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Robert Louis Stevenson was a writer who seems not to have wanted his travels to be interrupted by routines, which presents a challenge for the critic trying to come to terms with both his varied output and peripatetic life. His writing often directly addresses travel, as in his earliest publications An Inland Voyage or Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes or has voyaging as a central motif in such novels as Treasure Island and The Master of Ballantrae. Oliver Buckton's approach to Stevenson's oeuvre is very promising in light of the centrality of travel for Stevenson's texts; Buckton defines his different uses of the term "cruising" as, first, "a process of travel characterized by leisurely movement and random progress" (3); second, a narrative technique that involved "integrating the materials and experiences of travel into [Stevenson’s] writing" (4); and, third, a procedure in which travel is employed "as a basis for narrative structure, without being constrained by the conventions of realism" (5). In addition, Buckton draws upon the twentieth century definition of "cruising" as "pleasurable travel" with connotations of sexual experience arguing that there is an erotic aspect to Stevenson's writing, especially in the South Seas (7). Overall this sophisticated approach to Stevenson's writings offers an admirable heuristic for bringing into conjunction his literal and literary journeys.
In Part One, "Travel and the (Re)animated Body" Buckton examines Stevenson's fiction in terms of the "body." The first chapter argues that "reanimated corpses" are central to understanding Stevenson's corpus (with a deliberate punning on texts and bodies) as both vitalizing and disrupting forces. According to Buckton they introduce "a disorderly dynamic of circularity and bodily intimacy." (65) In the next chapter it is not a human but a donkey's body that is in question, Modestine in AnInland Voyage being "a reminder of animality" for Stevenson (90). Buckton argues that Modestine the donkey is the central figure in the text and related to Stevenson's own anxieties about travel and his body.
In Part Two, "Mapping the Historical Romance," Buckton investigates voyaging in terms of the map in Treasure Island and Kidnapped. Following [insert full name] Feltes argument, Buckton terms Treasure Island Stevenson's first "commodity-text" (101) which plays out a search for treasure in its plot and a search for profits in its writing. Buckton then analyzes Kidnapped as a failed sequel in which journeys are interrupted and readers' expectations thwarted. These chapters capture nicely Stevenson's ambivalent attitude toward popularity and monetary success, which he both courted and regarded with suspicion once it was gained.
Parts Thee and Four turn to Stevenson and the South Seas, and are in many ways the most engaging chapters of this study. Like Ann Colley in her recent Robert Louis Stevenson and the Colonial Imagination (Ashgate, 2004) Buckton teases out Stevenson's complicated relationship with colonialism and anti-colonialism. As a Scot he was able to sympathize with the Samoan efforts at independence, yet he was also identified with the British Empire by others. In interpreting A Footnote to History, for example, Buckton argues that Stevenson creates parallels between Samoan and Highland cultures as way of attracting readers (196), yet this desire to make the text accessible to a British audience meant adopting narratives of the Samoans as "primitive" and reinforcing European cultural superiority. (203) There is much to admire in these chapters as Buckton analyzes the mixed strains of anti-colonialism and a desire for a readership in tales such as The Ebb-Tide.
Stevenson judged his writings on the South Seas to be a failure because he had ambitions to write a magnum opus on the traditions, culture and history of the islands. He was also contracted with Sam McClure for a series of fifty letters on his travels to be published in The New York Sun, but the series was cancelled well before he reached that number. Stevenson struggled to find a way of writing about his new environment that would both capture an audience and satisfy him aesthetically. It seems that only in the early twenty-first century has he found a readership that can appreciate his efforts to write ethnographic essays that convey a sense of South Seas culture. It also seems a shame that Stevenson is not here to start a blog for us, because this occasional and impressionistic form of web writing would seem close to what he was trying to achieve in his letters for The New York Sun. As it was his attempts fell flat.
Similarly, stories such as "The Isle of Voices" displayed an even-handed treatment of racial differences that defuses any simple opposition between "white" and "native" (224). In other stories Europeans are shown as "descending to the level of the animalistic" (233) and as complicit in sordid economic exploitation of the islands. It is little wonder that Stevenson's South Seas stories, hybrids that blended "techniques of realism and with elements of imperial romance" to make pointed criticisms of colonial exploitation (242), were not as warmly received as his earlier adventure stories. With the contemporary critical emphasis on hybridity and postcolonial perspectives it appears that Stevenson in the South Seas is coming into his own as a subject for serious study.
The overall experience of reading Cruising with Robert Louis Stevenson is a little odd, because it seems to stop and restart again several times over. Partly Buckton is approaching Stevenson's text from multiple theoretical perspectives such as "the body," gender theory, queer theory and postcolonial studies; partly, however, Buckton himself is "cruising" in this book, and the idea of a sequential argument with a definite conclusion seems anathema to his method. Critics often choose subjects with whom they resonate in their own methods, and after reading Buckton's book I felt I had encountered a critical study that mirrored the bewildering diversity of Stevenson's writings in its procedures. Stevenson's texts are heterogeneous and are often hybrids that defy classification by subject or genre. A definitive reading that would encapsulate all of Stevenson's diverse texts seems almost impossible. In the end, the point of this critical study is not, perhaps,the conclusion but the journey that one undertakes, "cruising" with Buckton and Stevenson.
Martin Danahay is Professor of English at Brock University, Canada and the author most recently of Gender at Work in Victorian Culture: Literature, Art and Masculinity (Ashgate Publishing, 2005). He is currently working on a transnational and multilingual study of Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.