Brian Doyle on “Sam & Louis”: A Backstory

Robert Louis Stevenson’s sentences first came to me through the air, in my sister’s voice, when I was small and sleepy, and she was reading A Child’s Garden of Verses to me and my smaller brothers—curled in our beds upstairs in the old house, our sister singing the lucid chants of the poems gently, until we fell asleep, dreaming of ships at sea, and beds like boats, and hidden glens; then I read Treasure Island for myself when I was ten or so, entranced and riveted, and I remember that I read it again instantly, turning from the last page back to the first so fast I sliced a finger, and so bled onto a book already bright with blood; and then, thrilled by the verve and ring and dash of the man’s prose, I read Kidnapped, and Jekyll and Hyde, and The Black Arrow, and The Master of Ballantrae, and even the scrap of the great novel he left unfinished at his death, Weir of Hermiston; and I suppose I have never really left off reading Stevenson, all these years later, for as I became an essayist I was awed by his essays, and as I traveled and wrote of what I saw I was moved by his travel writing, and as I finally found my way deep into the islands of the Pacific, a childhood dream, I felt closest of all to him, for he too made his way out into the brilliant blue greatest of oceans with its redolent islands and atolls, in his case never to return; he is buried on a mountain in Samoa, in a tomb engraved with a thistle to honor his native Scotland, and carved too with the requiem he wrote for himself: “Here he lies where he longed to be / Home is the sailor / Home from the sea.”

I read him still, constantly; every week I find myself dipping into his letters, or his essays, or chanting a poem to a child myself, and although I have often thought we should be leery of heroes—for no one is all unadulterated virtue and compassion—he is mine, for he was even a better man than he was a writer, and such is what I most wish to be: excellent husband, superb and attentive stepfather, beloved friend, reverent son—and then also a master craftsman in fiction, essays, journalism, poetry, and the writing of prayers. Stevenson is a man who is a compass point for me, along with my own estimable father, and the wry Tibetan visionary Tenzin Gyatso, and the late Mr. Abraham Lincoln, born in a farmhouse in Kentucky.

I think Robert Louis Stevenson of Edinburghshire is the finest writer who ever wrote English, not only for his mastery of every literary form—except, blessedly, plays; it’s a good thing he was mediocre at something, or we would hate him—but for his verve and honesty, his joy and headlong energy, his rage and mercy, the ringing song of his prose, the epic quality of his attentiveness, and the minimal size of his ego.

Mark Twain came to me first in a lovely battered old copy of Tom Sawyer, which led to Huck Finn, and then the deluge—the glorious Life on the Mississippi, and Connecticut Yankee, and the hilarious Roughing It, and eventually the dark stories, and the “lesser works” like Hadleyburg and Joan of Arc, and then later the thrilling discovery of his essays and speeches, and then finally the unquenchable motherlode of his autobiography, which I read every year in meadows on the holy mountain Wy’east in Oregon, so that Twain’s delightful wandering memories for me are riven with the scent of juniper and alpine fir and lupine, and the creak of curious mountain jays, and the occasional qwork? of a raven overhead, who may be pondering the possibility that sprawled in a clearing below him is a deceased and delicious essayist to which he might call his companions to feast upon what, if anything thereof, is digestible.

I think Samuel Clemens of Missouri is the finest American writer ever: the first to write the American language, the funniest of us all, the most furiously biting against arrogance and pomposity, the one who caught in the best of his work the best of us—our adventurousness, our cheerful violence, our thorny independence, our defiant courage, our bruised grace. More than Faulkner or Hemingway, or even the wonderful Bellow and Cather and Steinbeck and Dillard, Twain is us, sings us, snarls at our sins and crimes, encapsulates and epitomizes us; to me he is, like Lincoln and Springsteen and Dorothy Day, a distilled Americanness, a being I would present to the world if asked for an example of who we are and what we wish to be.

So to discover, as I did years ago, that Twain and Stevenson shared a bench in Washington Park in New York City one day, possibly for several hours, and that no one knew what they said; and then to remember that they were at that time arguably the two most popular writers in the world, and loved and admired each other’s work, and had never met before, and that surely knew they would have only this one chance to meet and talk; and to realize slowly that perhaps I was the very man to imagine what they said to each other that crisp spring day—for I loved their writings and admired their characters, and was soaked in their rhythms and cadences and interests and themes after fifty years of hearing and reading them—I was driven one morning to type Stevenson walking into the park from his hotel, and Twain striding into the park from the Hartford train, and then their grinning and shaking hands and sitting down on the bench—each delighted to realize that the other is just as vibrant and alert and amused and articulate and unpompous and unarrogant and alive in every fiber of his being as he had hoped with all his heart; and so they begin to talk . . .

 

Read Brian Doyle’s “Sam & Louis.”

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland. He is the author of many books, most recently the novels The Plover (St. Martin’s Press, 2014) and Mink River (Oregon State University Press, 2010). His work has been reprinted in three Best American annuals—Essays, Science and Nature Writing, and Spiritual Writing. Among his other honors are a Catholic Book Award, three Pushcart Prizes, the John Burroughs Award for Nature Essays, the Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Award in 2011, and a 2008 Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.