Ivan R. Dee, 2001
ISBN: 1-5663-343-5
Robert Louis Stevenson led a life to rival any of his characters’ adventures. He is, in short, the stuff of legends: a sickly child grew into a sickly man who travelled six thousand miles across an ocean and a continent to answer one telegram from the woman he loved. Philip Callow’s Louis: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson is a commendable exploration of a wordsmith whose life cannot adequately be captured in words. Where other biographers pander, lecture, exaggerate or understate, Mr. Callow is content with an intimate recitation of fact and fiction. Louis is a definitive guide to the myth and mystery behind Robert Louis Stevenson.
        Stevenson both defies and defines the literary prototype of an undependable, self-destructive black sheep. His was a life of vagrancy that many writers undertake when books grow tedious and inadequate. He was self-destructive in the sense that he did not choose domestic tranquility, even when the travel and the late nights and, no doubt, the hundreds of cigars, did nothing but harm to his weakened lungs. After he swore off religion in his youth, he was something of a pariah to his reverent family. But as a man—still a casual agnostic—he held Christian services for native workers at his final home in Samoa. He loved his native Scotland to a fault, ever consumed by the English injustice served to the Covenanters years before his birth in 1850. But he changed the spelling of his name to the French "Louis" from the traditional "Lewis" out of a spontaneous admiration for continental affectations. Mr. Callow’s depiction sees through the results of what may be a hundred different causes, all peculiar to Stevenson’s time and temperament, and refuses to place the author in an uncomfortably generic box.
        Stevenson transcended the stereotypes. He was loved, at times fanatically, and he compensated his family and his fans with unceasing loyalty to them and a quiet devotion to his work that belied both his physical state and his wanderlust. Mr. Callow lets Louis issue the best description of his personality: "Past eccentric-obscure and oh we never mention it—present industrious, respectable and fatuously contented. ... Curses some. Temper unstable ... Has been an invalid for ten years but can boldly claim you can’t tell it on him. Given to explaining the Universe—Scotch, sir, Scotch," and his philosophy ("There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. By being happy we sow anonymous benefits upon the world, which remain unknown even to ourselves ... ).
        Stevenson has been gone for more than 100 years. But his stories linger and through them something of him. Revered in his time for adventure tales including Kidnapped and Treasure Island, Louis saw one of his best works, The Amateur Emigrant, edited into oblivion because his faithful recounting of the lives of America’s newest children did not sit well in prudish English parlors. His words are active; his books transcend the simple fairy tales some detractors would have us expect. There is a reality in work like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that resonated in the troubled receding century and that rings true today. He is the prophetic H. G. Wells of his genre—human nature.
        So it is not surprising that Stevenson, the man, insists on contradictions in his life and work. Thin, unearthly pale and inexplicably ill, he yearned both for a schooner’s decks to force a refinement of the ocean’s inexpressibility and for Scottish earth to inflict memories of nightmarish winds—a common symbol in his work—on his dreams. He married a prescient enfant terrible who was both an inspiration and a torturous master. By the end of Mr. Callow’s fine testimonial, my, we know this enervating bundle of genius and anguish. We would like to tell him not to despair. There is no justice in his suffering. "My skill deserts me," Stevenson wrote shortly before his death from a brain aneurysm in 1894, "It was a very little dose of inspiration and a pretty trick of style, long lost, improved by the most heroic industry." One questions if this man of remarkable will somehow willed his own demise—if his lost spirit, his lost capacity to produce, killed the spark evident in his many captivating photographs. Mr. Callow is mull. So this is the riddle RLS left for us: Is it better to live with the knowledge you will not be again what once you were, or to be gone in an instant before the world can catch its breath and sigh disapprovingly and wonder where your merit went?
        It is not up to his audience to offer his excuses or make his case. Stevenson inflicts dreams on even the unwilling, the stubborn and callous. He asks nothing in return. What could we possibly offer? He is beyond laughter and tears—beyond us both in time and in a simple ability to take the essence of childhood and weave it into stories for men. Perhaps that was left behind in the simplicity of the Victorian era, which was not so much simple as smothered. To his credit, Mr. Callow understands that fact. He knows when silence is the best exclamation. His is a close biography, a tight narrative of the life of an author who has done more to validate real-life Peter Pans than any other writer. Mr. Callow proves himself to be a formidable biographer, one who does not let his personal agenda, if indeed he has one, interfere with an objective portrayal of his subject. He is to be praised most highly as an invisible biographer who chooses carefully when it is prudent to step to the forefront of his readers’ minds and when to let the tale of a magical mind work its magic. Mr. Callow is in control of this book; his work is a refreshing departure from those who, after no doubt careful and scientific analysis, discover that their preoccupations and ideas (or revisions of accepted ideas) are more important than historical fact.
        Philip Callow’s Louis is what it claims to be. We cannot ask more of a biographer than truth. When a book like Louis offers a rare glimpse into a spirit, the surprise is enough to earn laud for its author. But even more rarely, a book forces questions of its readers. Where are our heroes? Are they still heroic when their character in its flabby and undisciplined state is exposed? Mr. Callow answers for Stevenson and leaves us to answer for the lives that malinger. Damn his audacity but bless his accomplishment. Louis is a sieve for thought and reflection that Robert Louis Stevenson, the master himself, would not fail to appreciate.