Friday, October 28, 2016

`These Studies Teem with Error'

My fondness for Marius Kociejowski was sealed when the poet identified his favorite writers as Samuel Johnson and Robert Louis Stevenson. About Johnson, Q.E.D., but Stevenson I pigeonholed as a writer of adventure stories for children, a judgment even I recognized as dubious. After all, when informed of his friend’s death, Henry James said “the loss of charm, of suspense, of `fun’ is unutterable.” On Thursday, the lobbying continued and Marius wrote: “One book of RLS’s that I’d like to press on you is Familiar Studies of Men and Books in which he is at his wittiest, although surprisingly intolerant of Villon.”

The first edition of Familiar Studies was published in 1882. My library has the American edition from 1896, two years after Stevenson’s death at age fifty-four. The copy is flamboyantly inscribed in the front by “Ethel Frances Rayner [sic?], National Park Seminary, Forest Glen, Maryland, Monday, December the sixth 1897.”  Two pages later, the book is signed by Frederick J. Hoffman (1909-1967), the literature professor whose personal library is part of the circulating collection at the Fondren Library. I’ve come across dozens of his books, which are always signed and marked as to place and date of acquisition. In this case: The University of Wisconsin, August 5, 1952. A book with owners dating back more than a century, and in remarkably good condition, feels seasoned, tested, proven. The pages are free of marginalia, and I find only one vertical line, marking a passage in “Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions”:

“To live is sometimes very difficult, but it is never meritorious in itself; and we must have a reason to allege to our own conscience why we should continue to exist upon this crowded earth.”

One hears Thoreau’s characteristic plaint in that sentence, though Stevenson had more reason to utter it than the American. Otherwise, I’ve read only “Preface: By Way of Criticism,” which confirms my respect for Stevenson’s mastery of tone, a gift rare among essayists and most other writers. Johnson had it, as did Hazlitt. This is from the preface:

“In truth, these are but the readings of a literary vagrant. One book led to another, one study to another. The first was published with trepidation. Since no bones were broken, the second was launched with greater confidence. So, by insensible degrees, a young man of our generation acquires, in his own eyes, a kind of roving judicial commission through the ages; and, having once escaped the perils of the Freemans and the Furnivalls, sets himself up to right the wrongs of universal history and criticism.”

Stevenson takes his books and authors seriously, but seldom himself. His descriptions of the tasks at hand are invariably self-deprecating: “literary vagrant” and “a kind of roving judicial commission.” This is appealing. Who wants to read a self-appointed commissar of books? How many critics or essayists possess the humility and confidence to write like this: “For my part, I have a small idea of the degree of accuracy possible to man, and I feel sure these studies teem with error. One and all were written with genuine interest in the subject; many, however, have been conceived and finished with imperfect knowledge; and all have lain, from beginning to end, under the disadvantages inherent in this style of writing.” That reads as though lifted from my daily breviary. 

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