Robert Louis Stevenson spent much of his short life (he died at 44) travelling and much of the rest of it writing about travel. Did he not coin the proverb-like assertion that ''To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive''? He had already expressed this in other words: ''Is there anything in life so disenchanting as attainment?''
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.
The book's two parts, ''From the Clyde to Sandy Hook'' and ''Across the Plains'', written in 1879 soon after the journey, were published separately, the second in 1883, the first in 1894. One can still find ''Across the Plains'' published without its companion piece. His father and a friend found the sea-voyage part distasteful: ''altogether unworthy of you'' and ''a spiritless record of squalid experiences''. They disapproved of parts of the text which, today, are among its most interesting. Stevenson eventually published the work, self-censored, years after his father's death and in the year of his own. To this day, one finds editions of The Amateur Emigrant which reproduce the text he bowdlerised, editions, moreover, which give no hint to the reader that they are abridged (by almost 10,000 words, nearly 90 per cent of them expunged from the first part). The only full edition I know of nowadays is that published in 1991 by the Folio Society.
His advisers deplored unseemly talk about that unmentionable of Victorian society, which, like the denial of Eros, made for its stability: the squalor of the industrial poor and the social structure that stood upon it. No gentleman should speak of this, a taboo that Stevenson breached, albeit in the decorous language that also prevented him from alluding to a lavatory except as ''a brass plate'' reminding him of his proper status. Describing a skin complaint picked up in steerage, he never names it; I suspect it was scabies, a proletarian disorder if ever there was one.
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.