Catherine Mathews (Independent Scholar)

Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010

‘Charting the Foreigner at Home: Contemporary Newspaper Records of Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa, New Zealand and Australia 1890-1894’

This paper examines coverage of Stevenson in Australian and New Zealand newspapers during the final part of his life, during which he might be characterised as a ‘Foreigner at Home’.  These records include interviews, comments on literary and political topics (especially concerning colonialism and travel), and accounts of Stevenson’s life and activities, as well as reactions to those activities.
Stevenson’s comments on the debate concerning realism in literature for example were reported in 1890, including the following:

‘One sense literature can only serve by an occasional and half-miraculous tour de force, and that sense is the sense of sight.  And look at our recent literature. Look above all at the literature of the realists, and see through how many weary pages they pursue this vain task of weaving ropes of sand. Hence arose the habit of nearsightedness, of taking an inventory of details, of commemorating knots in wood and buttons upon waistcoats.  So soon as that habit was formed, by a fatal consequence human passion grew to be neglected.’

‘Oh. But Mr Stevenson, there you accuse the realists of the very fault they find with you?’

‘Precisely.  Now we have the matter in a nutshell at last…’.

Stories of Stevenson in Sydney continued to be published in Australia newspapers well into the twentieth century, including the report of Stevenson writing part of ‘The Wrecker’ whilst staying in the private Sydney home of Robert Garran, later first Solicitor-General of Australia, who is quoted as saying “…Stevenson…used to say that there was material for a dozen buccaneering stories to be picked up in the hotels of Circular Quay.  He seemed to have a gift for picking up piratical sailor men on the Quay, and getting the best out of them…”.

Colonial newspaper records provide a different perspective for this material, in part arising through the perception of Stevenson as an authoritative ‘foreigner at home’ by his travels in the Pacific region, but also recording some criticism both for the sharp tone of the “Open Letter to the Reverend Dr. Hyde of Honolulu” and of his involvement in the political affairs of Samoa.

Categorized as Abstracts

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