“IV ... But it was on a bench in Washington Square that I saw the most of Louis Stevenson. It was an outing that lasted an hour or more, and was very pleasant and sociable. I had come with him from his house, where I had been paying my respects to his family.”
According to Mark Twain the meeting occurred one day of April for an hour or more.
“His business in the Square was to absorb the sunshine. He was most scantily furnished with flesh, his clothes seemed to fall into hollows as if there might be nothing inside but the frame for a sculptor's statue. His long face and lank hair and dark complexion and musing and melancholy expression seemed to fit these details justly and harmoniously, and the altogether of it seemed especially planned to gather the rays of your observation and focalize them upon Stevenson's special distinction and commanding feature, his splendid eyes. They burned with a smouldering rich fire under the penthouse of his brows, and they made him beautiful.”
The physical description of the Scottish novelist turns into a passionate portrait (“splendid eyes, burned, rich fire, made him beautiful”) evocated further in few lines describing Susy, the beloved child of the novelist died in 1896, because of spinal meningitis. The same daughter supposed to have a sexual relationship with Louise Brownell, a female student at Bryn Mawr College. What is amazing here is the comparison with the Scottish novelist and “his soul of flame”.
“Like Stevenson she (Susie) had “a soul of flame in a body of gauze”, a body to be guarded through the spirit.” (2)
But let us go back to the Washington Square meeting. After the physical description of Robert Louis Stevenson the conversation moves to another topic: Bret Harte and Thomas Bailey Aldrich. Bret Harte born in 1836 was an American writer and periodical editor. His works helped create the local-colour school in American fiction. He wrote with Mark Twain the play Ah Sin in 1877. His writing slumped in the 1870s, and he accepted consulships in Europe, never returning to the U.S. Harte and Twain interrupted abruptly their friendship for unkown reasons.
Thomas Bailey Aldrich born in 1836 was a poet, novelist, dramatist, editor. In 1881 he succeeded W.D. Howells as editor of the Atlantic Monthly, resigning in 1890 to concentrate in his own writing. He is best remembered for the Story of a Bad Boy (1869), a novel drawing on his childhood. His lead character, “Tom Bailey”, is a forerunner of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. Mark Twain read Aldrich’s book shortly after it was published, but claimed not to have been influenced by it and to have disliked its prose style. Mark Twain and Aldrich met in November 1871, after corresponding for several months. They remained friends the rest of their lives.
In the meeting occurred in Washington Square Twain discusses with Stevenson about the two authors. For him Harte “was always bright, but never brilliant” but Aldrich “always witty, always brilliant”. Then the conversation moves to the topic of “the surface reputation”
“At surface reputation, however great, is always mortal, and always killable if you go at it right—with pins and needles, and quiet slow poison, not with the club and tomahawk. But it is a different matter with the submerged reputation—down in the deep water; once a favorite there, always a favorite; once beloved, always beloved; once respected, always respected, honoured, and believed in. For, what the reviewer says never finds its way down into those placid deeps; nor the newspaper sneers, nor any breath of the winds of slander blowing above. Down there they never hear of these things. Their idol may be painted clay, up then at the surface, and fade and waste and crumble and blow away, there being much weather there; but down below he is gold and adamant and indestructible."
This part of the conversation will be remembered by Twain only once, in a speech dated 1/11/1908 (3) . The silence felt on Robert Louis Stevenson and its “association” with Mark Twain.
The other biographies written over the years had dedicated just few lines to the topic.
In “Mark Twain: A Biography” (4) , the huge biographical work of his literary executor Albert Bigelow Paine, Stevenson is quoted three times.
In Volume I, chapter XCIX “A TYPEWRITER, AND A JOKE ON ALDRICH” Paine remembers Twain speaking on Thomas Aldrich to the Scottish novelist.
In Volume II, chapter CLIII “HUCK FINN COMES INTO HIS OWN”:
“The story of Huck Finn will probably stand as the best of Mark Twain’s (…) Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “It is a book I have read four times, and am quite ready to begin again to-morrow.”
In Volume II, charter CLXV “Letters Visits, and visitors”
Robert Louis Stevenson came down from Saranac, and Clemens went in to visit him at his New York hotel, the St. Stevens, on East Eleventh Street. Stevenson had orders to sit in the sunshine as much as possible, and during the few days of their association he and Clemens would walk down to Washington Square and sit on one of the benches and talk. They discussed many things--philosophies, people, books; it seems a pity their talk could not have been preserved.
Stevenson was a great admirer of Mark Twain’s work. He said that during a recent painting of his portrait he had insisted on reading Huck Finn aloud to the artist, a Frenchman, who had at first protested, and finally had fallen a complete victim to Huck's yarn. In one of Stevenson’s
letters to Clemens he wrote:
My father, an old man, has been prevailed upon to read Roughing It (his usual amusement being found in theology), and after one evening spent with the book he declared: "I am frightened. It cannot be safe for a man at my time of life to laugh so much."
What heaps of letters, by the way, remain from this time, and how curious some of them are! Many of them are requests of one sort or another, chiefly for money--one woman asking for a single day's income, conservatively estimated at five thousand dollars.”
It is important to remark that according to Paine this “association” lasted few days instead of some hours as Twain dictated in his own autobiography. It is just a slip or something else?
The Robert Louis Stevenson’s biographies too don’t help. Claire Herman (5) dedicates just few lines. Frank McLynn (6) did the same but at page 474 he gives us an important information:
“In Sydney in march 1893 he sat for a sculptor but the resultant bust, he informed Saint Gaudens, looked more like Mark Twain than Robert Louis Stevenson”.
The Stevenson’s comment, probably dated at the end of 1893 or at the beginning of 1894, looks acid and contemptuous. Why? Could it be a consequence of 2 appreciative letters sent by the Scottish novelist to Mark Twain in 1893 whom Twain never responded?
Going back to other biographers is even worse. In “The life of Robert Louis Stevenson” (7) , the first authorized biography by Stevenson’s cousin sir Graham Balfour, the meeting with Twain is just mentioned. According to Balfour the two novelists spent only an afternoon together:
“The time to which he recurred with the greatest pleasure, was an afternoon he spent on a seat in Washington Square enjoying the company and conversation of " Mark Twain."
(1)“Chapters from my autobiography” by Mark Twain, in North American Review, No. DXCVIII, September 7, 1906
(2)“Chapters from my autobiography” by Mark Twain, in North American Review, No. DXCVIII, September 7, 1906
(3)Mark Twain Speaking, by Paul Fatout , University of Iowa Press, 1976
(4)'Mark Twain: a biography', by Albert Bigelow Paine, 1912
(5)“Myself & the other fellow-A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson, by Claire Herman, Harper Collins publishers, 2005, p. 358
(6)“Robert Louis Stevenson-A biography”, by Frank McLynn, Random House, New York, 1993
(7)“The life of Robert Louis Stevenson”, by Graham Balfour, New York, 1906, Vol II.