Robert Louis Stevenson
1880 172 pages
The review of this book by a literary giant is to show the erudition of the DSHS book review staff [no doubt hoping for a raise – ed.].
Sometimes as we pursue Donner Summit history it seems as if everyone was on Donner Summit at one time or another. For example, the Big 4 were on Donner Summit and that group included Leland Stanford, California governor and senator but that’s an obvious one. Mark Twain was here. Albert Bierstadt was just one of many famous artists to visit. There were famous photographers and there was John C. Fremont, explorer and U.S. presidential candidate. There were lesser knowns too: the first guy to do a motorized crossing of the U.S., the first guy to cross the Sierra by motor car, and the first guy to bicycle across the U.S. Some of those are stories the Heirloom has covered and others are stories still to be covered.
Another figure to visit was Robert Louis Stevenson, famous author, who visited by train. An Amateur Emigrant is a short volume which has the requisite requirement for attention in our Heirloom pages because he mentioned Donner Summit. That piece is at the end so clearly he was saving the best for last.
In 1879 RLS headed for the U.S. as an “amateur emigrant” by ship. He was 29 years old and was going to California to meet his girlfriend whose divorce was just becoming final. There are two things of interest in Stevenson’s trip besides the trip and how people traveled to California in the 19th Century. One is that he went incognito, wanting to experience the life of an emigrant and to meet ordinary people. The second is that the trip, which became Amateur Emigrant, was not published until long after the trip. Then after Stevenson died his father bought up all the copies he could because he did not think the book reflected well on his son. It was more suited for newspaper articles. The book is available in print and also for free on the internet.
The U.S. is a nation made up of emigrants. It’s something we celebrate. It’s on aspect of what we like to think of as our unique national character. The people who left home for new lives were the most energetic, the ones most willing to question what was (not accepting the economic system, protesting religious expectations, or fighting political repression), the ones with new ideas, the ones with drive, the ones with courage, and the ones most willing to take chances. They gave up family, friends, and homelands. They wanted something new. Compare them to the “stay-at-homes,” the people who were complacent, who did not have the energy to move, who did not want to take chances, etc. Parenthetically, the ones who left the eastern U.S. and emigrated west must have had some of the same qualities as those who emigrated to the U.S. Logically, the children of people with those admirable qualities made the United States as it is today. So we celebrate our heritage.
It is interesting to read about Robert Louis Stevenson’s experiences with those unique characters. First he describes shipboard life which is a bit more than half of the book, “Through the thin partition you can hear steerage passengers being sick, the rattle of tin dishes as they sit at meals, the varied accents as they converse, the crying of their children terrified by this new experience, or the clean flat smack of the parental hand in chastisement.” It does not sound attractive but Stevenson’s writing makes us feel it all.
RLS was one step up from steerage at his choice so he could interact with the common people. That small step up made him a gentleman though, and he did not have to provide his own bedding or dishes. His diet was a bit better than those in the lowest class but the descriptions of his food make one want to stay home too. In RLS’s class the food looked like scrapings from plates, presumably of the upper class passengers.
RLS describes some passengers and then the emigrant class. “We are a company of the rejected; the drunken, the incompetent, the weak, the prodigal, all who had been unable to prevail against circumstances in the one land, were no fleeing pitifully to another; … all had already failed.” Then he says, “we were a shipful of failures, the broken men of England.”
That’s quite an indictment to read and is at odds with the American story.
Shipboard life was varied. The ship’s motion made people sick and the air was fetid, “from all around the scarcely human noises of the sick joined into a kind of farmyard chorus.” “To descend… into Steerage…, was an adventure that required some nerve. The stench was atrocious; each respiration tasted in the throat like some horrible kind of cheese…” The prose is evocative.
A fiddler played which provided relief to some of the seasick passengers. Other “lads and lasses” danced jigs, reels, and hornpipes but not more than three at a time because there was no room. People were packed “like herrings in a barrel…” Ship travel was uncomfortable and RLS relates one man singing, “O Why Left I My Hame?” which RLS said “seemed a pertinent question in the circumstances.”
There was one chess board on board and one deck of cards. People played dominoes, various games, made cigarettes, told stories, and sang. RLS of course was writing. He described the passengers, stowaways, the arrogant upper class that came to sightsee in steerage, and a Russian nihilist.
Being incognito allowed RLS to talk to and study everyone. He discovered that there were lots of “gentlemen” among those who were not considered by society to be gentlemen, “Some of my fellow passengers, as I now moved among them in a relation of equality, seemed to me excellent gentlemen.” His insights into his fellow passengers show that people in the old days were just like today: they hated government, disliked being subservient, and disliked war and taxes. Many people were politically blind and many preferred idleness and thinking of ways to get away with pretending industriousness. Many wanted to improve others but not themselves.
In New York RLS boarded an emigrant train heading west, “There was a babel of bewildered men, women, and children.” Train travel was also uncomfortable in the 19th Century. “It was a tight jam; there was no fair way through the mingled mass of brute and living obstruction… we stood like sheep… and… the porters charged among us like so many maddened sheep-dogs;…” Travel in the small cars was hard. People were separated into cars by category. The Chinese were in one car, single men were in another, and families in were a third. Passengers shared benches and if they did not have traveling companions they were paired up with a partner, which Stevenson called “chums” to share a plank on which to sleep. They prepared their own food except when there were stops along the way. Trains could leave with no warning. Being on time was not a priority and conductors were rude and uncommunicative. The railcars were long narrow wooden boxes “with a stove and convenience, one at either end…” The benches were narrow and short.
RLS complained about the travel but also included a letter by an 11 year old from twenty years previously to put things in perspective. The child was part of a wagon train that was attacked by Indians. His family was killed and the child had a much more difficult time getting to California.
Travel was hard but RLS was enchanted by the scenery. “I stood on the platform by the hour;… I began to exult with myself upon this rise in life like a man who has come into a rich estate.”
“The Great Plains – rich and various, and breathed an elegance… it was a sort of paradise.”
He reveled in the geographic names”… there is no part of the world where nomenclature is so rich, poetical, and humorous, and picturesque as in the United States of America.” “Pekin is in the same State with Euclid, with Bellefontaine, and with Sandusky… The names of the States and Territories themselves form a chorus of sweet and most romantic vocables: Delaware, Ohio, Indiana, Florida, Dakota, Iowa, Wyoming, Minnesota, and the Carolinas; there are few poems with a nobler music for he ear: a songful, tuneful land…”
Stevenson’s little observations are interesting in themselves but also provide insight into the time. He was surprised, for example, by his “introduction to a coloured gentleman, so different from what he expected. “Imagine a gentleman, certainly somewhat dark, but of a pleasant warm hue, speaking English with a slight and rather odd foreign accent, every inch a man of the world, and armed with manners so patronisingly superior…” About English vs. American he said, “… although two nations [England and the U.S.} use the same words and read the same books, intercourse is not conducted by the dictionary..”
By the time the train arrived in Ogden where the transfer was made to the CPRR for the final stretch to California, the cars had really begun to stink (although the Chinese car was the least offensive). They were a “whiff of pure menagerie, only a little sourer.” The CPRR was an improvement. The cars were twice as tall, larger, and airier. There was an upper berth so there was no more sleeping on the planks.
Finally it was San Francisco, “the air seemed to awaken, and began to sparkle; and suddenly… the city of San Francisco, and the bay of gold and corn, were lit from end to end with summer daylight.”