Steve Cotler

Steve Cotler

Silverado Squatters

RLS's Honeymoon Cabin
Stevenson's honeymoon cabin in Calistoga
Do students still read Robert Louis Stevenson? Treasure Island? The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Or have cinema and television overtaken literature, the adaptation become the source, and the source forgotten?

Stevenson was a mainstay of my childhood, a lingering consequence of his immense Victorian popularity. I suggest that it was this popularity that removed him from today’s scholarly reading lists.

On a recent visit to Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, I came across a small monument that mentioned his honeymoon there in 1880 (he married a San Franciscan) and the short travelogue he wrote, Silverado Squatters. To be sure, the style is from another era, but it is witty and alive with observation and analysis.

He wrote as a Scot in California only 30 years after the Gold Rush and statehood had trampled the Mexicans…who had subjugated the Native Americans…who had woven baskets and picked oysters out of the sea sands for millennia. By 1880, railroad and telegraph were no longer new, and telephone was just connecting voices (RLS had his first telephone conversation in Calistoga).

Silverado Squatters is a charming read, one of the earliest views of what is now called Wine Country. A few excerpts should encourage you to read the whole piece. It is quite short, and online.

“It is difficult for a European to imagine Calistoga, the whole place is so new, and of such an accidental pattern; the very name, I hear, was invented at a supper-party by the man who found the springs.”

“We passed a cow stretched by the roadside, her bell slowly beating time to the movement of her ruminating jaws, her big red face crawled over by half a dozen flies, a monument of content.”

“Without doubt he had tried his luck at the diggings, and got no good from that; without doubt he had loved the bottle, and lived the life of Jack ashore. But at the end of these adventures, here he came; and, the place hitting his fancy, down he sat to make a new life of it, far from crimps and the salt sea.”

Robert Louis Stevenson Portrait by Girolamo Nerli, 1892
“Wine in California is still in the experimental stage…. Those lodes and pockets of earth, more precious than the precious ores, that yield inimitable fragrance and soft fire; those virtuous Bonanzas, where the soil has sublimated under sun and stars to something finer, and the wine is bottled poetry: these still lie undiscovered; chaparral conceals, thicket embowers them; the miner chips the rock and wanders farther, and the grizzly muses undisturbed. But there they bide their hour, awaiting their Columbus; and nature nurses and prepares them. The smack of Californian earth shall linger on the palate of your grandson.”

This is language crafted finely.

From Wikipedia:

“The late 20th century saw the start of a re-evaluation of Stevenson as an artist of great range and insight, a literary theorist, an essayist and social critic, a witness to the colonial history of the South Pacific, and a humanist. He is now being re-evaluated as a peer with authors such as Joseph Conrad (whom Stevenson influenced with his South Seas fiction) and Henry James, with new scholarly studies and organizations devoted to Stevenson.”

Stevenson should be back on your reading list.

2 Comments

  1. Rick Behrens says:

    Yes, I have read this interesting book, and every time I have hiked to the top of the peak, I have thought of RLS and wife living in this harsh landscape….also when driving up and over the summit, I always think about the days when you would have to stop at the gate to pay the toll…and it’s obvious the road, with all its sharp curves, was made for a slower form of transportation.

    • Steve Cotler says:

      Within a few days of your commenting on the sharp curves, there were two serious car accidents on the road. Can one still tell where the toll booth was?

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