Oliver Buckton’s new book, Cruising with Robert Louis Stevenson: Travel, Narrative, and the Colonial Body (2007), could just as easily have been called The Other Stevenson, reminiscent of The Other Mary Shelley (1993), which fruitfully examined everything but Frankenstein. An excellent study that interprets most of Stevenson’s work in light of travel narrative, Cruising with Robert Louis Stevenson almost completely leaves out the most canonical of Stevenson’s novels, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This omission is intentional, justifiable, reasonable, exciting, and frustrating. One continually wants to know what Buckton would have done with Jekyll and Hyde (beyond the few pages here and there) had the novel fit his study’s parameters. What this means is that Cruising with Robert Louis Stevenson is a necessary book for scholars interested in Stevenson’s other very significant accomplishments, including Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and the South Sea Tales. It is the first book centered on the influence of travel on Stevenson’s writing from the beginning to the end of his career.
Buckton’s principle metaphor for analyzing Stevenson is that of cruising. This is an intriguing lens that works better in giving Buckton an opportunity to provide luminous individual readings than in providing a genuinely useful overarching structure for understanding Stevenson in a deeper way. Buckton points out that cruising has multiple meanings, each providing insight into Stevenson’s life and work. Cruising is travel for pleasure, connoting aimless, “leisurely movement,” such as Stevenson narrates both autobiographically and in his adventure novels, where the protagonists’ journeys veer far off their original tracks (4). Buckton argues that the major canonical works draw on the techniques Stevenson acquired in his own global travels and used in his early travel writing. Cruising also describes Stevenson’s narrative practice, as he often composed while literally in transit and his plots meander just as much. The modern notion of cruising as sexual freedom (particularly homoerotic adventure) is also at play in Buckton’s choice of the word. Stevenson routes the energies and desires released by his travel through figures that Buckton notes are disturbingly resistive or monstrously comic corporeal figures. This idea plays out both in Stevenson’s books involving what Buckton interprets as a reanimated corpse and in Stevenson’s writing about the South Seas, where Stevenson’s awareness of the desirability of Polynesian bodies and landscape helps form a critique of European colonialism. For Buckton, the pivotal role Stevenson played in reviving romance in late nineteenth-century fiction means that his depiction of the wandering human body becomes part of his resistence to realism, especially in his novels for boys. Buckton maintains that Stevenson’s early travel narratives, mid-career historical romances, and late writing on Samoa all depend on the mobility inherent in the notion of cruising. Although Buckton’s playful use of the word cruising illuminates some aspects of Stevenson’s work in satisfying and very helpful ways, ultimately the fundamental concept at work here is simply that of travel.
Cruising with Robert Louis Stevenson consists of four parts, each tracing another aspect of cruising in Stevenson’s writings. Part One examines Stevenson’s trope of a reanimated body, which causes a shift in “narrative direction,” representing “the emergence of illicit forms of desire” (30). Corpses and corpse-like figures in The Wrong Box, “The Suicide Club,” The Master of Ballantrae, and The Ebb-Tide “vitalize and disrupt” their stories. Particularly in the south seas, Stevenson associates evil through demoniac possession “with the reanimation of the abject, colonized body” (66). In contrast, a beast or animal substitutes for the material human body in resisting transcendent impulses in An Inland Voyage and Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, two early travel books that typically receive little critical attention. Indeed Stevenson himself ignored them; in his late autobiographical essay “My First Book: Treasure Island,” Stevenson left out six previously published works that were written and published before the famous pirate yarn (99). At the other end of his career, Stevenson’s critics saw the collaborative The Ebb-Tide as symptomatic of the “exhaustion of the novel at the fin de siècle” and also as Stevenson’s own “literary ebb and creative demise” (65). But for Buckton, much of the interest of these stories, early and late, derives from their “uncontained and contaminating bodies” that “circulate freely through their narratives, blurring the lines between gothic romance, adventure, domestic tragedy, and macabre humor” (65).
Part Two covers Stevenson’s transition from writing non-fiction travelogues to adventure fiction for boys. Stevenson pioneered the late-Victorian romance, modifying it into a genre of incident and fostering the “emergence of a readership that allows adult men to return imaginatively to boyhood” (112). Also, Treasure Island is Stevenson’s first commodity text, arising “from a desire to realize the profitable potential of travel in the marketplace” (98). The cover map (which Stevenson drew with his step-son, Lloyd Osbourne, and described as the “beautifully coloured” inspiration for writing the rest of the story) serves as a sort of commercial logo both of the treasure hunt and of the novel itself. This section is full of rich analyses; for example:
Yet under the guise of this address to “youngsters,” Treasure Island is a text that does the cultural work of producing desire in its adult male readers, a desire that the text rerouted from potentially subversive masculine desire toward the “innocent” object of adventure and buried treasure. Stevenson–who wrote in “A Note on Realism” that the romancer “must . . . suppress much and omit more”–produces romance as an art of sublimation, in which desire is buried with the treasure and subsequently excavated by its adult male readers posing as boys, or its boy readers posing as pirate-adventurers. For the “secret” of Treasure Island is, after all, that there is no secret: its commitment to profit seeking is blatant throughout, its divestment from the “moral purity” ethos of childhood is all but absolute. The treasure, though referred to as “hidden” and “buried” (42), is declared at the outset of the narrative as having already been found (11). Hence, as the pirates discover when their search party stumbles upon “a great excavation, not very recent” (197), the promise of discovering the treasure has always been illusory, as the gold has moved into a kind of symbolic circulation demanded by the novel as a commodity-text . . . The map, which has been sought and killed for as a valuable commodity with a direct link to the treasure, retains traces of its status a useless artifact, one schoolboy’s “coloured drawings” . . . (122).
But if the map is the most significant part of the fiction in Stevenson’s successful Treasure Island, it is indeterminacy that matters in Kidnapped. Buckton plays on David’s nick-name of “Mr. Betwixt-and-Between” and the way in which Stevenson ends the novel: “David Balfour is left in limbo outside the doors of the British Linen Company Bank–on the threshold (literally) of recovering his birthright. . . . Stevenson abruptly terminates the novel with a postscript” indicating that he will only continue if he the public wants more; the novelist effectively kidnaps the narrative for the ransom of public demand (129-130). But also hijacking the narrative away from David is the dynamic character of Alan Breck; the relationship between the adolescent and the appealing Jacobite is full of homoerotic imagery. Buckton here points out connections between the novelist and Walt Whitman, and he quotes Henry James’s 1881 remarks on Stevenson: “it is rather odd that . . . a striking feature of that nature should be an absence of care for things feminine. His books are for the most part without women, and it is not women who fall most in love with them. But Mr. Stevenson does not need, as we may say, a petticoat to inflame him” (qtd 139-140). James goes on to say that Stevenson regards “women as so many superfluous girls in a boys’ game . . . Why should a person marry when he might be swinging a cutlass or looking for buried treasure?” (qtd 140). This queering of Stevenson feeds into Buckton’s analysis of the protagonist David’s position as betwixt and between in terms of his neutral political position, his teenage mood swings, and his gendered representation as essentially passive. Buckton finally argues that it is the work of Kidnapped’s sequel, David Balfour, to find a suitable “female substitute for Alan, a woman who would represent his qualities of the active Highlander” (138).
Part Three relates how Stevenson’s later travel letters become an enthnographic study of Polynesia and an account of colonial and political struggles in Samoa. Stevenson left for the south seas with a contract to write fifty letters describing his journey. But a readership expecting his usual eighteenth-century romances reacted with disappointment when they read about the varieties of Polynesian languages, the art of tattooing, and the causes of disease instead of swashbuckling adventure. Part of the problem was generic: the pieces were published serially in the journal Black and White as “letters from a leisurely traveler”; Buckton points out that a reader in 1891 might well assumed that the correspondence was a new Stevenson novel. The result was a cancellation of the non-fiction effort and Stevenson’s quarrying this mine of material for fictive narrative. The chapter charts Stevenson’s considerable use of non-fiction in the later novels and stories; for example, Buckton argues convincingly that Stevenson bases the character of Attwater from The Ebb-Tide on his description of King Tembinok?, whom he observed on the Gilbert Islands. Most interesting is Buckton’s speculation as to various reasons why Stevenson would transform the Polynesian king into the European colonial tyrant, among them the effect of disrupting the “rigid hierarchy of white man and savage and thus disput[ing] the ideological basis for colonialism” (178). Other works covered in this section include In the South Seas,“The Beach of Falesá,” and David Balfour, the Scottish novel that Buckton sees as reworked from the Polynesian A Footnote to History.
In Part Four, Buckton argues that in the South Sea tales “The Beach of Falesá” and “The Isle of Voices,” Stevenson merges realism and romance into a hybrid genre “to expose the shabbiness of European civilization” and its commercial ruthlessness. But an even grimmer indictment comes in The Ebb-Tide, which Buckton reads for the third time in Cruising with Robert Louis Stevenson, circling back to end the study where he began. In this novel full of “critique and disillusionment,” disease — afflicting both colonized and colonizers — figures colonial expansion; finally the protagonist’s only available response is to end the journey by burning the ship that brought the Europeans to the island in the first place. By the time Stevenson wrote his last book, “the initial promise of the islands has become contaminated by the deeper knowledge of their diseased state and the unstoppable tide of European colonialism” (30).
The merits of Buckton’s book are many. It is a vital contribution to research on Stevenson, now experiencing a resurgence of critical attention. By largely exempting the most often examined of Stevenson’s texts, it focuses necessary attention on the others, particularly the juvenile fiction and the travel writing. Buckton pulls together various current trends in Stevenson studies, such as Stevenson’s critique of colonialism and his use of homosociality, and refracts them through his metaphor of cruising. I haven’t mentioned the many scholars that Buckton engages throughout, but he responds to virtually everyone who has written on any of these Stevenson texts in a nearly continuously polyphonic synthesis of other critics’ observations; he builds impressively on them. Thoroughly researched both historically and critically, grounded in theories as diverse as those of Henry James, Leo Bersani, Frederic Jameson, and Homi Bhabha, this is a book to consult not only for those primarily interested in Robert Louis Stevenson, but also for those looking into Victorian responses to empire, travel, ethnography, and homosociality.
Its flaws are directly connected to these merits: at times, Buckton overwhelms the reader with critical and theoretical opinions other than his own, demonstrating an admirable conscientiousness in covering the field, but distracting from the forward thrust of his argument. Likewise, the emphasis on cruising (rather than travel) at times leads both to delightful interpretive ingenuity and to solid conclusions, but at other times seems to be straining to establish a substantial difference from travel more generally. Nevertheless, Cruising with Robert Louis Stevenson offers new insights both into books rarely read and into those as well known as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and even–though in only a few pages here and there–The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Overall, this is a comprehensive and important intervention in Stevenson studies.
Buckton, Oliver S. Cruising with Robert Louis Stevenson: Travel, Narrative, and the Colonial Body. Ohio University Press, 2007. 325+ pp. Cloth. $44.95. ISBN 13: 978-0-8214-1756-0.
Fisch, Audrey, Anne Mellor, and Esther Schor, eds. The Other Mary Shelley: Beyond Frankenstein. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Stevenson, In the South Seas.
_____. “My First Book: Treasure Island,” In The Lantern Bearers and Other Essays. Ed. Jermy Teglown. Cooper Square Press, 1999: 277-284.
_____. Treasure Island. Ed. Wendy R. Katz. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998.
Last modified 6 March 2008