Friday, August 5, 2016

The Amateur Emigrant - Robert Louis Stevenson

This is an old book written after the author had travelled from Scotland to America in the "economy" berths of the ship called the second cabin to observe and experience the journey among the working class people.

Robert Louis Stevenson was 28 years old on this journey and had yet to write his books (Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Strange Case of  Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) or poems (A Child's Garden of Verses).  It is the first part of a trilogy on his travels to and through America.

The book offers a glimpse of what it was like to travel to America in the late 19th century and the everyday people that made the journey.  One passage caught my attention.  The author is reflecting on the workmen he met while aboard:

Culture is not measured by the greatness of the field which is covered by our knowledge, but by the nicety with which we can perceive relations in that field... whether great or small.  Workmen...did not perceive relations, but leaped to a so-called cause, and thought the problem settled.  Thus the cause of everything in England was the form of government, and the cure for all evils was, by consequence, a revolution.  
...the true reasoning of their souls ran thus--I have not got on; I ought to have got on; if there was a revolution I should get on.  How?  They had no idea.  Why? Because --because--well, look at America!
To be politically blind is no distinction; we are all so, if you come to that.  At bottom, as it seems to me, there is but one question in modern home politics, though it appears in many shapes, and that is the question of money; and but one political remedy, that the people should grow wiser and better. 
My workmen fellow-passengers were as impatient and dull of hearing on the second of these points as any member of Parliament...  They would not hear of improvement on their part, but wished the world made over again in a crack, so that they might remain improvident and idle and debauched, and yet enjoy the comfort and respect that should accompany the opposite virtues; and it was in this expectation...that many of them were now on their way to America. 

The book was not published until after Stevenson's death at 44 and was thought shocking by his family that he would travel in this fashion and that certain passages were too graphic.

For a genealogical twist, I looked up and recorded Stevenson and his parents in Ancestry so I could search for the record of his trip and I found it, though the recorder wrote his name as "Stephenson" on the manifest when he arrived in America.

Published: 1895 (this edition, 1998)  Read: July 2016  Genre: Memoir

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