James Grieve -Sydney Morning Herald - August 19, 2012
At the age of 25, in 1876, canoeing in France, Stevenson first saw Fanny Osbourne, an American 10 years his senior, who rolled her own cigarettes and carried a pistol, and had a husband and two children. Three years later, she now back in California, he in Scotland, she telegraphed him to join her. Which he did, despite ill health, parental disapproval and lack of money. From the Broomielaw in Glasgow, he joined an emigrant ship at Clydebank and sailed, steerage, for New York; there he started another crossing, by train, from the east coast to San Francisco. This is the journey recounted in The Amateur Emigrant. He could not divulge his real reason for emigrating. Fanny is absent from the book, save in a little sentence, as secret as a kiss, near the end.
Of emigration, he says, ''There is nothing more agreeable to picture and nothing more pathetic to behold.'' He called himself an amateur to mark his difference from the real emigrants, those poor, unemployed Scots, Germans and Irish whose expatriation was impelled by what was called ''want''. They ventured in despair to America in search of work and a better life; his promised land was marriage.
This is among his best books, certainly his most earnest and decent. Like all good travel books, its latent, at times overt, themes are cultural relativism and the tenuousness of what we think is our identity. Faces sketched, attitudes and demeanours observed, strange things seen by an eye that could be as sardonic as it was sympathetic, are all noted by one of the subtlest artificers of the sentence in our language. He brokered felicitous and lasting marriages between syntax and semantics. The last two pages, among the most moving he ever wrote, describe the emigrants' coming at last to California. They should be read aloud, by a Scottish tenor; they should figure in any worthy anthology of travel prose. I can never read them without tears:
''… and before we were swallowed into the next length of wooden tunnel, I had one glimpse of a huge pine-forested ravine upon my left, a foaming river, and a sky already coloured with the fires of dawn. I am usually very calm over the displays of nature; but you will scarce believe how my heart leaped at this … Every spire of pine along the hill-top, every trouty pool along that mountain river, was more dear to me than a blood relation.''
It is here that he secreted the sentence (''It was like meeting one's wife'') in which he hid his reason for emigrating. Perhaps it earned him a little kiss from Fanny who, by the time he wrote it, had indeed - lucky Louis! - become his wife. Let's hope that the attainment of her was no disenchantment and that this arriving was a better thing than the hopeful travel that brought him to her.
Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/enjoy-the-journey-20120815-248nl.html#ixzz241870uRH