Journey To A War by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (1939)

When we awoke early next morning the train was crossing a wide valley of paddy fields. The rising sun struck its beams across the surfaces of innumerable miniature lakes; in the middle distance farmhouses seemed actually to be floating on water. Here and there a low mound rose a few feet above the level of the plain, with a weed-grown, ruinous pagoda, standing upon it, visible for miles around. Peasants with water-buffaloes were industriously ploughing their arable liquid into a thick, brown soup.
(Journey To A War, p.191)

Collectively, perhaps, we most resemble a group of characters in one of Jules Verne’s stories about lunatic English explorers. (p.104)

The Sino-Japanese War

In July 1937 – exactly a year after the start of the Spanish Civil War – Japan attacked China. It was hardly a surprise. In 1931 the so-called ‘Mukden Incident’ had helped spark the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (the large area to the north east of China, just above Beijing). The Chinese were defeated and Japan created a new puppet state, Manchukuo (setting up the last Qing emperor as its puppet ruler) through which to rule Manchuria.

Going further back, in 1894–1895 China, then still under the rule of the Qing dynasty, was defeated by Japan in what came to be called the First Sino-Japanese War. China had been forced to cede Taiwan to Japan and to recognise the independence of Korea which had, in classical times, been under Chinese domination.

In other words, for 40 years the rising power of militaristic, modernising Japan had been slowly nibbling away at rotten China, seizing Taiwan, Korea and Manchuria. Now the military junta in Tokyo decided the time was right to take another bite, engineered an ‘incident’ at the Marco Polo bridge on the trade route to Beijing, and used this as a pretext to attack Beijing in the north and Shanghai in the south.

Thus there was quite a lot of military and political history to get to grips with in order to understand the situation in China, but what made it even more confusing was the fact that China itself was a divided nation. First, the nominal government – the Chinese Nationalist Party or Kuomintang under its leader Chiang Kai-shek – had only with difficulty put down or paid off the powerful warlords who for decades had ruled local regions of China after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911.

But second, Chiang faced stiff competition from the Chinese Communist Party. The two parties had lived in uneasy alliance until Chiang staged a massacre of communists in Shanghai in 1927 which brought the tension between Chinese nationalists and communists into the open.

It was the three-way destabilisation of China during this period – warlords v. Nationalists v. Communists – which had helped Japan invade and take over Manchuria. Prompted by the 1937 Japanese attack the Nationalists and Communists formed an uneasy alliance.

Auden in Spain

Meanwhile, back in Europe, the great political issue of the age was the Spanish Civil War which began when General Franco led a military uprising against the democratically elected government in July 1936. Like many high-minded, middle class liberals, Auden and Isherwood both felt the time had come to put their money where their mouths were. Auden did actually travel to Spain in January 1937 and was there till March, apparently trying to volunteer to drive an ambulance in the medical service. Instead, red tape and the communists who were increasingly running the Republican forces apparently blocked him from getting a useful job. He tried to help out at the radio station but discovered its broadcasts were weak and there were no vacancies.

Frustrated and embarrassed, Auden was back in England by mid-March 1937. The long-term impact of the trip was his own surprise at how much it upset him to see the churches of Barcelona which had all been torched and gutted by a furious radical populace as symbols of oppression. Auden was shocked, and then shocked at his reaction. Wasn’t he meant to be a socialist, a communist even, like lots of other writers of his generation? The Spain trip was the start of the slow process of realisation which was to lead him back to overt Christian faith in the 1940s.

Also Auden saw at first hand the infighting on the Republican side between the communist party slavishly obeying Stalin’s orders, and the more radical Trotskyite and Anarchist parties who, later in 1937, it would crush. Later he paid credit to George Orwell’s book Homage To Catalonia for explaining the complex political manoeuvring far better than he could have. But watching the Republicans fight among themselves made him realise it was far from being a simple case of black and white, of Democracy against Fascism.

So by March 1938 Auden had returned to Britain, where he was uncharacteristically silent about his experiences, and got on with writing, editing new works for publication (not least an edition of his play The Ascent of F6 and Letters From Iceland).

Meanwhile, Christopher Isherwood was living in Paris managing his on-again, off-again relationship with his German boyfriend Heinz. And although he had accommodated Auden on an overnight stop in the French capital and waved him off on the train south to Spain, Isherwood hadn’t lifted a finger for the Great Cause.

Then, in June 1937, Auden’s American publisher, Bennet Cerf of Random House, had suggested that after the reasonable sales of his travel book about Iceland, maybe Auden would be interested in writing another travel book, this time travelling to the East. Isherwood was a good suggestion as collaborator because they had just worked closely on the stage play, The Ascent of F6 and had begun work on a successor, which was to end up becoming the pay On The Frontier. The pair were considering the travel idea when the Japanese attacked China, quickly took Beijing and besieged Shanghai.

At once they seized on this as the subject of the journey and the book. Neither had really engaged with the war in Spain; travelling east would be a way to make amends and to report on what many people considered to be the Eastern Front of what was developing into a worldwide war between Fascism (in this case Japan) and Democracy (in this case the Chinese Nationalists).

China also had the attraction that, unlike Spain, it wouldn’t be stuffed full of eminent literary figures falling over themselves to write poems and plays and novels and speeches. Spain had been a very competitive environment for a writer. Far fewer people knew or cared about China: it would be their own little war.

And so Auden and Isherwood left England in January 1938, boat from Dover then training it across France, then taking a boat from Marseilles to Hong Kong, via Egypt, Colombo and Singapore.

Journey to a War

Journey To A War is not as good as Letter From Iceland, it’s less high spirited and funny. There isn’t a big linking poem like Letter To Lord Byron to pull it together, and there isn’t the variety of all the different prose and verse forms Auden and MacNeice cooked up for the earlier book.

Instead it overwhelmingly consists of Isherwood’s very long prose diary of what happened to them and what they saw in their three months journey around unoccupied China.

The book opens with a series of sonnets and this was the form Auden chose to give the book poetic unity – sonnets, after all, lend themselves to sequences which develop themes and ideas, notably the Sonnets of Shakespeare, or his contemporaries Spencer and Sidney. There’s a collection of half a dozen of them right at the start, which give quick impressions of places they visited en route to China (Macau, Hong Kong). Then, 250 pages of Isherwood prose later, there’s the sonnet sequence titled In Time of War.

But instead of the bright and extrovert tone of Letters From Iceland, Auden’s sonnets are often obscure. They are clearly addressing some kind of important issues but it’s not always clear what. This is because they are very personal and inward-looking. Auden is clearly wrestling with his sense of liberal guilt. The results are rather gloomy. Spain had disillusioned him immensely. He went to Spain thinking the forces of Evil were objective and external. But his first-hand experience of the internecine bickering on the Republican side quickly showed him there is no Good Side, there are no Heroes. History is made by all of us and so – all of us are to blame for what happens. Travel as far as you want, you’re only running away from the truth. If we want to cure the world, it is we ourselves that we need to cure first.

Where does this journey look which the watcher upon the quay,
Standing under his evil star, so bitterly envies,
As the mountains swim away with slow calm strokes
And the gulls abandon their vow? Does it promise a juster life?

Alone with his heart at last, does the fortunate traveler find
In the vague touch of a breeze, the fickle flash of a wave,
Proofs that somewhere exists, really, the Good Place,
Convincing as those that children find in stones and holes?

No, he discovers nothing: he does not want to arrive.
His journey is false, his unreal excitement really an illness
On a false island where the heart cannot act and will not suffer:
He condones his fever; he is weaker than he thought; his weakness is real…

(from The Voyage by W.H. Auden)

‘An illness on a false island’ which is clearly England, a place ‘where the heart cannot act’. The traveller is trying to escape himself but cannot and glumly realises ‘he is weaker than he thought’. Or the thumping final couplet of the sonnet about Hong Kong:

We cannot postulate a General Will;
For what we are, we have ourselves to blame.

Isherwood’s diary

Luckily, the prose sections of the book are written by Isherwood and these are much more fun. He keeps up the giggling schoolboy persona of the novel he’d recently published, Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935), he notes the way the Chinese pronounce their names Au Dung and Y Hsaio Wu, he sounds wide-eyed and optimistic. He hadn’t seen what Auden had seen in Spain, wasn’t struggling with the same doubts.

On February 28 1938 they leave Hong Kong by steamer for Canton and Isherwood finds everyone and everything hilarious. Look a Japanese gunboat! Listen, the sound of bombs falling! He has same facility for the disarmingly blunt image which he deploys in the Berlin stories. The mayor of Canton (Mr Tsang Yan-fu) is always beaming, has a face like a melon with a slice cut out of it. After dinner the Chinese general entertains them by singing Chinese opera, showing how different characters are given different tones and registers (‘the romantic hero emits a sound like a midnight cat’).

He refers to the whole trip as a dream and as a landscape from Alice in Wonderland – they expected Chinese people to behave as in a Gilbert & Sullivan opera and had rehearsed elaborate compliments, and are disarmed when they’re much more down to earth. The train journey on through Hunan province is boring, the tea tastes of fish, they amuse themselves by reading out an Anthony Trollope novel or singing in mock operatic voices.

But this sense of unreality which dogs them is simply because both of them didn’t have a clue what was going on, what was at stake, the military situation,  had never seen fighting or battle and weren’t proper journalists. They were privileged dilettantes, ‘mere trippers’, as Isherwood shamefacedly explains when they meet real war correspondents at a press conference (p.53).

In Hankow the Consul gives them Chiang, a middle-aged man with the manners of a perfect butler to be their guide. They attend the official war briefings alongside American and Australian journalists, they meet Mr Donald, Chiang Kai-shek’s military adviser, the German adviser General von Falkenhausen, Agnes Smedley, Madame Chiang Kai-shek herself, and with delight are reunited with Robert Capa, the soon-to-be legendary American war photographer who’d they’d met on the boat out. They attend traditional Chinese opera, which Isherwood observes with the eye of a professional playwright.

They catch the train to Cheng-chow which has been repeatedly bombed by the Japanese, capably looked after by their ‘boy’, Chiang. They are heading north on the train when they learn that Kwei-teh has fallen, nonetheless they decide to press on to Kai-feng. With them is an exuberant and seasoned American doctor, McClure, who takes them to watch some operations. They walk round the stinking foetid town. They go to the public baths which stink of urine. Then they catch a train to Sü-chow. And then onto Li Kwo Yi where they argue with Chinese commanding officers (General Chang Tschen) to allow them to go right up to the front line, a town divided by the Great Canal.

If you’ve no idea where any of these places are, join the club. I was reading an old edition but, even so, it had no map at all of any part of the journey. Which is ludicrous. The only map anywhere appears to have been on the front cover of the hardback edition, replaced (uselessly) by an anti-war cartoon on the paperback editions, and even this doesn’t show their actual route.

First US edition (publ. Random House)

With no indication where any of these places are, unless you are prepared to read it with an atlas open at your side, Isherwood’s long prose text becomes a stream of clever observations largely divorced from their context. Even an atlas is not that useful given that Isherwood uses the old form of the placenames, all of which, along with most people’s names, have changed. Thus Sian, capital of Shen-si province, is now Xian, capital of Shaanxi Province, Sü-chow is now Suzhou, and so on.

We are intended to enjoy the surreal aspects of travelling in a deeply foreign land – the village restaurant which was papered entirely with pages of American tabloid magazines, and so covered with photos of gangsters and revelations about fashionable divorcees (p.126); or the expensive hotel in Sian whose menu included ‘Hat cake’ and ‘FF potatoes’ (p.141). Beheading is a common punishment because the Chinese believe a body needs to be complete to enter the afterlife. They meet lots of tough and brave American missionaries, mostly from the American south.

Finally, back in Hankow (Hankou) they become part of polite society again, are invited to a party of Chinese intellectuals, a party given by the British admiral and consul, where they meet the legendary travel writer Peter Fleming and his actress wife Celia Johnson, the British ambassador Archibald Kerr, the American communist-supporting journalist, Agnes Smedley (p.156). Fleming pops up a lot later at their hotel in Tunki, and is too suave, handsome and self-assured to possibly be real.

Militarily, Journey To A War confirms the opinions of the modern histories of the war I’ve read, namely that the Nationalist side was hampered by corruption, bad leadership and, above all, lack of arms & ammunition. When they retook cities which had been under communist influence the Chiang’s Nationalists realised they needed some kind of ideology which matched the communists’ emphasis on a pure life and so, in 1934, invented the New Life Movement i.e. stricter morals, which Madame Chiang politely explains.

Isherwood notices the large number of White Russian exiles, often running shops, come down in the world. This reminds me of the Russian nanny J.G. Ballard had during his boyhood in 1930s Shanghai, as described in his autobiography Miracles of Life.

From pages 100 to 150 or so our intrepid duo had hoped to approach the front line in the north and had crept up to it in a few places, but ultimately refused permission to go further, to visit the Eighth Route Army, and so have come by boat back down the Yangtze River to Hankou. Now they plan to travel south-east towards the other main front, where the Japanese have taken Shanghai and Nanjing.

On the Emperor of Japan’s birthday there is a particularly large air-raid on Hankow and they make themselves comfortable on the hotel lawn to watch it. The Arsenal across the river takes a pasting and they go to see the corpses. 500 were killed. Nice Emperor of Japan.

They take a river steamer to Kiukiang and stay at the extraordinary luxury hotel named Journey’s End and run by the wonderfully eccentric Mr Charleton. They catch the train from Kiukiang to Nanchang, stay there a few days, then the train on to Kin-hwa (modern Jinhua). Here they are horrified to discover their arrival has been anticipated and they are treated like minor royalty, including a trip to the best restaurant in town with 12 of the city’s top dignitaries.

Auden and I developed a private game: it was a point of honour to praise most warmly the dishes you liked least. ‘Delicious,’ Auden murmured, as he munched what was, apparently, a small sponge soaked in glue. I replied by devouring, with smiles of exquisite pleasure, an orange which taste of bitter aloes and contained, at its centre, a large weevil. (p.195)

They are taken by car to the town of Tunki. They try to get permission to push on to see the front near the Tai Lake, They have to cope with the officious newspaperman, A.W. Kao. This man gives a brisk confident explanation of what’s happening at the front. Neither Auden nor Isherwood believe it. Isherwood’s explanation describes scenes they’ve seen on their visit, but also hints at what Auden might have seen on his (mysterious) trip to civil war Spain. Auden is given a speech defining the nature of modern war:

War is bombing an already disused arsenal, missing it and killing a few old women. War is lying in a stable with a gangrenous leg. War is drinking hot water in a barn and worrying about one’s wife. War is a handful of lost and terrified men in the mountains, shooting at something moving in the undergrowth. War is waiting for days with nothing to do; shouting down a dead telephone; going without sleep, or sex, or a wash. War is untidy, inefficient, obscure, and largely a matter of chance. (p.202)

Peter Fleming turns up looking gorgeous, professional, highly motivated, speaking good Chinese. He attends briefings, manages the locals with perfect manners. They organise an outing towards the front, with sedan chairs, bearers, two or three local notables (T.Y. Liu, A.W. Kao, Mr Ching, Major Yang, Shien), Fleming is indefatigable. On they plod to Siaofeng, Ti-pu and Meiki. Here the atmosphere is very restless, the miltary authorities are visibly unhappy to see them, half their own Chinese want to get away. The spend a troubled night, with people coming and going at the military headquarters where they’ve bivouaced and, after breakfast, they give in to the Chinese badgering, turn about, and retrace their steps. Twelve hours later the town of Meiki fell to the Japanese. On they plod up a steep hillside, carried by coolies, and down the precipitous other side, down to Tien-mu-shan and then by car to Yu-tsien (p.229).

We stopped to get petrol near a restaurant where they were cooking bamboo in all its forms – including the strips used for making chairs. That, I thought, is so typical of this country. Nothing is specifically either eatable or uneatable. You could being munching a hat, or bite a mouthful out of a wall; equally, you could build a hut with the food provided at lunch. Everything is everything. (p.230)

Isherwood hates Chinese food and, eventually, Auden agrees. At Kin-hwa Fleming leaves them. It’s a shame they’ve ended up getting on famously. It’s interesting that both Auden and Isherwood initially were against him because he went to Eton. The narcissism of minor differences knows no limits.

They say goodbye to all the people they’ve met in Kin-hwa and set off by bus for Wenchow. They take a river steamer from Wenchow to Shanghai.

Arrival in Shanghai on 25 May signals the end of their adventures. They stay in the chaotic, colourful, corrupt city till 12 June. Fascinating to think that over in his house in the International Settlement, young James Graham Ballard was playing with his toy soldiers, dreaming about flying and laying the grounds for one of the most distinctive and bizarre voices in post-war fiction.

And Isherwood confirms the strange, deliriously surreal atmosphere of a Chinese city which had been invaded and conquered by the Japanese, who had destroyed a good deal of the Chinese city but left the International and the French Settlements intact. They attend receptions at the British Embassy, are the guest of a British businessman hosting high-level Japs.

There is no doubt Auden and Isherwood hate the Japanese, can’t see the flag hanging everywhere without thinking about all the times in the past four months when they’ve ducked into cover as Japanese bombers rumbled overhead and fighters swooped to strafe the roads.

This is the only section of this long book with real bite. Isherwood interviews a British factory inspector who describes the appalling conditions Chinese workers endure and notes that they’ll all be made much worse by the Japanese conquerors.

Schoolboys

It’s a truism to point out that the Auden Generation was deeply marked by its experience of English public schools, but it is still striking to see how often the first analogy they reach for is from their jolly public schools, endless comparisons with school speeches and prize days and headmasters.

  • Under the camera’s eye [Chiang kai-shek] stiffened visibly like a schoolboy who is warned to hold himself upright (p.68)
  • Mission-doctors [we were told] were obliged to smoke in secret, like schoolboys (p.88)
  • They scattered over the fields, shouting to each other, laughing, turning somersaults, like schoolboys arriving at the scene of a Sunday school picnic (p.142)
  • The admiral, with his great thrusting naked chin… and the Consul-General, looking like a white-haired schoolboy, receive their guests. (p.156)
  • [Mr A.O. Kao] has a smooth, adolescent face, whose natural charm is spoiled by a perpetual pout and by his fussy school-prefect’s air of authority (p.201)
  • Producing a pencil, postulating our interest as a matter of course, he drew highroads, shaded in towns, arrowed troop movements; lecturing us like the brilliant sixth-form boy who takes the juniors in history while the headmaster is away. (p.200)
  • The cling and huddle in the new disaster
    Like children sent to school (p.278)
  • With those whose brains are empty as a school in August (p.291)

The photos

At the end of the huge slab of 250 pages of solid text, the book then had 31 pages of badly reproduced black and white photos taken by Auden. In fact there are 2 per page, so that’s 62 snaps in all.

I don’t think there’s any getting round the fact that they’re average to poor. Some are portraits of people they met, notably Chiang kai-shek and Madame Chiang, Chou en-lai of the communists, and celebrities such as Peter Fleming the dashing travel writer and Robert Capa the handsome war photographer. A dozen or more named people, Chinese, missionaries and so on. And then lots of anonymous soldiers and scenes, the dead from an air raid, the derailed steam train, coolies in poverty, a Japanese prisoner of war, a Japanese soldier keeping guard in Shanghai, Auden with soldiers in a trench and so on.

Remarkably, few if any of these seem to be online. I can’t imagine they’re particularly valuable and their only purpose would be to publicise the book and promote Auden and Isherwood’s writings generally, so I can’t imagine why the copyright holders have banned them. If I owned them, I’d create a proper annotated online gallery for students and fans to refer to.

In Time of War

The book then contains a sequence of 27 sonnets by Auden titled In Time of War. In later collections he retitled them Sonnets from China. They are, on the whole, tiresomely oracular, allegorical and obscure. The earlier ones seem to be retelling elements of the Bible, Genesis etc as if recapitulating the early history of mankind. These then somehow morph into the ills of modern society with its bombers.

But one of them stands out from the rest because it reports real details and rises to real angry eloquence.

Here war is simple like a monument:
A telephone is speaking to a man;
Flags on a map assert that troops were sent;
A boy brings milk in bowls. There is a plan

For living men in terror of their lives,
Who thirst at nine who were to thirst at noon,
And can be lost and are, and miss their wives,
And, unlike an idea, can die too soon.

But ideas can be true although men die,
And we can watch a thousand faces
Made active by one lie:

And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now:
Nanking; Dachau.

(Sonnet XVI from In Time of War)

Those last lines have stayed with me all my life. Nanking. Dachau. The darkness at the heart of the twentieth century.

Commentary

The last thing in the book is a long poem in triplets, from pages 289 to 301 and titled simply Commentary.

It’s a sort of rewrite of Spain, again giving a hawk’s eye view of history and society, the world and human evolution. It starts off describing what they’ve seen in Auden’s characteristic sweeping style, leaping from one brightly described detail to another, before wandering off to give snapshots of great thinkers from Plato to Hegel.

But at quite a few points voices emerge to deliver speeches. Then, on the last page, the Commentary becomes extremely didactic, ending with a speech by the Voice of Man, no less, the kind of speech he turned out by the score for his plays and choruses and earlier 1930s poems.

But in this context it seems inadequate to the vast and catastrophic war in China which they have just glimpsed, and which was to last for another seven years (till Japan’s defeat in 1945) and was itself followed by the bitter civil war (1945-48) which was only ended by the triumph of Mao Zedong’s communist party early in 1949.

The Japanese invasion of 1937 turned out to be just the start of a decade of terror and atrocity, and Auden’s response is to have the ‘Voice of Man’ preach:

O teach me to outgrow my madness.

It’s better to be sane than mad, or liked than dreaded;
It’s better to sit down to nice meals than nasty;
It’s better to sleep two than single; it’s better to be happy.

Ruffle the perfect manners of the frozen heart,
And once again compel it to be awkward and alive,
To all it suffered once a silent witness.

Clear from the head the masses of impressive rubble;
Rally the lost and trembling forces of the will,
Gather them up and let them loose upon the earth,

Till they construct at last a human justice,
The contribution of our star, within a shadow
Of which uplifting, loving, and constraining power
All other reasons may rejoice and operate.

It yet another of his prayers, deliberately personal in scale, addressed mostly to chums from public school, fellow poets, friendly dons and reviewers. It is calling on people who are already well-fed, well-educated and mostly decent chaps to be a bit more decent, if that’s alright. But ‘ruffling up your perfect manners’ wasn’t going to stop Franco or the Japs, Hitler or Stalin.

It is ironic of Auden to ask people to remove from their heads ‘impressive rubble’, which I take to mean the luggage of an expensive education in the arts – as that is precisely what he was going to use to make a living out of for the next 35 years and which was to underpin and inform all his later works.

And there are numerous small but characteristic examples of learnèd wit it here, such as when they light a fire which is so smokey that it forces them out of the room and Auden wittily remarks, ‘Better to die like Zola than Captain Scott’ (i.e. of smoke asphyxiation rather than from freezing).

In this respect the Commentary is another grand speech which, like the grand speeches in the plays he’d just written with Isherwood, was, in the end, addressed to himself. Once again, as with Spain, Auden has used a huge historical event to conduct a lengthy self-analysis.

Auden’s contemporary readers were impressed, as ever, by his style and fluency but, as ever, critical of his strange inability to engage with anything outside himself and, specifically, to rise to the occasion of such a massive historical event.

Half way through the text Isherwood tells a story about Auden’s complete conviction that the train they’re on won’t be shot at by the Japanese, whose lines they are going to travel very close to. Sure enough the train emerges on to a stretch of line where it is clearly visible from the forward Japanese lines, which they know to contain heavy artillery, and so they pass a few minutes of terror, petrified that the Japanese might start shelling any second. In the event, there is no shelling, and the train veers away to safety. ‘See. I told you so,’ says Auden, and Isherwood reflects that there’s no arguing with ‘the complacency of a mystic’.

It’s a joke at his old mate’s expense and yet I thought, yes – complacency – in Auden’s case complacency means undeviating confidence in his own mind and art to hold off, inspect and analyse. He creates a rhetoric of concern but it is nothing more than that, a poet’s rhetoric, fine to admire but which changes nothing.

And he knew this, had realised it during the trip to Spain, and had lost heart in the political verse of the 1930s. The pair returned from China via America, where all mod cons were laid on by his American publishers and Auden realised that here was a much bigger, richer, more relaxed, open, friendly and less politically pressurised environment in which to think and write.

He returned to England just long enough to wind up his affairs, pack his bags, then in January 1939 he and Isherwood sailed back to the States which would become his home for the next 30 years, and set about rewriting or suppressing many of his most striking poems from the troubled Thirties, trying to rewrite and then censor what he came to think of as his own dishonesty, pursuing a quest for his own personal version of The Truth.


Related links

1930s reviews

The Gentleman in the Parlour by W. Somerset Maugham (1930)

Laughter is the only reality. (Chapter 9)

Maugham is very candid in his preface about his motives in writing this book. It was 1922 and he was an established and very successful author, of novels and also a series of smash-hit West End plays. He fancied a break from writing novels, had written one travel book (On a Chinese Screen) more or less by accident, worked up from notes on a journey and now, having seen how it was done, he fancied undertaking another journey but this time with the conscious aim of writing a carefully composed and crafted travel book.

The preface explains that, whereas the novel is necessarily a mongrel form, since dialogue, descriptions of scenery, moments of comedy or moments of tragedy, require the novelist to vary his style to be appropriate for each of these different moments, by contrast the travel book need contain no such varieties of tone.

Here prose may be cultivated for its own sake. You can manipulate your material so that the harmony you seek is plausible. Your style can flow like a broad, placid river and the reader is borne along on its bosom with security; he need fear no shoals, no adverse currents, rapids, or rock-strewn gorges.

The travel book can be an essay in style.

The journey

In Ceylon Maugham met a British government official who recommended he visit Keng Tung, in the remote Shan States in the north of Burma. So Maugham sailed to Rangoon, travelled on to Mandalay, where he set off by mule for the remote Keng Tung. After 26 days he arrived and recorded his impressions before carrying on to the Thai border, whence he travelled by car to Bangkok. Then by boat to Cambodia, a trek to the famous temple complex at Angkor Wat, another river trip to Saigon and then a coastal journey via Hue to Hanoi.

At this point the narrative ends, though Maugham went on to Hong Kong, crossed the Pacific, the United States, and the Atlantic, returning to London to resume his career as author and socialite.

Pause for reflection

The main thing about this book is that he waited until seven years after the trip to write it i.e. it wasn’t knocked out in the heat of the moment for money. Maugham gave himself seven years in which to shape and craft the narrative. Hence the way the preface emphasises style over impact and hence the book’s very leisurely, patrician prose. And also the fact, brought out in biographies and in Paul Theroux’s fascinating introduction, that the content of the book is highly manipulated. Not to put too fine a point on it, Maugham made stuff (particularly people) up, and by the same token, omitted a lot of important facts.

Most obviously, Maugham travelled with his long term partner, Frederick Haxton, and it was Haxton who made all the necessary arrangements, organised all travel and accommodation details, as well as approaching and befriending people of all classes throughout the journey, something Maugham was very bad at because of his stammer and his shyness. But in the book Haxton never appears, Maugham appears to have no white companion at all. On the contrary, the strong impression is given is that Maugham was an intrepid and solo traveller.

Meeting people

Throughout the book (and indeed throughout his short stories) the narrator describes the way he has a special skill at extracting confidences and anecdotes from the people he meets. Indeed there is a quotable paragraph which I’ve read quoted in other introductions and articles about Maugham, where he analyses the special skill he has in gaining people’s confidence and hearing their stories.

Often in some lonely post in the jungle or in a stiff, grand house, solitary in the midst of a teeming Chinese city, a man has told me stories about himself that I am sure he had never told to a living soul. I was a stray acquaintance whom he had never seen before and would never see again, a wanderer for a moment through this monotonous life, and some starved impulse led him to lay bare his soul. I have in this way learned more about men in a night (sitting over a siphon or two and a bottle of whiskey, the hostile, inexplicable world outside the radius of an acetylene lamp) than I could if I had known them for ten years. If you are interested in human nature it is one of the great pleasures of travel. (p.32)

Thus the narrative includes a number of stories confided in him by the people who he meets:

  • The story of Masterson, the decent white man who takes a native wife and has three pretty children but, when she asks him to formally marry her, can’t bring himself to; he wants to eventually retire in dignity to Cheltenham. And so she leaves him as Maugham finds him a few months later, desolate and abandoned.
  • The haunting episode with the Italian priest living in a hand-built mission in the remotest part of the Burmese jungle.
  • The Frenchman in the teak forest who bursts into tears over a couplet of Verlaine.
  • The florid cast of characters aboard the ship from Bangkok to Saigon, including a soulful Italian tenor, an ugly little French governor and his statuesque wife, and the Wilkins, the cheerful American owners of a travelling circus.
  • The lengthy encounter with a man named Grosely who approaches him at his hotel in Haiphong claiming to have known him at medical school in London back in the early 90s. Now he is raddled and gone to seed. He invites Maugham to his squalid rooms in the roughest part of the native quarter where he lives with a retired prostitute he’s married, and offers him a pipe of opium (which Maugham refuses) before telling him the strange and sad story of his life: to wit, he made a fortune working as a tide waiter in China, taking bribes from opium smugglers, all the time fantasising about returning to London. When, after 20 years, he finally returned to London with a fortune, he found it bigger, noisier, unfriendlier than he remembered, the women stand-offish, the men snobby. Eventually, he realised he preferred the East and headed back towards China but was overcome by fear that, now, his memories of China would prove equally as false. So he stopped off at Haiphong on a temporary basis, and said he’d complete the trip any day now. He’d been saying that for five years. Another of Maugham’s subtle grotesques.

It is a bit of a shock to learn that some of these stories appeared elsewhere, in magazines, as fictions. I also noticed several passages of ruminant meditation which appear in some of the short stories. For Maugham the borderline between fiction and fact was obviously pretty porous, as were the borders of his texts: if a passage worked, why not use it elsewhere? appears to have been his practice.

Also, once I had really soaked up his leisurely bookish approach to travelling, it began to dawn on me that Maugham is a collector of people. He relishes their peculiarities and absurdities, their sad love stories, their ridiculous passions.

Reading this book doesn’t shed much light on the factual background of the British Empire in the East (none, really); but it makes you realise that a lot of his short stories are like those glass display cases in which Victorian collectors kept stuffed specimens, of exotic birds and rare butterflies pinned to boards. Only Maugham’s stuffed exhibits are people.

Maugham himself describes how he has to sit through countless boring dinners and endless chat over whiskey and soda at the club, before the magic moment arrives and a person discloses themself, reveals the nugget, their essence, the one great story they have about their lost love or their great triumph or a ghoulish murder, which excites his imagination, which fuels him, which he can work up into one of his wonderful short stories.

Descriptions

I expected there to be lots of anecdotes about people but was surprised that there is quite so much description of landscape, not necessarily Maugham’s strongest point. Particularly on the first part of the trip, the 26 day mule trek through jungle, up into mountain, and across wide sluggish Burmese rivers, there are many passages of description worth stopping and savouring.

Then, the muleteers’ duties accomplished and the servants having unpacked my things, peace descended upon the scene, and the river, empty as though man had never adventured up its winding defiles, regained its dim remoteness. There was not a sound. The day waned and the peace of the water, the peace of the tree-clad hills, and the peace of the evening were three exquisite things. There is a moment just before sundown when the trees seem to detach themselves from the dark mass of the jungle and become individuals. Then you cannot see the wood for the trees. In the magic of the hour they seem to acquire a life of a new kind so that it is not hard to imagine that spirits inhabit them and with dusk they will have the power to change their places. You feel that at some uncertain moment some strange thing will happen to them and they will be wondrously transfigured. You hold your breath waiting for a marvel the thought of which stirs your heart with a kind of terrified eagerness. but the night falls; the moment has passed and once more the jungle takes them back. It takes them back as the world takes young people who, feeling in themselves the genius which is youth, hesitate for an instant on the brink of a great adventure of the spirit, and then engulfed by their surroundings sink back into the vast anonymity of mankind. The trees again become part of the wood; they are still and, if not lifeless, alive only with the sullen and stubborn life of the jungle. (Chapter 14)

Maughamese

Having pointed this out in reviews of his short stories I had vowed not to mention it in this review, but Maugham really does have a cranky way with the English language.

  • I took to the road once more. One day followed another with a monotony in which was nothing tedious. (Chapter 15)
  • I had with me a number of books that would have improved my mind and others, masterpieces of style, by the study of which I might have made progress in the learning of this difficult language in which we write. (Ch 15)
  • I had wandered so long through country almost uninhabited that I was dazzled by the variety and colour of the crowd. (Chapter 18) This is French word order, placing the adjective after the noun
  • There are perhaps a dozen monasteries in Keng Tung and their high roofs stand out when you look at the town from the little hill on which is the circuit-house. (Chapter 21) ‘on which is’ sounds like a German expression to me; it’s not natural English.

What’s so odd is that Maugham makes several explicit references to his struggle to write elegantly and yet so continually fails to do so. He was born and bred in France till the age of ten. French was his first language, and it was obviously a lifelong battle to shake off the influence of French word order, a battle he never won.

In fact the struggle to write clearly is so obviously a theme of the book and his seven-years’ labour on it that he devotes a paragraph to a typically candid and self-deprecatory account of his own style.

When I was young I took much trouble to acquire a style; I used to go to the British Museum and note down the names of rare jewels so that I might give my prose magnificence, and I used to go to the Zoo and observe the way an eagle looks or linger on a cab-rank to see how a horse champed so that I might on occasion use a nice metaphor; I made lists of unusual adjectives so that I might put them in unexpected places. But it was not a bit of good. I found I had no bent for anything of the kind; we do not write as we want but as we can, and though I have the greatest respect for those authors who are blessed with a happy gift of phrase I have long resigned myself to writing as plainly as I can. I have a very small vocabulary and I manage to make do with it, I am afraid, only because I see things with no great subtlety. I think perhaps I see them with a certain passion and it interests me to translate into words not the look of them, but the emotion they have given me. But I am content if I can put this down as briefly and baldly as if I were writing a telegram. (Chapter 37)

This is both true and not true. Maugham is obviously posing (to himself as well as to his readers) as a man of simple tastes and plain prose. And it is an accurate description of some of his prose. But not all of it. Throughout his texts the prose is continually troubled by efforts at fine writing, description and philosophical lucubrations. He may have believed this account when he wrote it – or he may be cannily offering it to the reader as an apology and a claim to our sympathy – but it is far from being the whole story of this man’s odd and lifelong struggle with the English language.

The most important thing about this paragraph is its positioning, in the middle of what turns out to be the longest descriptive passage in the book, a love letter to the wondrousness of the temple complex at Angkor Wat, which continues on to a lyrical paean to the sculpture and art of the ancient Khmers. Maugham’s claims to prosey simplicity are themselves just an element in his tricksiness. It’s part of his appeal.

A life of ease

The struggle Maugham so visibly has to write basic, clear English prose sheds ironic light on the claim in the preface that the book will be an ‘exercise in style’.

So much so that I think we do best to stop applying it to his style of language and apply it more accurately to his style of living. More than descriptions of jungle or temples, more than anecdotes about white men in remote imperial outposts, what the book radiates is Maugham’s love of ease and leisure. Travelling by river is calm and monotonous. Day follows day on the mule trek across the mountains, all merging into one. Arriving at the little government bungalows along the way, he immediately makes himself at home. Two pages are devoted to describing his cook (unsatisfactory, eventually fired). Every morning his loyal Gurkha servant brings freshly ground coffee. When he finally arrives at a town with modern facilities he is in clover.

It was pleasant to have nothing much to do. It was pleasant to get up when one felt inclined and to breakfast in pyjamas. It was pleasant to lounge through the morning with a book.

He makes a great point of not knowing anything. He doesn’t read any guidebooks or mug up on local history. He satirises that approach in the (fictional?) character of a Czech who, he claims, is up early and out to take notes on all the different Buddhist temples in pagan, and has made a life’s study of acquiring general knowledge. He is, by his own admission, ‘a mine of information’. Maugham mocks him. He prefers to skim across the surface of things, letting his imagination project stories, snatches of dialogue, really glorified whims and fancies, onto the surface of people, scenery, places and landscapes.

I travelled leisurely down Siam. (Chapter 26)

The key words are: leisurely, nonchalant, ease, peace, laze, loll, lie, lounge, bath, verandah, smoke. Wherever he finds himself, Maugham regularly takes out his pipe and has a calming, relaxing smoke. In the depths of the jungle after 26 days’ journey by mule, he fantasises of a hotel where he can toast his toes by a fireside and lounge in an easy chair with a comfortable book. Above all, Maugham conveys a sense of quite wonderful, bookish, rather frivolous ease and leisure.

To ride in a teak forest, so light, so graceful and airy, is to feel yourself a cavalier in an old romance. (Chapter 26)

I think it is this, this ability to be at home, relaxed, to find the lazy, lyrical sometimes whimsical aspect of any situation, which makes all of Maugham’s books such a pleasure to read. They are extremely relaxing.

Books and art

An indication of the extent to which the book is more an exercise in a certain nonchalant, unflappable style of travelling and a deliberate avoidance of facts and analyses in favour of charming impressions is the steady flow of references to Western art and books: Rembrandt, Titian, Michelangelo, El Greco and Velasquez, Monet and Manet, Veronese and Cimabue are just some of the painters knowledgeably referenced: and Wordsworth, Lamb and Hazlitt (the title of this book is a quote from Hazlitt’s essay about ‘going a journey’), Proust, Bradley the philosopher, Verlaine and La Fontaine, George Meredith, Walter Pater, John Ruskin, Euphues and Sir Thomas Browne are just some of the writers invoked and even quoted.

Thus he is able to write the splendidly contrived and humorous sentence:

The uneventful days followed one another like the rhymed couplet of a didactic poem. (Chapter 24)

A bit later, he writes:

The village street was bordered by tamarinds and they were like the sentences of Sir Thomas Browne, opulent, stately, and self-possessed. (Chapter 26)

Both of which expect of the reader a familiarity with a certain type of rather dusty old literature. This assumption of knowledge is part of the strategy of the prose: you could react badly to it, and dismiss Maugham as a pompous old bore; but I happen to have read my share of didactic rhyming poems and Sir Thomas Browne, so I not only smile in recognition of the reference, but also smile at the preposterousness of the way Maugham’s first thought, lazily sailing down a river in Burma or entering a dusty oriental town, is of very English literary references.

It is this – to us nowadays, maybe forced and pretentious – approach, which is part of what he means when he talks about ‘an exercise in style’.

The British Empire

Modern politically correct, post-colonial critics find tearing into Maugham’s dilettante attitude easy meat. Above all it’s easy to criticise him for not showing a flicker of interest in the government, economy, political situation or native peoples of the countries he passes through. Hopefully my review has made clear by now that that kind of thing is exactly what he was deliberately avoiding, not least because he knows he’s not very good at it. In his own day there was no shortage of left-wing critics (and an entire political party, the Labour Party) writing books and articles attacking the exploitative nature of the British Empire. Maugham knows he is not in the same business, he is in the entertainment business.

That said, right at the start of the book there is a very interesting page where he tackles the issue head-on. He imagines a future historian of the Decline and Fall of the British Empire reading his book and being appalled at the lack of interest it shows in the subject. But what’s interesting is what Maugham has this historian say about the British Empire between the wars, what – presumably – Maugham himself thought about the Empire — and this is that he found it to be ruled weakly and ineffectually.

It is the great paradox of the British Empire that it achieved its largest size between the wars and yet at the same moment was struck by paralysing doubt. Thus Maugham has his future historian lament that the British held their empire with ‘a nerveless hand’, that they held their office only through the force of guns yet tried to persuade the natives they were there on their own sufferance, they offered efficiency and benefits to people who didn’t want them; British power was tottering because the masters were ‘afraid to rule’, lacked confidence in themselves and so commanded no respect from the natives, the British tried to rule by persuasion rather than power, who were troubled by the feeling that they were ‘unfit to rule’.

Though only a page long, it is a fascinating and powerful indictment and goes a long way to explaining the sudden collapse of the Empire after the Second World War.

Soulful moments

In among the lazy descriptions of jungle and temple, tiffin and evening pipes, are some genuinely thoughtful moments. Not too thoughtful, mind – Maugham goes out of his way to explain that he is not a philosopher (although he likes reading a bit of philosophy every morning before breakfast is served). Nonetheless, a consistent attitude emerges, which is his admiration for simplicity and lack of pomposity.

He admires Buddhism. He admires its simplicity and takes some time to reimagine the circumstances of Prince Gautama’s life and decision to abandon everything. He comes across a tiny village in the remote Burman jungle and ponders that their way of life, handed down from generation to generation, is admirable, honest and pure. He greatly admires the Italian priest labouring in the jungle. He likes the good and the simple.

This rather basic philosophy is reinforced by lyrical descriptions of the peace and mystery of the jungle, and the equally beguiling atmosphere of some of the Buddhist temples. He encounters many of these and so there are many descriptions of the eerie, absorbent quality of the gold-leafed statues of Buddha, especially when the light of the setting sun sets them aglow. Here he is on a houseboat in Ayudha.

When I awoke in the night I felt a faint motion as the houseboat rocked a little and heard a little gurgle of water, like the ghost of an Eastern music travelling not through space but through time. It was worth while for that sensation of exquisite peace, for the richness of that stillness, to have endured all that sight-seeing.

The Gentleman in the Parlour illustration in Radio Times by C.W. Bacon (1950s)

The Gentleman in the Parlour illustration in the Radio Times by C.W. Bacon (1950s)


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

Across the Plains by Robert Louis Stevenson (1879)

In August 1878, driven to distraction by the absence of his American lover, Fanny Osbourne, who had returned to California to patch things up with her estranged husband – Stevenson decided he could take no more of the emotional uncertainty in their relationship and, telling only his closest friends, bought a ticket on a transatlantic steamer from Glasgow to New York, planning to travel on to California to comfort and/or confront her.

The Amateur Emigrant describes in detail the transatlantic part of the trip, the journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York. This book picks up the second part – the train journey across America from New York to San Francisco. On Monday 18 August 1878 Stevenson took a river boat from New York to Jersey City, New Jersey, boarded the train and began the journey to California.

It is a shame for contemporary readers that these books didn’t all come out in chronological order or as he wrote them. Instead, The Amateur Emigrant wasn’t published till after Stevenson’s death, in 1895 (because of his family’s opposition to the image it painted of their boy slumming it with the roughest of the rough in steerage class) and Across the Plains was bundled up into a collection of miscellaneous writings, edited by his friend Sidney Colvin and only published in 1892, when Stevenson’s style and subject matter had moved far beyond it.

Across The Plains

You can tell that Stevenson was exhausted by now: the transatlantic journey had in reality been more gruelling than the Amateur Emigrant – for the most part buoyant, good-humoured and insightful – had implied.

In this book, for the first time, he seems to be failing in health and spirits, he feels oppressed, there are five bad experiences for every good one, and half way through the journey he actually falls ill, with no one to care for him. According to Claire Harman’s biography, when he finally arrived in Sacramento on the doorstep of his beloved Fanny, he looked like death, no longer the dashing blade who had charmed her at the artists’ colony in Barbizon two summers earlier, but a ragged, smelly, walking skeleton.

Things get off to a bad start as the emigrants squeeze into the emigrant shed in West Street, New York before being hustled down to the docks in the pouring rain. Several emigrant boatloads have docked in the city over the course of a few days, whereas no trains have left during that time, so all the facilities, waiting rooms, luggage areas and so on, are painfully packed. The ferry to New Jersey is wet and so over-crowded it leans to one side in the water.

The train is packed and uncomfortable, there is no food to be had apart from nuts and oranges, the hard wooden carriage benches are too narrow for two people to sit comfortably together and everyone smells like wet dogs.

It takes some time to get clear of the East Coast and into Pennsylvania, trying to sleep and being jostled awake again by rude neighbours or the rattling of the train. It’s a short book; you can read it in a couple of hours. Highlights for me include:

American sunsets

He finds American sunsets strikingly different from what he’s used to.

And it was in the sky, and not upon the earth, that I was surprised to find a change. Explain it how you may, and for my part I cannot explain it at all, the sun rises with a different splendour in America and Europe. There is more clear gold and scarlet in our old country mornings; more purple, brown, and smoky orange in those of the new. It may be from habit, but to me the coming of day is less fresh and inspiriting in the latter; it has a duskier glory, and more nearly resembles sunset; it seems to fit some subsequential, evening epoch of the world, as though America were in fact, and not merely in fancy, farther from the orient of Aurora and the springs of day. I thought so then, by the railroad side in Pennsylvania, and I have thought so a dozen times since in far distant parts of the continent. If it be an illusion it is one very deeply rooted, and in which my eyesight is accomplice.

Afro-Americans

He came ready to be shocked and full of pity for the poor downtrodden negro of liberal myth, and so was disconcerted that the first few blacks he met in America were confident hotel staff who almost looked down on him as a stranger to their cities and country.

I had come prepared to pity the poor negro, to put him at his ease, to prove in a thousand condescensions that I was no sharer in the prejudice of race; but I assure you I put my patronage away for another occasion, and had the grace to be pleased with that result.

He only meets two or three Afro-Americans and is impressed in each case by their self-possession and dignity. 140 years later American has, of course, solved all its issues around black people and is a beacon of racial peace and harmony.

America and guns

In the mid-West a drunk sneaks onto the train. It takes a couple of stops for the conductor to discover him but, when he does, the conductor manhandles the guy off the train (which is moving slowly through a siding). The man isn’t harmed, leaps to his feet and pulls a gun out of his belt.

It was the first indication that I had come among revolvers, and I observed it with some emotion. The conductor stood on the steps with one hand on his hip, looking back at him; and perhaps this attitude imposed upon the creature, for he turned without further ado, and went off staggering along the track towards Cromwell followed by a peal of laughter from the cars. They were speaking English all about me, but I knew I was in a foreign land.

Luckily, 140 years later, America has completely sorted out its problems with guns.

Rude and cramped

He finds a lot of Americans a strange combination of the rude and the sentimental. There are few public announcements about the trains’ movements and timetable and, since the emigrants are at the bottom of the train food chain, Stevenson gets used to their train spending interminable hours in sidings and being shunted to one side to let the important expresses whizz past.

The conductors are rude and surly: one memorably simply refuses to answer a question Stevenson puts to him point blank. All the emigrants know is that, when the train has stopped and they’re ranged about the siding, some eating, some half stripped off to wash, at any moment there might be a shout of ‘All aboard’, and the train will begin to move off, and they’ll all have to drop everything or throw food and toiletries into bags and scramble back aboard as best they can.

In the absence of public announcements the newsboys, who sell newspapers, fruit and nuts, become a vital contact with the outside world, but these are also often crude and rude, one of them kicking Stevenson’s long legs out of his way every time he goes up or down the carriage.

Size and scale

Stevenson finds the size and scale of the country dispiriting. There’s a ‘chapter’ (or short section) called The Plains of Nebraska which is just long enough for him to give a good sense of being frightened of the endless flat featureless plains which spread out in all directions – ‘a world almost without a feature; an empty sky, an empty earth; front and back, the line of railway stretched from horizon to horizon, like a cue across a billiard-board’.

He has a harrowing vision of how appalling it must have been for the first settlers who moved for days and days and days at oxen pace across the plains and never saw any feature or thing of interest to mark their progress. How dispiriting.

The desert of Wyoming

He knows the hills are coming and hopes they will provide a respite from the despair of the plains, but –

I longed for the Black Hills of Wyoming, which I knew we were soon to enter, like an ice-bound whaler for the spring. Alas! and it was a worse country than the other. All Sunday and Monday we travelled through these sad mountains, or over the main ridge of the Rockies, which is a fair match to them for misery of aspect. Hour after hour it was the same unhomely and unkindly world about our onward path; tumbled boulders, cliffs that drearily imitate the shape of monuments and fortifications—how drearily, how tamely, none can tell who has not seen them; not a tree, not a patch of sward, not one shapely or commanding mountain form; sage-brush, eternal sage-brush; over all, the same weariful and gloomy colouring, grays warming into brown, grays darkening towards black…

Mile upon mile, and not a tree, a bird, or a river. Only down the long, sterile cañons, the train shot hooting and awoke the resting echo. That train was the one piece of life in all the deadly land; it was the one actor, the one spectacle fit to be observed in this paralysis of man and nature…

Stevenson’s negativity is surprising. Nowadays super-real photos of the Rockies feature as computer screensavers or in cool movies about cruising through the astonishingly picturesque mountains. His negative response made me think that this whole huge area of America – like the desert which he describes later – only really became picturesque once you could travel freely through it in a car, not on foot. From the 1930s, say, you could drive out to these places, stay a night or two in a lodge or camp – and at any time drive back out of them, quickly and easily.

To someone used to walking – as Stevenson had just been walking in south-central France – and so used to the small-scale pleasures of copses and shaws and streams and dingles – the vast extent of the endless plains – and then the barren rockiness of the immense mountains  – is truly horrifying. Imagine being lost there. You’d die far from any water, trees or shade, let alone human habitation.

The desert

Finally, appalled by the plains, then by the barren mountains, Stevenson is further disheartened by the fierce desert.

From Toano we travelled all day through deserts of alkali and sand, horrible to man, and bare sage-brush country that seemed little kindlier, and came by supper-time to Elko… Of all the next day I will tell you nothing, for the best of all reasons, that I remember no more than that we continued through desolate and desert scenes, fiery hot and deadly weary.

He really didn’t like almost all the scenery he saw and, speaking as a fellow walker, as someone used to thinking about territory in terms of footfall and paces and hours of walking, I can only agree with him. train through it, drive through it, fly over it, and the American West is astonishingly raw and beautiful. but imagine being dropped into it with just a bottle of water and told to walk – quelle cauchemar!

Emigrants as a group

His thoughts about his fellow emigrants are noticeably less charitable than when he was aboard the emigrant ship. more than before, he is forced to the conclusion that many of the emigrants are failures in life, alcoholics, stupid people, lazy people, all of them naively convinced that if they travel West a miracle will happen – that they will reach a place where their stupidity, laziness or alcoholism will be magically transformed and they will become as rich and worthy of respect, as they know – deep inside – is their due.

But they won’t. At the end of his analysis of the shortcomings of the emigrants, Stevenson throws off a far more profound observation. If you were looking for rational causes for the mass emigrations i.e. evidence that people really do change their characters in foreign lands, you would look in vain. By and large they continue to be failures wherever the are. No, it isn’t about wages and economics and jobs – the compulsion to travel is something deeper and far more primeval.

If, in truth, it were only for the sake of wages that men emigrate, how many thousands would regret the bargain! But wages, indeed, are only one consideration out of many; for we are a race of gipsies, and love change and travel for themselves.

Prejudice

Stevenson’s opinion of the emigrants sinks even lower when he considers their attitude towards the Chinese. The emigrant train was divided into three sections: one for white men, one for white women and children, and one for the Chinese (Chinese labourers having, of course, slaved away and died building the transcontinental railways).

Not only are the American conductors, officials and the emigrants generally rude or sometimes violent, but they display a wall of prejudice against the Chinese: Stevenson singles out the accusation the most vocal bigots make that the Chinese are filthy. Stevenson thinks this is almost funny, since he notes that the Chinese carriage was probably the cleanest and the Chinese most often to be seen washing as much of their body as was decent in the stations and sidings – unlike his filthy, stinking white companions. (Stevenson slips in mention of a white demagogue he hears, weeks later in San Francisco, calling on a crowd of whites to rise up and throw off the ‘oppression’ of the Mongolian, again marvelling at how stupid and ignorant this kind of rabble-rousing is.)

Luckily, there are no demagogic politicians appealing to racial stereotypes in America these days.

Native Americans

Displaying admirable, and for his day astonishingly liberal instincts, Stevenson also goes out of his way to feel sorry for the Americans’ gruesome treatment of native American Indians, the original owners of this ‘great’ land.

Another race shared among my fellow-passengers in the disfavour of the Chinese; and that, it is hardly necessary to say, was the noble red man of old story—over whose own hereditary continent we had been steaming all these days. I saw no wild or independent Indian; indeed, I hear that such avoid the neighbourhood of the train; but now and again at way stations, a husband and wife and a few children, disgracefully dressed out with the sweepings of civilisation, came forth and stared upon the emigrants. The silent stoicism of their conduct, and the pathetic degradation of their appearance, would have touched any thinking creature, but my fellow-passengers danced and jested round them with a truly Cockney baseness. I was ashamed for the thing we call civilisation. We should carry upon our consciences so much, at least, of our forefathers’ misconduct as we continue to profit by ourselves.

If oppression drives a wise man mad, what should be raging in the hearts of these poor tribes, who have been driven back and back, step after step, their promised reservations torn from them one after another as the States extended westward, until at length they are shut up into these hideous mountain deserts of the centre—and even there find themselves invaded, insulted, and hunted out by ruffianly diggers? The eviction of the Cherokees (to name but an instance), the extortion of Indian agents, the outrages of the wicked, the ill-faith of all, nay, down to the ridicule of such poor beings as were here with me upon the train, make up a chapter of injustice and indignity such as a man must be in some ways base if his heart will suffer him to pardon or forget.

Final relief

The bareness and sterility of the desert oppresses Stevenson almost as much as the stink of his unwashed companions and their brutal attitude to the Chinese or Indians. All combine to make the journey hellish and explain the excess of relief he feels when the train finally emerges into the wooded, watered scenery of the Pacific side of the Rocky Mountains.

It is a spiritual and emotional relief for Stevenson and for the reader – that this short book ends on this sudden up-beat note.

I sat up at last, and found we were grading slowly downward through a long snowshed; and suddenly we shot into an open; and before we were swallowed into the next length of wooden tunnel, I had one glimpse of a huge pine-forested ravine upon my left, a foaming river, and a sky already coloured with the fires of dawn. I am usually very calm over the displays of nature; but you will scarce believe how my heart leaped at this. It was like meeting one’s wife. I had come home again—home from unsightly deserts to the green and habitable corners of the earth. Every spire of pine along the hill-top, every trouty pool along that mountain river, was more dear to me than a blood relation. Few people have praised God more happily than I did.

Stevenson is always interesting and entertaining, but this is easily the most disillusioned and bleak of the four travel books I’ve read so far.


Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

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