In France, RLS had met Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, the American lady who was afterwards to become his wife. Her domestic relations had not been fortunate; and almost from their first meeting, at Grez in 1876, he conceived for her an attachment which was to transform and determine his life.
On her return to America with her children in the autumn of 1878, she determined to seek a divorce from her husband. Hearing of her intention, together with very disquieting news of her health, and hoping that after she had obtained the divorce he might make her his wife, RLS suddenly started for California on 7 August 1879, boarding the Devonia at Greenock, Scotland, and arriving in New York on 17 August.
For what he knew must seem to his friends, and especially to his father, so wild an errand, he would ask for no supplies from home; but resolved, risking his whole future on the issue, to test during this adventure his power of supporting himself, and eventually others, by his own labours in literature. In order from the outset to save as much as possible, he made the journey in the steerage and the emigrant train. With this prime motive of economy was combined a second, that of learning for himself the pinch of life as it is felt by the unprivileged and the poor, and also a third, that of turning his experiences to literary account. On board ship he took daily notes with this intent, but his ‘new book’, The Amateur Emigrant, will not be published in full until 1895, one year after his death. He wrote moreover The Story of a Lie for an English magazine (the finished story mentioned at the beginning of this letter).
In The Amateur Emigrant RLS will describe how he stayed, the night after his arrival, at Reunion House, a cheap lodging house at 10 West Street, N.Y., and spent the next day in ‘nightmare wanderings in New York’ visiting in pouring rain ‘banks, post-offices, railway-offices, restaurants, publishers, booksellers, money-changers.’
[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 3, 643.]
To Sidney Colvin [Colvin 1911, 1, pp. 281-282]
On board S.S. ‘Devonia,’ an hour or two out of New York [17 August 1879].
My dear Colvin,
I have finished my story. The handwriting is not good because of the ship’s misconduct: thirty-one pages in ten days at sea is not bad. […]
I shall write a general procuration about this story on another bit of paper. I am not very well; bad food, bad air, and hard work […] have brought me down. But the spirits keep good. […] The voyage has been most interesting, and will make, if not a series of Pall Mall articles, at least the first part of a new book. The last weight on me has been trying to keep notes for this purpose. Indeed, I have worked like a horse, and am now as tired as a donkey. If I should have to push on far by rail, I shall bring nothing but my fine bones to port.
Good-bye to you all. I suppose it is now late afternoon with you and all across the seas. What shall I find over there? I dare not wonder. – Ever yours,
[New York, 18 August]
P.S. – […] I go on my way tonight, if I can; if not, tomorrow: emigrant train ten to fourteen days’ journey; warranted extreme discomfort. The only American institution which has yet won my respect is the rain. One sees it is a new country, they are so free with their water. I have been steadily drenched for twenty-four hours; waterproof wet through; immortal spirit fitfully blinking up in spite. Bought a copy of my own work, and the man said ‘By Stevenson.’ – ‘Indeed,’ says I. – ‘Yes, sir,’ says he. – Scene closes.
I am not beaten yet, though disappointed. If I am, it’s for good this time; you know what ‘for good’ means in my vocabulary something inside of 12 months perhaps; but who knows? At least, if I fail in my great purpose, I shall see some wild life in the West and visit both Florida and Labrador ere I return. But I don’t yet know if I have the courage to stick to life without it. Man, I was sick, sick, sick of this last year.