Across the Plains, by Robert Louis Stevenson, Allen Press (1950)

Across the Plains is the second of three travel books from Robert Louis Stevenson describing his travel to and across America in 1879-1880. While the first work in this travel memoir trilogy, The Amateur Emigrant, focuses on his journey by ship from Europe to New York City, Across the Plains begins with Stevenson’s arriving in New York City and goes on to describe his train journey, filled with fellow immigrants, from New York to San Francisco. The third in this travel series was The Silverado Squatterswhich contains Stevenson’s account of his time in and around  Napa Valley, California, for his honeymoon with Fanny Vandegrift in 1880 (the ‘must have’ edition of which from Arion Press was reviewed here a few weeks back). Stevenson wrote Across the Plains in San Francisco during the winter of 1879-1880, first publishing it in Longman’s Magazine in 1883. Its first appearance in book form came in 1892, being issued by Charles Scribner’s Sons in the United States and by Chatto & Windus in London. There is no finer publication of Across the Plains then the 1950 release from the Allen Press. The prospectus from that edition describes it with the following:

That the hardships of his transcontinental railroad trip were such as to make it a severe trial even to a man in robust health will be abundantly clear to readers of his narrative, but it is only by reading between the lines that one realizes how, in his already weakened condition, the ordeal brought him to the verge of complete collapse. Yet such was his fortitude that throughout the long journey he disregarded his personal misery and observed with tolerance and hood humor, and often with flashes of wit, the curious human spectacle of life on an emigrant train, its hardships and compensating satisfactions, the crudities, rascalities and unexpected generosities of his fellow passengers, all the while storing up in memory a series of shrewdly observed impressions of the scenery and customs of the strange land through which he was passing. His story will always be held in special esteem by those who recognize in it not only a true and revealing picture of a phase of American life long since passed from view, but also equally for its inspiring quality as the production of a desperately ill man gallantly overcoming his infirmities and writing with candor and charm.

Those who have read a myriad of Stevenson’s works know the heights he was capable of across many genres. Stevenson (1850-1894) is one of history’s greatest writers whose works remain 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 handful of travel writings such as Travels with a DonkeyThe Silverado Squatters and the work being reviewed here. A full account of Stevenson’s life and writings can be found at the excellent RLS website. His travel writings are remarkable for their clear and honest insight into common humanity, descriptive vivacity, and love of the experience of life. One can only imagine what more could have come from Stevenson if he lived beyond the short 44 years he was given.

Readers of Books and Vines know that the L&D Allen Press is one of the great private fine presses of the twentieth century.  The first book they published in 1940 called The Trail of Beauty was an homage to Lewis Allen’s father and was a collection of his maxims and philosophical thoughts gathered throughout a lifetime of experience and travel. For two decades thereafter they published modest volumes, many as commissions from the Book Club of California. They continued in this manner until 1957 when they decided to make this their full time vocation and pursue making handmade books of the highest quality. At this point they sold everything in California, took a sabbatical and moved to France to learn as much as possible about handmade papers and the art of printing books by hand using the letterpress. When they returned two years later they began making books of extraordinary quality, beginning with their folio-sized edition of Joseph Conrad’s short story Youth in 1959 (see here for a Books and Vines review of such). In all, they continued their work until they were well into their 70′s. After over a half century of working by themselves and printing 58 books entirely by hand they finally retired in 1992. This was truly a remarkable enterprise and they have left behind a body of work that is of unquestioned and uncompromising quality.

Like pretty much everything from Lewis and Dorothy Allen, this book exudes the elements synonymous with works from a top private press. It is hand-done, unique and quite handsome. Like most Allen Press works, there is judicious use of color that makes each page beautiful and easy to the eye. Here, artist Mallette Dean accomplishes this with eight woodcut vignettes in deep blue-green matched with chapter titles in vermilion, and calligraphic running headings positioned above a stylized blue-green train decoration on each page. These flourishes along with generous white space results in a very alluring page. The use of color also is utilized on the binding with a three-color, overall pattern design for the paper decorative boards — railroad tracks wandering across plains and around mountains. Of course the type is hand-set, here Bulmer is used with display type of Union Pearl, printed on the Colts Armory press. All is printed on hand-made, all-rag Oxbow paper (another ‘of course’). The edition is limited to 200 copies. Remarkably, a patient collector can find this for $250-350 in fine condition, and less for those willing to accept some flaws.

About the Edition

  • Designed, printed and bound by Lewis and Dorothy Allen
  • Introduction by Oscar Lewis
  • Illustrations, woodcut head-pieces and vignettes in blue-green, by Mallette Dean
  • Title Page decoration a wood-engraving by Dr. James D. Hart
  • Printed on hand-made, all-rag Oxbow paper in three colors
  • Type is hand-set Bulmer with display type of Union Pearl, printed on the Colts Armory press
  • Decorated boards in three colors by Mallette Dean
  • 10″ x 6 1/2″, 76 pages
  • Limited to 200 copies

Pictures of the Edition

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Across the Plains, Allen Press, Book in Slipcase
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Book in Slipcase
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Spine and Covers
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Spine and Covers
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Title Page
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Title Page
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Macro of Title Page
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Macro of Title Page
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Colophon
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Colophon
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Sample Illustration #1 and Text (Introduction)
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Sample Illustration #1 and Text (Introduction)
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Macro of Text (Introduction)
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Macro of Text (Introduction)
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Sample Text #1
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Sample Text #1
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Sample Illustration #2 with Text
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Sample Illustration #2 with Text
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Macro of Sample Illustration #2 with Text
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Macro of Sample Illustration #2 with Text
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Sample Text #2
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Sample Text #2
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Macro of Sample Text
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Macro of Sample Text
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Sample Text #3
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Sample Text #3
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Macro of Sample Illustration #6 with Text
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Sample Illustration #3 with Text
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Macro of Sample Illustration #6
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Macro of Sample Illustration #3
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Sample Illustration #7 with Text
Across the Plains, Allen Press, Sample Illustration #4 with Text

3 thoughts on “Across the Plains, by Robert Louis Stevenson, Allen Press (1950)

  1. Another beautifully designed, elegant little book from the Allen Press before that abandoned doing commission work for the Book Club of California and set out to do their own thing.

    A less well known beautiful little RLS book is an edition of ‘Prayers Written at Vailima’ published by the Melville Press (1999). The prayers were written by RLS while living in the small village of Vailima in Samoa, where he died unexpectedly and it is RLS’s last published work. The prayers were recited each evening by RLS, his family and the Samoans who worked for him and were part of his household. The book uses extraordinary materials throughout including a featherweight Hiromi Sansui rice paper and a deep red raw silk cloth over boards for the binding . It is printed letterpress and features wood engravings of Vailima and Stevenson’s villa by Catherine Kanner.

    Iw was published in an edition of 200 and it is difficult to find, usually selling for $200 to $225 in NF or fine condition. Well worth seeking out.

  2. A very nice edition; thank you for sharing this. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Stevenson’s account of his rail journey across the States. As you correctly point out, he has a rare knack for invigorating the mundane observations of life, enlivening them with his craft and reflecting, with both wit and charm, on those life lessons that all but Stevenson made it his prime business to do. I have read all of Stevenson’s travel writings and I encourage readers to read The Amateur Emigrant, Across the Plains and The Silverado Squatters as a trilogy. But we should not neglect the little known ‘The Old and the New Pacific Capitals’, his essay on Monterey, for their he stayed for several months prior to his wedding. It’s well worth the read, and certainly a mention when discussing the more well know travel writings.

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