Monday, October 6, 2008

Robert Louis Stevenson, Trust Funders and the Napa Valley

Robert Louis Stevenson (RLS) 1850 to 1894...

The sign for his museum in St. Helena...

And his quote on the "photo op" tourist sign...

RLS lived for a couple of weeks in this room (it is now a clinic). The house was added on to, but this room was part of the original cottage. Whenever I saw my doctor in Calistoga, I requested to be seen in this exam room.

The books I read this last weekend by, and about, Robert Louis Stevenson...

Visit the Napa Valley and it's hard not to escape the influence of Robert Louis Stevenson. We have a museum dedicated to him. A State Park. His two residences have plaques celebrating him (even though he only lived here for two months). The world famous "Silverado Trail" is borrowed from his book "Silverado Squattors". And two huge billboards welcome visitors to the "World Famous Wine Growing Region...where the wine is "bottled poetry"--quoting the Scottish Author.

Easy to see why he is so popular in these affluent small towns of northern Napa. Robert Louis Stevenson was a trustfunder. He never worked a day in his life; never had a job. He lived frugally (and lavishly) depending upon how well he was getting along with his rich Father (a builder of Lighthouses). That appeals to Napans (especially the town of St. Helena) which has more trustfunders than Napa County has wineries. A snotty, cool place to live for the idle rich. Great wine and great restaurants!! Belly up to the wine bar you sons and daughters of successful Capitalists!! Walk down St. Helena's streets (with disastrously expensive boutiques) where Paris Hilton and Marie Shriver always stop to shop and the parade of Jaguars, Mercedes Benz, BMW's and Lexxus whiz by.

So I dedicated this weekend to learning a bit more about he signed his name.

RLS is a man dear to Napans, as I said before. He was a right wing Torie. He loved wine and good food. Tobacco. Had poor health and an adventurous spirit. Somewhat vain, his whippet thin and Custer like haircut and handlebar mustache were his signature, flamboyant look. He loved cafes (where he wrote much of his material while smoking cigarettes and drinking French coffee). He was a trustfunder which spared him from having to be inconvenienced by working/farming/sweating for his bread. He also could write!

Forget Treasure Island and his other novels. Kid stuff. What surprised me was just how good his travel books are. I picked up his book on traveling from Scotland to Silverado and read it over the weekend (written before he had his big successes with Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).

It's as good a travel book as I've ever read. His description of taking an "emigrant train" across America brought me back to what my own great Grandparents must have experienced traveling to their homesteads. His descriptions of Monterey in the later 1870's beats Steinbeck's description of the same subject matter from the 1940's (in Cannery Row). He is witty; able to poke fun at himself. He loves the people he meets, and treats them both viciously and gently at the same time.

What was RLS doing in Calistoga? Squatting for free in an old mine shack with his new bride (ten years his senior), while recovering from some mysterious, chronic lung ailment (TB? or something else?)...calling himself "All cough and bones"---while waiting for a check from Papa.

RLS revels in the 1870's Napa Valley wine...which was in it's infancy (but did manage to save the world wine market by developing root stock resistant to phyl0xera. His nature writing surprised me. His descriptions of doing calisthenics while Rattlesnakes buzzed at him made me laugh (RLS didn't know that Rattlers were dangerous). It's a stranger in a strange land approach that works.

So now I get it. RLS is loved here for a couple of reasons. First off, he was a classy writer. Secondly, every Chamber of Commerce drools at the free advertising a much esteemed writer gives to a community. Thirdly, his politics, life of leisure and hedonism match much of what the Napa Valley is all about: Money and Good Wine!!!

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