Tuesday, December 20, 2005


Although I have leafed through it, I have yet to read and contemplate the new biography by Claire Harman, so I cannot say if Andrew O' Hagen's so-called review of her book had anything to do with anything other than his venting his bile upon Stevenson himself. O'Hagen insults RLS, and insults all indigenous people still struggling today when he says that Stevenson was "living somewhere in a state of perpetual childhood" referring to his final five years, living in Samoa.

Stevenson was a great friend to the Samoan people, and actively participated in revolutionary activity and tribal and electoral politics designed to break the European Imperialist grip on those islands. The Samoan people didn't "nickname" him Tusitala, or Teller of Tales, they bestowed that Samoan name on him with honor and pride.

O'Hagen goes on to make snide comments about RLS's heterosexuality, criticizing his style and his taste in clothes and his manner. O'Hagen pushes the homosexualist view of JEKYLL & HYDE, that it was a story of an underlying gay nature. His prose then takes on an hysterical clone of Kenneth Williams style at his most outrageous which then becomes a ranting diatribe filled with hatred directed against Stevenson's American wife, Fanny Osbourne, who gave up a California marriage to be with him in Samoa, and was with him for most all of his writing life. His final book, THE WEIR OF HERMISTON, which M.R. Ridley, back in 1936, said was the greatest of all of his works because he had returned in his imagination to Scotland "and now he came back to it with assured delight" is dazzling, but the "resonance and impact soon to be familiar to readers of Conrad" (Lisa St. Aubin de Teran) is dismissed out-of-hand by O'Hagen in his LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS "review" of almost a year ago now. (He takes the same negative party line the Brits. take on Rupert Brooke, and on most all south seas writing; that Brooke's south seas poems, for example, are not part of the canon. Of course those are the poems which are his best, in my opinion, and which by themselves alone establish Rupert Brooke's greatness . The party line thus on RLS being that his writings from the Pacific are those after his power lessened and waned. It is not really true. His powers clearly matured and deepened.) It is as if the reviewer had never read anything from the final years of RLS's life: THE BEACH AT FALESA, in particular, the greatest story ever written of south seas life (Dylan Thomas wrote a screenplay, but it was never filmed); or THE BOTTLE IMP, maybe even better, (if it is possible for a short story to be better than THE BEACH AT FALESA), and set in Hawaii. THE WEIR, truly an unfinished masterpiece if ever there was one, comes to its end with "there arose from before him the curtain of boyhood, and he saw for the first time the ambiguous face of woman as she is. In vain he looked back over the interview; he saw not where he had offended. It seemed unprovoked, a wilful convolution of brute nature" and 100 pages in, he went down to the kitchen to prepare a salad while Fanny was cooking, and he suffered a stroke, age 44, and died shortly thereafter. On his grave at Vailima, near Apia, in what is now Independent Western Samoa, the inscription he had prepared, begins: "Here lies he where he longed to be / Home is the sailor / Home from the sea....."

The London Review Of Books, of course, was not interested in using anything I had to say re: Mr. O'Hagen (their Contributing Editor) and his abominably stupid "review" of Ms. Harman's biography.

And it was not only tales and novels and sketches of Polynesian life Tusitala was writing; his essay flaying the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu (certainly the strangest co-incidence in all of literary history) because of Hyde's horrible negative opinions concerning Father Damien of Molokai, is simply a masterpiece (there is no other word I can think of which discloses its greatness of polemic).

Stevenson was also the greatest writer of poetry for children, in English, or, I would venture to say, in any language, and his words are beacons, lighthouses, for us all.

(The question then becomes why did O'Hagen even bother to write of RLS, whom he so clearly dislikes. In a different context, it is a question raised by Ralph Maud, of the Tom Clark biography of Charles Olson, for example. RalphMaud rightly says (see his Looking For Oneself, Charles Olson webpages) that for some unknown to him reason Clark was trying to make Olson look pathetic. It is clearly a linear biography, the weakest piece of sustained writing Tom Clark, a very good writer and poet, has ever done, and it was first analyzed for its non-dimensionality, its lack of texture, its disrespect for its subject, by the late Jack Clarke (initially a Blake scholar and assistant professor at Buffalo when he met Olson; subsequently he helped to found THE CURRICULUM OF THE SOUL enterprise in the 1960's, and authored FROM FEATHERS TO IRON) in INTENT. - Letter of Talk, Thinking, & Document).

(Finally, even a decent enough on-line poetry journal, JACKET, published a piece in one of its early (and best forgotten) issues saying that Mark Twain, Jack London, and RLS were simply colonialist settlers in the Pacific; so I suppose it is endemic (and has even become fashionable now) for critics to try to reduce the ideas and accomplishments and work and life of writers, especially those who are not themselves writing critical theory, rather than to illuminate, and to enter into "an active engagment with what the work proposes." Perhaps it was always that way. However, there are many exceptions: Keats's Letter on "negative capability" taking prominence, as does Lawrence's STUDIES IN CLASSIC AMERICAN LITERATURE, for example, or William Carlos Williams' IN THE AMERICAN GRAIN, and Olson's CALL ME ISHMAEL, which got into print on Pound's recommendation - so that he himself wouldn't have to read Melville! As Robert Creeley had said: for over a dozen years the foremost literary salon in America was held in a madhouse.)


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