Literary Daybook, May 1

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.


the Salon Books Editors
May 1, 2002 11:00PM (UTC)

Today in fiction

On May 1, the trustees arrive for the annual inspection of Miss Clavel's school.
-- "Madeline's Rescue" (1953)
by Ludwig Bemelmans

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to fictiondays@yahoo.com.

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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson's "Kidnapped" began serialization in Young Folks magazine. Like the earlier "Treasure Island" (1883), "Kidnapped" was a huge hit; these two, and "A Child's Garden of Verses" (1885), firmly established Stevenson as one of England's most popular writers of "children's literature." "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," provoked by a dream and written in a 10-week burst, was also published during this period. Though Stevenson wrote prolifically and in almost every genre, these four books from the mid-1880s are, for most, those upon which his reputation stands. Their success allowed him to obey the two imperatives of his life, travel and poor health; he soon left Scotland for the South Seas, in search of adventure and a better climate for his tuberculosis. He settled in Samoa, on the large, 20-servant estate where he died in 1894, at the age of 44.

Stevenson's literary achievement has been constantly debated and revalued. While praised by stylists such as Henry James and Jorge Luis Borges, others regard him as merely a tale-teller; to modernists like the Woolfs he was the stuffiest of literary armchairs, yet Italo Calvino admired him; some say his essays and travel writing are his best work, others say his short stories, still others say the unfinished "Weir of Hermiston" would have been his masterpiece. One of the most widely read at the end of the 1800s, he was not even mentioned in the 1973 Oxford Anthology of English Literature.

Few have ever questioned the remarkable industry and spirit of a life lived in the shadow of death. When Stevenson died, Henry James wrote his widow that she was fortunate "to have lived in the light of that splendid life, that beautiful, bountiful being ... He lighted up one whole side of the globe, and was in himself a whole province of one's imagination." The Samoans also revered "Tusitala" (usually translated as "Teller of the Tales," though Stevenson liked "Chief White Information"), and bore him to his chosen mountaintop grave, upon which his poem "Requiem," written when near death 14 years earlier, was placed as epitaph:

Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live, and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
"Here he lies, where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill."

-- Steve King

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To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.


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