Jenni Calder (President, Scottish PEN)

Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010

‘Stevenson in the Wilderness: California, Kidnapped and The Master of Ballantrae

In September 1879 Stevenson nearly died in California’s Santa Lucia Mountains. Arriving in Monterey at perhaps the lowest ebb of his life, both physically and emotionally, Stevenson had deliberately headed for the wild and, it has been suggested, courted death. His accidental discovery by an angora goat rancher saved him: ‘according to all rule,’ he wrote shortly afterwards, ‘it should have been my death’.

Stevenson’s early exposure to Scotland’s rugged coasts and aggressive climate had ensured he was acutely aware of human vulnerability, but the nature and degree of his initiation into the American wilderness was beyond anything he had yet encountered. This paper will argue that Stevenson’s survival in the wilderness focused and refined his understanding of the potential hostility of the wild, and influenced his treatment of David Balfour’s Highland experience and, along with his later sojourn in the Adirondacks, the encounter with  ‘savage country’ in The Master of Ballantrae. In both novels, the immersion in extreme conditions brings physical and moral disintegration, and, particularly in the latter, the bewilderment of the uninitiated augments the sinister and corrupting influence of unforgiving terrain. There is no romance, redemption or enrichment to be gained from the encounter with wilderness; it is humanity’s precarious presence that Stevenson emphasises as he strips humanity to the bare bones and exposes moral and spiritual wastelands.

If time and space allow, this will reference the responses of other Scottish writers to the North American wilderness, e.g. RM Ballantine, who saw wilderness as an invitation to heroic action, Isabella Bird and John Muir, who in different ways embraced opportunities for solitary immersion in the natural world, and John Buchan, who found an elemental challenge that brought redemption.

Categorized as Abstracts

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