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Robert Louis Stevenson vs. Henry James on childhood

Signifying, and standing for it

There are those authors who mean a lot to me because of how much they mean. I mean, how much they represent, signify, stand for, as separate from what they wrote. And they go on representing, signifying, and standing for it just as well when left on the shelf, unread. Pope. Flaubert. Henry James. Unamuno. It takes only a sentence, a paragraph, a page of James to evoke, as if by incantation, the atmosphere of the cathedral.

But "favorite" would demand a degree of warmth, a personal attraction, an ap-proachability without feelings of inadequacy. For me, that seems to require somebody whom Edmund Wilson would decline to recognize as quite "first-rate," somebody who would apply the utmost artfulness, utmost refinement, utmost elegance to subject-matter most people would consider not worth the bother.

Somebody like Stevenson. Not — or not mainly — the Stevenson who most appealed to children's illustrators and to Hollywood. Not even the one who, with Jekyll and Hyde, achieved that supremely elusive and unwillable goal: created a myth. But the Stevenson of Prince Otto, The Wrecker, The New Arabian Nights, The Dynamiter, The Master of Ballantrae, Will o' the Mill, and the essays "A Humble Remonstrance," "A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured," "The Lantern-Bearers," "Child's Play."

Nobody had a firmer grasp on the childishness of the artist, the artisticness of the child. Nobody believed more devoutly in make-believe. (When Henry James explained his alienation from Treasure Island in the terms, "I have been a child, but I have never been on a quest for buried treasure," Stevenson responded, "If he has never been on a quest for buried treasure, it can be demonstrated that he has never been a child." And from that standpoint, Stevenson's sickliness is a more illuminating biographical fact than his globe-trotting.) Nobody, for all his apparent neglect of sex and psychology and other adult currencies, had a stronger sense of the hidden and the unknown. Nobody, for all his reputation as a teller of simple tales, told them in so exquisite a style. Nobody, to me, represents, signifies, or stands for so much so underbearingly.

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