NEW YORK — Robert Louis Stevenson is the author of “Treasure Island” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” some of the most thrilling stories in literary history. But in a newly discovered essay, he says he was often bored by the fiction of his day.
“In the trash that I have no doubt you generally read, a vast number of people will probably get shot and stabbed and drowned; and you have only a very slight excitement for your money,” Stevenson wrote.
“But if you want to know what a murder really is — to have a murder brought right home to you — you must read of one in the writings of a great writer. Read ‘Macbeth,’ for example, or still better, get someone to read it aloud to you; and I think I can promise you what people call a ‘sensation.'”
Stevenson’s criticisms appear in a brief, long-lost essay published Friday in The Strand Magazine, a quarterly based in Birmingham, Mich., that has published obscure texts by Mark Twain, Graham Greene and other famous authors.
Apparently part of a larger work, the piece is titled “Books and Reading. No 2. How books have to be written.” The Strand managing editor Andrew Gulli said that essay “No. 1” was auctioned off in 1914, 20 years after the author’s death, and never seen again. No. 2 turned up recently at a location very far from Stevenson’s native Scotland — the library at Syracuse University.
“There are several guesses as to who it was meant for and why it was not published,” Gulli said during a recent interview. “One guess is that it was sent to his stepson Sam or it could have been prepared for a young adult magazine called Young Folks, but it was never published in that magazine.”
Stevenson devotes most of the essay to the art of capturing or even simulating reality on paper. He notes that storytelling almost inevitably makes life seem more awful, more wonderful or more heroic. The writer leaves “all the dullness out.”
Gulli believes that the essay was written around 1881, when Stevenson was in his early 30s. He was likely working on “Treasure Island,” published in 1883, and he counted pirates among those presented falsely in fiction. “The famous buccaneers,” as Stevenson called them, were not chivalrous adventurers, but “lubbers and swabs, and downright dunces.”