“Hasty reading is the fit precursor of hasty writing”

In his review in Nature Illustrated Journal of Science of 8 March 1888, P.G. T[ait] criticised RLS’s Memoir of Fleemin Jenkin saying that ‘the weird imagination of the writer has proved too much for him, and some of his “situations” are altogether overcharged’. He also criticised RLS’s story of how as a student he obtained his Class Certicate in Engineering from Jenkin. RLS had related how Jenkin had at first refused him a certificate because he had failed to attend the class; but then found a compromise following RLS’s plea that it was for his father’s eye only and not for any official use.

[For critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 6, 2040.]

To the Editor of Nature [Nature,12 Apr 1888, 559]

[Saranac Lake,] March 28 [1888]

I have read with singular pain a paragraph in your notice (signed with the initials of one whom I admire and respect) of my Life of Fleeming Jenkin.


File:Tait Peter Guthrie.jpg

Peter Guthrie Tait (1831-1901), Scottish physicist and early pioneer in thermodynamics. He is best known for the Treatise on Natural Philosophy, which he co-wrote with Kelvin, and his early investigations into knot theory [https://upload.wikimedia.org]





To accuse a man of falsehood in private life is a strong step. But I must explain to your reviewer, I might lie to him all day long and not be so disgraced as if I put one single falsehood in a book. For the making of books is my trade by which I live; I supply them on honour, and the public gives me bread for them in confidence. Your reviewer will perhaps more readily understand what he has done (I am sure in ignorance) if I supply him with a parallel. To say that a man of science was a liar would be highly disagreeable; but if I were to say he had falsified an experiment, and to say so publicly in print, I should be curious to see the expression of his face.

RLS’s friend, H.C. Fleeming Jenkin (1833-1885), and W. Thomson Lord Kelvin became consulting engineers to most of the international cable-laying ventures of the time [http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk]

I dwell upon this because it is plain your reviewer scarcely understands what literature is, and I fear others may be equally at sea. On the merely personal matter, that I am supposed to tell a deliberate falsehood on my own authority and about my dead friend, I will make but one remark. Hastly reading is the fit precursor of hasty writing; in no word have I indicated that the certificate in question was “worthy the name”; and the terms of the document are at the reviewer’s service to-morrow, if he be curious.

Robert Louis Stevenson


RLS’s letter to the Editor, published in Nature, April 12, 1888 [https://ia802700.us.archive.org]

This entry was posted in Letters, Robert Louis Stevenson and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “Hasty reading is the fit precursor of hasty writing”

  1. rdury says:

    Wonderful to be able to read Tait’s review—it is so aggressively critical that I wonder why. Stevenson’s style obviously was thought to be inappropriate for scientific biography, but I remember reading the _Memoir_ and being really impressed at the work of biography and also at the humane character of Fleeming Jenkin—not just a task performed out of duty but a real example of literary biography. And Stevenson’s sympathy enables him to understand the subject much better than would any conventional and formal official biography, which was what Tait was probably expecting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. rdury says:

    Wonderful also to see Stevenson’s confidence in replying to the rumbling disapproval of the Professor.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.