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The Silverado Squatters, by Robert Louis Stevenson, Arion Press (1996)

Concerning Robert Louis Stevenson‘s The Silverado Squatters I must start with a simple exhortation for you to drop what you are doing and simply read it. This is travel writing done right! Engaging, interesting and thought-provoking, it pulls you into it’s time and place as if you were there. Secondly, this edition from Arion Press is the one to read. With atmospheric photographs from the renowned photographer Michael Kenna sprinkled throughout, an introduction from the chronicler of California, Oscar Lewis, notes from the great American literary scholar James D. Hart, and a splendid book design — unique but apropos — by Andrew Hoyem, this edition is magnificent.

The Silverado Squatters, published in 1883 is Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of his trip with Fanny Vandegrift to Napa Valley, California, for their honeymoon in 1880. Deciding they could not afford the hotel in Calistoga which they had planned on staying in, they ended up in a dilapidated mining camp (Silverado) shack in the Mayacamas Mountains on the side of Mount Saint Helena. Stevenson was enamored with the mountainous location, equating it with Mount Blanc and using the scenery of which as descriptive detail in his Treasure Island.  As the prospectus mentions, Treasure Island‘s Spyglass Hill is Mount Saint Helena and many other scenes:

…were inspired by California, specifically the beaches of Monterey and the forests and rocky outcroppings of Mount Saint Helena. The character Long John Silver, takes his name from the deserted silver mining camp near Calistoga, Silverado, where Stevenson lived with Fanny and her son Lloyd. The woods and abandoned mines were the scene of family playacting, orchestrated by Stevenson, whose imagination filled the mountainside with characters who would later inhabit ‘Treasure Island’.

The area in which he stayed is now the Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. The Silverado Museum in St. Helena, California, is dedicated to Stevenson.

Silverado, Mayacamas and Mount Saint Helena all cause the heart of Napa wine collectors to skip a beat, so of course I found his descriptions (and for that matter his predictions about the area) utterly fascinating. He meets some of the first California wine growers, including Jacob Schram of Schramsberg Winery, who had already been at it for 18 years. The prospectus highlights that his chapter on Napa Wine “anticipates the enthusiasm of today’s aficionados of California wines” with Stevenson writing:

Wine in California is still in the experimental stage. The beginning of vine-planting is like the beginning of mining for the precious metals: the wine grower also ‘prospects’. One corner of land after another is tried with one kind of grape after another. This is a failure; that is better; a third best. So, bit by bit, they grope about for their Clos Vougeot and Lafitte.

Nearly poetic, while stating that this experimental California wine at the time was merely ‘good’ and ‘raw’ at best, he goes on to say accurately predict what was to come:

Those lodes and pockets of earth, more precious than the precious ores, that yield inimitable fragrance and soft fire; those virtuous Bonanzas, where the soil has sublimated under sun and stars to something finer, and the wine is bottled poetry: these still lie undiscovered; chaparral conceals, thicket embowers them; the miner chips the rock and wanders farther, and the grizzly muses undisturbed. But there they bide their hour, awaiting their Columbus; and nature nurses and prepares them. The smack of California earth shall linger on the palate of your grandson.

Written as only one who appreciates terroir could possible write! It was not just eery prescience that drove Stevenson’s vision of the future of California wine. As a wine lover, Stevenson needed such optimism as vineyards throughout Europe were being completely decimated by Phylloxera, of which Stevenson wrote:

Some of us, kind old Pagans, watch with dread the shadows falling on the age, how the unconquerable worm invades the sunny terraces of France, and Bordeaux is no more, and the Rhone a mere Arabia Petraea. Chateau Neuf is dead…Hermitage…lies expiring by the river.

It looked as if fine wine was in danger of becoming a thing of the past. Stevenson writes of a hope that California will step in and provide the world what is being lost:

We look timidly forward, with a spark of hope, to where the new lands, already weary of producing gold, begin to green with vineyards.

While California wine was to eventually become equal to (okay, at least near-equal) to the great vineyards of France, the New World did end up providing the solution to the Phylloxera blight. It turned out American rootstock was resistant to the pest, so Europe’s vineyards were essentially torn up and replanted  grafted on American root stock.

Besides these California wine pioneers, Stevenson meets many a rattlesnake, uses a telephone for the first time, visits a petrified forest and describes his interaction in detail with a number of uniquely American characters that come across his path– all written in a frank and engrossing manner. Like one expects from Stevenson, he provides wonderful quotes, such as “wherever a man is, there will be a lie” or that from Wordsworth “Our noisy years seem moments in the being of the eternal silence.” Truisms and imagery abound such as:

So it is when men dwell in the open air; it is one of the simple pleasures that we lose by living cribbed and covered in a house, that, though the coming of the day is still the most inspiriting, yet day’s departure, also, and the return of night, refresh, renew, and quiet us; and in the pastures of the dusk stand, like cattle, exulting in the absence of the load.


But the more he is alone with nature, the greater man and his doings bulk in the consideration of his fellow-men.

The book starts with a quote from Cicero that Stevenson choose for his epigraph. The quote seems to perfectly encapsulate the type of people Stevenson encountered on his travels in California, the type of people who made California what it is, a spirit which I fear is long forgotten:

Some of them, too, lived in the country and found their pleasure in the management of their private estates. Such men have had the same aims as kings — to suffer no want, to be subject to no authority, to enjoy their liberty, that is, in its essence, to live just as they please.

As for Stevenson himself, Arion Press writes that:

The life of Robert Louis Stevenson is itself one of the most romantic stories in the annals of English literature. It has come to define the very type of nineteenth-century literary genius as a social rebel, risk taker, and global wanderer, doomed to die young.

Stevenson (1850-1894) is one of history’s greatest writers whose works are amongst the most read in the world today.  While in the intellectual craziness of the twentieth century his literary reputation waned, works such as Treasure IslandKidnapped, and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde ensured that sanity would  prevail and Stevenson would again be critically recognized for his immense contribution to the Western Canon. Despite his short life, Stevenson was a prolific writer producing many works of lasting value. Besides the above mentioned stories, he wrote numerous other well regarded novels, including The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses and The Master of Ballantrae; many short stories such as New Arabian Nights and The Beach of Falesá; poetry, such as A Child’s Garden of Versesand a slew of travel writings such as Travels with a Donkey and the work being reviewed here (of which Arion Press correctly mentions “To read The Silverado Squatters is to understand Stevenson’s greatness as a writer about place.”). One can only imagine what more could have come from Stevenson if he lived beyond the short 44 years he was given.

The Arion Press prospectus gives an overview of the publishing history of The Silverado Squatters. It was first published in Century Magazine in late 1883. The first book edition was published in London by Chatto and Windus, also in 1883, with a frontispiece by Joseph Strong. The first American edition was published in 1884 by Roberts Brothers in Boston. Three other limited editions were produced by San Francisco Bay Area printers. In 1923 John Henry Nash printed 380 copies for Charles Scribner’s Sons with drawings by Howard Whitford Willard, it being the first illustrated edition. In 1952 the Grabhorn Press printed 900 copies for publication by Joseph A. Sullivan reproducing the frontispiece from the first edition. In 1972 the Grace Hoper Press printed 500 copies for the publisher Lewis Osborne of Ashland, Oregon with drawings by Kay Atwood. Stevenson’s handwritten journal is now at the Huntington Library. It was published with a limitation of 400 by Grabhorn Press for the Book Cub of California in 1954 as Silverado Journal.

The Arion edition was designed by Andrew Hoyem. It takes its typographic reference from the 1883 English edition mentioned above. The types are Monotype Modern 8A (an old style letterform from the same period adapted for machine composition on the Monotype) and handset Craw Modern for display. The text is printed letterpress in black and red-brown inks, reminding me of the soil in the area in which Stevenson visited. The paper is German mouldmade Zerkall, sturdy and a good canvas for the photographs.

As for the photographs, Michael Kenna retraced Stevenson’s steps in the Napa Valley, and provides 16 photographs that nicely capture the setting and the atmosphere in which Stevenson wrote. Mr. Kenna is an acclaimed photographer whose work has been exhibited in museums around the world, including Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the Moscow Museum of Modern Art; and the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. His photography has also been featured in other fantastic Arion Press editions The Hound of the BaskervillesLe Désert de Retz and Paris Walks. Mr. Kenna was made a Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture in 2001. Please check out Mr. Kenna’s website to see a great variety of his splendid work.

The photographs were printed in duotone by Phelps-Schaefer Litho-Graphics. The binding is ‘super-cool’ to use a technical term! It is hand-sewn with cork over boards and a red-brown cloth spine. The edition is limited to 250 copies, and occasionally comes up on secondary markets for $600-800 or so.

About the Edition

Pictures of the Edition

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The Silverado Squatters, Arion Press, Book in Slipcase
The Silverado Squatters, Arion Press, Spine and Covers
The Silverado Squatters, Arion Press, Macro of Spine
The Silverado Squatters, Arion Press, Macro of Cover
The Silverado Squatters, Arion Press, Half-Title
The Silverado Squatters, Arion Press, Frontispiece and Title Page
The Silverado Squatters, Arion Press, Macro of Title Page
The Silverado Squatters, Arion Press, Contents
The Silverado Squatters, Arion Press, List of Photographs and Sample Text #1
The Silverado Squatters, Arion Press, Macro of Sample Text #1
The Silverado Squatters, Arion Press, Sample Photograph #1 with Text
The Silverado Squatters, Arion Press, Macro of Text
The Silverado Squatters, Arion Press, Sample Text #2
The Silverado Squatters, Arion Press, Sample Photograph #2 with Text
The Silverado Squatters, Arion Press, Sample Text #3
The Silverado Squatters, Arion Press, Sample Photograph #3 with Text
The Silverado Squatters, Arion Press, Sample Text #4
The Silverado Squatters, Arion Press, Sample Text #5
The Silverado Squatters, Arion Press, Sample Text #6
The Silverado Squatters, Arion Press, Sample Text #7
The Silverado Squatters, Arion Press, Sample Photograph #4 with Text
The Silverado Squatters, Arion Press, Sample Text #8
The Silverado Squatters, Arion Press, Colophon
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