It was a logomachy of my making

The Stevensons arrived at Braemar, Aberdeenshire, on August 2nd, 1881.

Alexander Hay Japp (1837-1905), Scottish author, journalist and publisher, was known for some time under his pseudonym H.A. Page, and later as a biographer of De Quincey. In 1877 he had published an essay about the American author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, and he had written to RLS criticising statements of fact and opinion in his essay on Thoreau, and expressing the hope that they might meet and discuss their differences. In the Spectator of 17 June 1880 he criticised RLS’s statement, in his Cornhill essay, that Thoreau had ‘no trace of pity’. In 1905 Japp wrote a book about his friendship and correspondence with RLS: Robert Louis Stevenson, A Record, An estimate and a Memorial.

The Scots word ‘wale’ means ‘pick’, ‘choicest one’.

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 3, 835.]

To Alexander  H. Japp [Colvin 1911, 2, pp. 54-55]

The Cottage, Castleton of Braemar, Sunday [7 August 1881].

My dear Sir,

I should long ago have written to thank you for your kind and frank letter; but in my state of health papers are apt to get mislaid, and your letter has been vainly hunted for until this (Sunday) morning. […]

I regret I shall not be able to see you in Edinburgh; one visit to Edinburgh has already cost me too dear in that invaluable particular health; but if it should be at all possible for you to push on as far as Braemar, I believe you would find an attentive listener, and I can offer you a bed, a drive, and necessary food, etc.

Edinburgh fog []


Castleton of Braemar, 1898 []

Arrival of the coach at the Fife Arms, Braemar, 1880 []

RLS’s cottage at Braemar, aka the Treasure Island Cottage []

Treasure Island Cottage, Braemar []

Treasure Island Cottage, Braemar []

If, however, you should not be able to come thus far, I can promise you two things: First, I shall religiously revise what I have written, and bring out more clearly the point of view from which I regarded Thoreau; second, I shall in the Preface record your objection.

RLS’s essay on Thoreau, Cornhill Magazine, Jan. 1880 []

Henry David Thoreau (1817–62), American author and philosopher, best known for his book ‘Walden’, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings, and his essay on Civil Disobedience []


The point of view (and I must ask you not to forget that any such short paper is essentially only a section through a man) was this: I desired to look at the man through his books. Thus, for instance, when I mentioned his return to the pencil-making, I did it only in passing (perhaps I was wrong), because it seemed to me not an illustration of his principles, but a brave departure from them. Thousands of such there were I do not doubt; still, they might be hardly to my purpose, though, as you say so, some of them would be.

Our difference as to ‘pity’ I suspect was […] a logomachy of my making. No pitiful acts on his part would surprise me; I know he would be more pitiful in practice than most of the whiners; but the spirit of that practice would still seem to be unjustly described by the word pity. When I try to be measured, I find myself usually suspected of a sneaking unkindness for my subject; but you may be sure, sir, I would give up most other things to be so good a man as Thoreau. Even my knowledge of him leads me thus far.

Thoreau’s best known book: ‘Walden or Life in the Woods’, 1854 []

Should you find yourself able to push on […] to Braemar – it may even be on your way – believe me, your visit will be most welcome. The weather is cruel, but the place is, as I dare say you know, the very ‘wale’ of Scotland – bar Tummelside. – Yours very sincerely,

Robert Louis Stevenson

Loch Tummel, Perthshire, 6 miles west of Pitlochry []

Loch Tummel, Perthshire []


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