Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Chesterton on Stevenson

Last Monday evening, the Omaha Chesterton Society met at Mercy Villa once again for our bi-monthly discussion. Our selection was Chesterton’s illuminating and touching study of Robert Louis Stevenson, published in 1927 by Hodder and Stoughton but more presently available in Volume 18 of the Ignatius Press Collected Works of Chesterton. It is one of GK’s very best literary studies and, like so many of these works, Chesterton manages to tell us a lot more than biographical details or plot summations.

Therefore, in Robert Louis Stevenson, the reader learns about Stevenson but also about the rules of proper literary criticism, about English literature, about philosophy and politics, about the innocence of childhood, about the sinister dangers of pessimism, about GKC’s long standing disdain for the fruits of Puritanism, about Edgar Allan Poe, about toy theaters, about Scotland, about Francois Villon, about the fads of youth, about boys’ novels, about “posing” and “Victorian padding,” about language and style…and, yes, about Chesterton himself.

We had a splendid time discussing the book, not only because we love Chesterton but because his subject was also well appreciated. Maybe if we were a younger crowd that wouldn’t have been so much the case, but with the youngest of those present that night being 54, we’ve all had educations that included Stevenson. Kidnapped, Treasure Island, The Black Arrow, The Master of Ballantrae, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – all these and more are a part of our literary upbringing. Indeed, Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses was an important part of the pre-literate experience for several there that night. And a long-treasured memory will be Mary Ann, Quint, Carol, and Sister Rita lovingly turning over the pages of the Child’s Garden copy that the Coppis brought along and then each reading some of the poems their parents read to them so many years ago. Lovely.

Among the highlights of Chesterton’s study of Stevenson is a penetrating analysis of the spiritual battle between innocence and pessimism. Other gems are GK’s quick (but very insightful) comments concerning Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the morality of art, Poe’s “rich rottenness of decomposition,” the bracing antidote for nihilism that is Skeltery, the comprehensive characterizations provided by Victorian authors, the modern nihilism in literature, and an anecdote about a soldier’s whittled cross that is as moving as anything in the book.

Can you read Chesterton’s Robert Louis Stevenson and benefit from it even if you’re not familiar with the creator of Long John Silver, David Balfour and Prince Florzel? Sure. It’s Chesterton.

But your understanding and appreciation will no doubt be greatly enhanced if you have read Stevenson…even if you haven’t read him 1) lately 2) thoroughly or 3) without that rare ability to remember what you’ve read!

Reading really good literary criticism always helps you connect more with the author in question, whether the review serves as a refresher, a clarifier, a instructor or even an introduction. And GKC’s Robert Louis Stevenson will certainly succeed in any of those roles. So, give it a go and you may well find yourself (like several of the Omaha Chesterton Society members) re-reading the Stevenson poems of your childhood, sailing the stormy seas with Stevenson’s pirates, or enjoying any other of a hundred adventures with Stevenson’s carefully styled characters.