Meghan Cox Gurdon: The quiet thrill of buried treasure from Robert Louis Stevenson

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Local,Meghan Cox Gurdon

In our futuristic present, Google may be close to mapping the last remote bits of tundra, and physicists may have discovered the "God particle," but happily, the past continues to have the capacity to surprise and enchant.

Here's a lovely thing. A long-lost essay by Robert Louis Stevenson turned up in the library at Syracuse University -- which is to say, someone came across it and realized what it was -- and the world got to see it this past week. On Friday, it was published in the Michigan-based Strand Magazine, more than 130 years after Stevenson is believed to have penned it.

RLS, as we groupies like to call him, is one of the greats, having given the world not only the brilliant adventures of "Treasure Island" and "Kidnapped," and the terror of "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," but also the beloved poetry for younger children contained in "A Child's Garden of Verses." He was a prolific writer who often worked at a tremendous pace, but his lifetime of poor health finally culminated in a too-early death in 1894. He had only just turned 44.

Stevenson mattered in his own era -- a literary celebrity, he wore velvet jackets of an evening -- and he continues to matter even today, even to people who have never read his books or perhaps even knowingly heard his name. The RLS stamp is all over the culture. Most of the tropes of buccaneering that appear in movies and books originated in "Treasure Island"; the same is true for the concept of a dual-natured man who alternates between the respectability of a Jekyll and the brutality of a Hyde.

The discovery of the lost essay suggests that we may not yet have read all that Robert Louis Stevenson put on paper, which strikes me as quietly thrilling. It's undoubtedly a find of smaller import than the Higgs boson, but it is tenderly significant to those of us who esteem the vigorous, exhilarating and deeply humane work of the Scottish-born writer.

Titled "Books and Reading. No 2. How books have to be written," the discovered document is a bit of a rant. Addressing the young reader, Stevenson inveighs against bad literature.

"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 will have only a very slight excitement for your money. 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.' "

Evidently reacting to other qualities in the Victorian books of his era, RLS goes on to complain that even a schoolboy has the "literary tact" not to lard his writing with a lot of boring extraneous detail. Quite right!

RLS didn't do boring -- not in his novels, not in his poetry and not in his travel narratives. There's a scene in "Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes" that is at once so ghastly and so funny -- Stevenson is beating the recalcitrant animal with a stick and getting absolutely no traction, compliance-wise -- that the reader weeps with mingled hilarity and dismay.

Here's hoping that the creator of Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver has left more pieces of buried treasure for us to find.

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at mgurdon@washingtonexaminer.com.

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