the art of conversation: “Literature in many of its branches is no other than the shadow of good talk.”4 Many readers enjoyed being welcomed into so relaxed a conversation. As one reviewer periphrastically put it, “To accept his invitation will be a refreshment to every one who can enjoy holding conversation on the daily and vital facts of life with a writer who, accepting nothing second-­ hand, brings to bear on the facts of experience a gift of singularly luminous and genial insight, and perception both poignant and picturesque.”5 William Archer struck the same note more succinctly: “As a rule, Mr. Stevenson gossips along as lightly as need be. His is healthy human speech, sane and self-­ contained. We can listen to it long without either irritation or tedium.” There were some, of course, who did begin to yawn at Mr. Stevenson’s cheerful commentaries on how to live. It wasn’t just the moralizing that irked them. They grew tired of Stevenson’s chumminess, his extremely subjective turn of mind—his “ever-­ present self-­ consciousness,” as Archer put it.6 “Mr. Stevenson’s essays positively bristle with ‘you see,’ ‘you remember,’ ‘I say,’ ‘I fancy,’ and the rest of it,” wrote George Saintsbury.7 “Do, my good Sir,” he protested, “leave my buttons alone.” Being grasped, however lightly, by the lapels is not to everyone’s taste. Others expressed strong reservations about the meaningfulness and depth of Stevenson’s chitchat. Archer’s praise was heavily qualified: “We can listen to it long without either irritation or tedium, until suddenly there vibrates across our memory an echo of some other utterance compared with which this light-­flowing discourse ‘is as moonlight unto sunlight , is as water untowine.’” RLS, wrote Archer, has “a vague way of alluding to some esoteric morality of his own, which is as impressive as it is tantalizing. . . . This nebulous cocksureness , this dogmatism without dogma, at last becomes a little irritating.” He called Stevenson “a humourist and an artist in words” with no concept of “the life of pain, and ter- 72 ...... ror, and weariness, into which it is part of his philosophy to look as seldom as possible.” Archer felt there must be a time for everything. We sometimes need power and passion and a more solemn tone; we cannot always be happy pagans seeking our pleasure. He thus objected to the “commonplace optimism” implied in Stevenson’s conversational style, and complained that his “athletico-­ aesthetic” bearing quickly became cloying and tiresome to sober adults. Is it a responsible philosophy of life, Archer wondered, to reject logic and objective discourse and place one’s trust in something called “the heart,” or something even vaguer called “the eyes and the sympathies and appetites,” as Mr. Stevenson would have us do? Mr. Archer thought...


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