STEVENSON (ROBERT LOUIS) Across the Plains, with  leaf of autograph manuscript inserted, [c.1879]
Lot 145
Sold for £ 2,500 (US$ 3,351) inc. premium

Lot Details
Autograph manuscript headed "The Plains of Nebraska", with revisions made currente calamo and deletions, opening "It had thundered on the Friday night, but the sun rose on Saturday without a cloud. We were at sea – there is no other adequate expression – on the plains of Nebraska" and ending "Upon what food does it subsist in such a land? What livelihood can repay", paginated at the head "99", marked up for printing with compositor's name entered in pencil and with inky finger-prints left by him; tipped into a first edition of Across the Plains, with a note on British Museum paper by Stevenson's great friend and literary mentor, Sidney Colvin: "The MSS. inserted at pp. 31 and 40 are portions of the original autograph by R.L.S. in my possession/ Sidney Colvin/ Novr 9/ 1892", with the ownership inscription of Margot Tennant ("Margot's") and bookplate (as Margot Tennant) pasted over, the manuscript one page, on ruled paper, folded in four to fit in the book and pasted in at p.41 [the other leaf described by Colvin no longer present], filing or binding spike-hole at top left hand corner, small split at foot, the book with weak joints and sold as an association copy only, the manuscript folio, composed c.1879, published 1892


  • 'AT SEA ON THE PLAINS OF NEBRASKA' – ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON'S CLASSIC ACCOUNT OF HIS JOURNEY ON AN EMIGRANT TRAIN BOUND FOR CALIFORNIA: "We were at sea – there is no other adequate expression – on the plains of Nebraska. I made my observatory on the top of a fruit waggon, and sat by the hour upon that perch to spy about me, and to spy in vain, for something new. It was 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; on either hand, the green plain ran till it touched the skirts of heaven. Along the track, innumerable wild sunflowers, no bigger than a crown piece, bloomed in a continuous flower bed; grazing beasts were seen upon the prairie at all degrees of distance and diminution; and now and again we might perceive a few dots beside the railroad which grew more distinct as we drew nearer until they turned into wooden cabins, and then dwindled and dwindled in our wake until they melted into their surroundings, and we were once more alone upon the billiard board. The train toiled over this infinity, like a snail upon a plastered wall; and being the one thing moving, it was wonderful what huge proportions it began to assume in our regard. It seemed miles in length, and either end of it within but a step of the horizon. Even my own body or my own hand seemed a great thing in that emptiness... Day and night above the roar if the train, our ears were kept busy with the incessant chirp of grasshoppers: a noise like the winding up of countless clocks and watches, which began after a while to seem proper to that land./ To one hurrying through by steam, there was a certain exhilaration in this spacious vacancy, this greatness of the air, this discovery of the whole arch of heaven, this straight, unbroken, prison-line of the horizon. Yet once could not but reflect upon the weariness of those who passed by there in old days, at the foot's pace of oxen, painfully urging their teams, and with no landmark but that unattainable evening sun for which they steered, and which daily fled them by an equal stride...".

    (In making this transcript, we have followed the manuscript rather than printed text, but have ignored the several revisions, some of which have been made during the act of composition, with others entered later. The reference to the snail being "upon a plastered wall" does not appear in the published version, and was presumably deleted at proof stage. The most significant alteration is a deleted passage that follows immediately on from "but a step of the horizon": "The panting of the engine was like a cosmical disturbance, and the smoke, though it was rapidly sucked in, appeared to shadow the world". The printed text displays one other difference which seems to us to be a case of uncorrected misreading. Where the published version reads, rather oddly, "Even my own body or my own head seemed a great thing in that emptiness"; the manuscript clearly reads "Even my own body or my own hand seemed a great thing in that emptiness", which seems to us to make a good deal more sense).

    Stevenson was travelling to join his future wife, Fanny Osbourne, in California. Ten years older than Stevenson, and with a husband from whom she was separated, she had asked him to join her in California, and Stevenson had set off without telling his parents, and in the face of opposition from his friends. In order to travel as cheaply as possible, while at the same time gathering material for a book – the first part of which was to be published as The Amateur Emigrant in 1895, the second as Across the Plains in 1892 – he travelled as an emigrant, sailing from Greenock to New York, transferring to Jersey City where he boarded one of the famous Emigrant Trains to California. The journey took twelve days, the crossing of the plains of Nebraska described in our manuscript taking place on Saturday 23 August 1879. His account has become something of a classic, regarded as an important primary source, not only for the history railway travel but for the experiences of newly-arrived immigrants to America, as for the ecology and changing landscape through which he passed (it has, for example, been recreated by Jim Murphy, in Across America on an Emigrant Train, 1993).

    Across the Plains: with Other Memories and Essays was assembled and seen through the press by Sidney Colvin, Stevenson by then being settled in Samoa. It was published in 1892, and our manuscript given away by Colvin soon after; both in Stevenson's lifetime. Colvin, Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, was regarded by Stevenson as his dearest friend and literary mentor, and had a wide circle of eminent friends and acquaintances, among whom, clearly, was Margot Tennant, the famously outspoken 'Soul', who two years later was to marry Asquith.
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  1. Simon Roberts
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