The strange case of Robert Louis Stevenson

In the past year, I’ve been rereading an old 24-volume set of the writing of RL Stevenson. That got me wondering about his literary reputation. Is he viewed as a great writer?

Stevenson was one of Borges’s favorite authors:

If serial rereading is one way to define worship, then one of Borges’s most revered gods was Robert Louis Stevenson. This even though in Borges’s time, Stevenson’s work was basically considered kid stuff. The first seven editions of the Norton Anthology of English Literature do not deign to include Stevenson, though he finally surfaces in the eighth edition, published in 2006. Borges not only commented on books that didn’t exist. He read books — pulpy and arcane alike — that few others bothered to see.

Borges was undoubtedly a great writer, and an even greater reader. But can we take this seriously? Is it possible that Stevenson was actually a great writer, unrecognized by the literary establishment? Or is this just an odd quirk of Borges?

It turns out that Proust also loved Stevenson. Here’s Swann (speaking for Proust):

But Stevenson is a great writer, I can assure you, M. de Goncourt, a very great one, equal to the greatest.

Regarding Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Nabokov suggested that rather than being a simple detective story, it, “belongs to the same order of art as, for instance, Madame Bovary or Dead Souls”.

Borges, Proust and Nabokov are among the most perceptive readers that have ever lived. Their testimony ought to be sufficient. But if not, we also find that Henry James greatly appreciated Stevenson. So did Walter Benjamin, Fernando Pessoa, Italo Calvino, Cesare Pavese and Bertolt Brecht.

Surely that’s enough? if not, add Hemingway, Kipling, Chesterton, Jack London, Natsumi Soseki, Javier Marias, Roberto Bolano.

There are far too many great writers on this list for us to brush away their Stevenson appreciation. So what’s going on here? It cannot be that Stevenson is too difficult for the literary establishment, as he’s also popular with average readers. I suspect it is more nearly the opposite problem—Stevenson is too pleasurable. Some critics wrongly equate greatness with difficulty.

I also see this in film. The most astute film critics recognize people like Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant to be being among the greatest actors of all time. Average moviegoers also like their films. But there’s an intermediate layer of middlebrow taste that ranks them far below “method actors” like Marlon Brando. Some literary critics are looking for the literary equivalent of method acting (say the pessimistic psychological novel), and they are not finding it in Stevenson.

It’s best to avoid judging a work of art by preconceived idea of what art should look like; evaluate it in terms of what the artist is trying to do. Does it succeed in its own terms?

I also read Chesterton’s excellent short biography of Stevenson. At one point he is discussing a novel for adults that is often viewed as a novel for children (Treasure Island), and remarks:

First of all it was, I think, a sort of dash for liberty; and especially a dash for happiness. It was a defense of the possibility of happiness; and a kind of answer to the question, “Can a man be happy?” But it was an answer of a curious kind, defiantly delivered in rather curious circumstances. It was the escape of a prisoner as he was led in chains from the prison of Puritanism to the prison of Pessimism. Few have understood that passage in the history of manufacturing civilization of northwest Europe and America. Few have realized that the gloomier sort of modern materialism often came upon a class that was only just escaping from an equally gloomy sort of spirituality. They had hardly come out of the shadow of Calvin when they came into the shadow of Schopenhauer. From the world of the worm that dieth not, they passed into a world of men dying like worms; and in the case of some of the decadents, almost exulting in being devoured by worms like Herod. Puritanism and pessimism, in short, were prisons that stood near together; and none have ever counted how many left one only for the other; or under what a covered way they passed. Stevenson’s escapade was an escape; a sort of runaway romantic evasion for the purpose of escaping both. And as a fugitive has often fled and hidden in his mother’s house, this outlaw took refuge in his old home; barricaded himself in the nursery and almost tried to creep into the dolls’-house. And he did it upon a kind of instinct, that here had dwelt definite pleasures which the puritan could not forbid nor the pessimist deny. But it was a strange story. He had his answer to the question,”Can a man be happy?”; and it was, “Yes, before he grows to be a man.”

And this:

[M]ost men know that there is a difference between the intense momentary emotion called up by memory of the loves of youth, and the yet more instantaneous but more prefect pleasure of the memory of childhood. The former is always narrow and individual, piercing the heart like a rapier; but the latter is like a flash of lightening, for one split second revealing a whole entire landscape; it is not the memory of a particular pleasure any more than of a particular pain, but of a whole that shone with wonder. The first is only a lover remembering love; the second is like a dead man remembering life.

Borges’s favorite Stevenson novel was “The Wrecker“.

On the surface, “The Wrecker” could hardly resemble a Borges story less. At 500 pages, and full of incident, “The Wrecker” has the feel of a 27-course Victorian feast, served on a table crowded with doilies and finger bowls and odd utensils whose functions we can’t even imagine . . .

So why did Borges read and reread “The Wrecker”? What was it that he believed every detail of? And how was his own writing a way of reading Stevenson’s sacredly profane text? Borges’s readerly attention re-invents Stevenson, just as his writerly attention created those vast unwritten books that Borges chose not to write, but just to imagine and comment on.

Dodd and the other characters often marvel at how their lives have become as full of surprise and drama as a dime novel, and this is, basically, a happy thing. It’s as if to say that here, finally, are circumstances that do justice to the scope and scale of my emotions. It’s the idea of the objective correlative, done extra boyishly. In “The Wrecker,” the hyperbolized material world measures up to the outsize passions of the heart.

In contrast, Harold Bloom doesn’t even mention The Wrecker on his Western Canon, which includes these Stevenson books:

Robert Louis Stevenson:



Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Treasure Island

The New Arabian Nights

The Master of Ballantrae

Weir of Hermiston

So who’s right? I’m not qualified to say, but when I reread Stevenson’s novels, I found The Wrecker to be the most pleasurable. (Which is high praise, as all of Stevenson’s novels are pleasurable.) It’s interesting to think about why.

Alfred Hitchcock used Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant in many of his best American films:

Thus, it appears the Stewart–Hitchcock films of the 1950s aimed to be more serious and Stewart’s character was an exact reflection of the director himself while the Grant–Hitchcock films during the same era were more light-hearted and Grant’s character was what Hitchcock wished he could be.

The Stewart films tend to be a bit better (especially Vertigo and Rear Window), and I suspect that’s because they were more personal. Similarly, The Wrecker is the novel that’s closest to Stevenson’s life and personal interests. He knows the world of Paris, Edinburgh and San Francisco in 1880 much better than the earlier societies portrayed in his historical romances. And the dilemma faced by the protagonist (Loudon Dodd) is similar to the struggles that Stevenson faced. He rebelled from a successful father. He was drawn to both a life of literature and a life of adventure. Here’s Dodd in the opening paragraph of chapter 15:

In my early days I was a man, the most wedded to his idols of my generation. I was a dweller under roofs: the gull of that which we call civilisation; a superstitious votary of the plastic arts; a cit; and a prop of restaurants. I had a comrade in those days, somewhat of an outsider, though he moved in the company of artists, and a man famous in our small world for gallantry, knee breeches, and dry and pregnant sayings. He, looking on the long meals and waxing bellies of the French, whom I confess I somewhat imitated, branded me as “a cultivator of restaurant fat.” And I believe he had his finger on the dangerous spot; I believe, if things had gone smooth with me, I should be now swollen like a prize-ox in body, and fallen in mind to a thing perhaps as low as many types of bourgeois—the implicit or exclusive artist. That was a home word of Pinkerton’s, deserving to be writ in letters of gold on the portico of every school of art: “What I can’t see is why you should want to do nothing else.” The dull man is made, not by the nature, but by the degree of his immersion in a single business. And all the more if that be sedentary, uneventful, and ingloriously safe. More than one half of him will then remain unexercised and undeveloped; the rest will be distended and deformed by over-nutrition, over-cerebration, and the heat of rooms. And I have often marvelled at the impudence of gentlemen, who describe and pass judgment on the life of man, in almost perfect ignorance of all its necessary elements and natural careers. Those who dwell in clubs and studios may paint excellent pictures or write enchanting novels. There is one thing that they should not do: they should pass no judgment on man’s destiny, for it is a thing with which they are unacquainted. Their own life is an excrescence of the moment, doomed, in the vicissitude of history, to pass and disappear: the eternal life of man, spent under sun and rain and in rude physical effort, lies upon one side, scarce changed since the beginning.

This is a shot across the bow at future critics who would judge Stevenson by the standards of the “psychological novel”.

I suppose that one reason this novel appeals to me is that in my own life I’ve alternated between the physical and the intellectual worlds. I had an intellectual job, but lots of people I know have careers that deal with the physical world. And when I was young did a great deal of physical work.

The first paragraph of chapter 14 also resonated with me:

The sun of the morrow had not cleared the morning bank: the lake of the lagoon, the islets, and the wall of breakers now beginning to subside, still lay clearly pictured in the flushed obscurity of early day, when we stepped again upon the deck of the Flying Scud: Nares, myself, the mate, two of the hands, and one dozen bright, virgin axes, in war against that massive structure. I think we all drew pleasurable breath; so profound in man is the instinct of destruction, so engaging is the interest of the chase. For we were now about to taste, in a supreme degree, the double joys of demolishing a toy and playing “Hide the handkerchief”—sports from which we had all perhaps desisted since the days of infancy. And the toy we were to burst in pieces was a deep-sea ship; and the hidden good for which we were to hunt was a prodigious fortune.

Some of my most pleasurable experiences were successful treasure hunts—in my case for valuable prints and posters, tucked away in flea markets and out of the way antique shops.

I’ve always been a bit sickly, and Stevenson was even more so (albeit less of a whiner.) One silver lining is that good health feels better after a long illness than it does for someone who is almost never sick. (As I write this, I’ve been sick 3 of the past 4 weeks—not Covid.)

The Wrecker begins with a highly entertaining introductory section that lasts 220 pages, before Dodd finally began his adventure on a sailing ship from San Francisco to Midway Island. Here’s the first paragraph in chapter 12:

I love to recall the glad monotony of a Pacific voyage, when the trades are not stinted, and the ship, day after day, goes free. The mountain scenery of trade-wind clouds, watched (and in my case painted) under every vicissitude of light—blotting stars, withering in the moon’s glory, barring the scarlet eve, lying across the dawn collapsed into the unfeatured morning bank, or at noon raising their snowy summits between the blue roof of heaven and the blue floor of sea; the small, busy, and deliberate world of the schooner, with its unfamiliar scenes, the spearing of dolphin from the bowsprit end, the holy war on sharks, the cook making bread on the main hatch; reefing down before a violent squall, with the men hanging out on the foot-ropes; the squall itself, the catch at the heart, the opened sluices of the sky; and the relief, the renewed loveliness of life, when all is over, the sun forth again, and our out-fought enemy only a blot upon the leeward sea. I love to recall, and would that I could reproduce that life, the unforgettable, the unrememberable. The memory, which shows so wise a backwardness in registering pain, is besides an imperfect recorder of extended pleasures; and a long-continued well-being escapes (as it were, by its mass) our petty methods of commemoration. On a part of our life’s map there lies a roseate, undecipherable haze, and that is all.

That captures the feeling of exhilaration as one begins an outdoor adventure, which is even greater if one has recently recovered from an illness. And as with a treasure hunt, the voyage to the South Seas is happy in the sense that all happiness is merely a promise of future happiness.

The Wrecker is about art as a career, business as an art, and adventure as an art. It’s also one of the more perceptive books on friendship that I have read. If you ever find yourself stuck in bed with a long illness, this book will make you happier than if you were 100% healthy.

Two thirds of the way through, the book shifts onto an entirely new track, confounding our expectations. Its odd structure might help to explain why the novel has been overlooked by critics. Unusual works of art often require a second exposure to be fully appreciated. That’s true of some of the films of Stanley Kubrick, and it’s also true of Stevenson’s masterpiece—The Wrecker.

PS. I wrote this post about a month ago. Since then I read Stevenson’s final book, The Ebb Tide, published in the year he died (1894). I think it might be his best, despite also being excluding from Harold Bloom’s list.

It’s interesting to think about the fact that Stevenson and Joseph Conrad were born only 7 years apart, and yet Stevenson’s final novel was published right before Conrad’s first two novels—Almayer’s Folly (1895) and An Outcast of the Islands (1896). In those two novels, a white man near the end of his tether is stranded in a remote setting in the East Indies. Now consider the opening of The Ebb Tide:

Throughout the island world of the Pacific, scattered men of many European races and from almost every grade of society carry activity and disseminate disease. Some prosper, some vegetate. Some have mounted the steps of thrones and owned islands and navies. Others again must marry for a livelihood; a strapping, merry, chocolate-coloured dame supports them in sheer idleness; and, dressed like natives, but still retaining some foreign element of gait or attitude, still perhaps with some relic (such as a single eye-glass) of the officer and gentleman, they sprawl in palm-leaf verandahs and entertain an island audience with memoirs of the music-hall. And there are still others, less pliable, less capable, less fortunate, perhaps less base, who continue, even in these isles of plenty, to lack bread.

At the far end of the town of Papeete, three such men were seated on the beach under a purao-tree.

It was late. Long ago the band had broken up and marched musically home, a motley troop of men and women, merchant clerks and navy officers, dancing in its wake, arms about waist and crowned with garlands. Long ago darkness and silence had gone from house to house about the tiny pagan city. Only the street lamps shone on, making a glow-worm halo in the umbrageous alleys or drawing a tremulous image on the waters of the port. A sound of snoring ran among the piles of lumber by the Government pier. It was wafted ashore from the graceful clipper-bottomed schooners, where they lay moored close in like dinghies, and their crews were stretched upon the deck under the open sky or huddled in a rude tent amidst the disorder of merchandise.

But the men under the purao had no thought of sleep. The same temperature in England would have passed without remark in summer; but it was bitter cold for the South Seas. Inanimate nature knew it, and the bottle of cocoanut oil stood frozen in every bird-cage house about the island; and the men knew it, and shivered. They wore flimsy cotton clothes, the same they had sweated in by day and run the gauntlet of the tropic showers; and to complete their evil case, they had no breakfast to mention, less dinner, and no supper at all.

In the telling South Sea phrase, these three men were on the beach. Common calamity had brought them acquainted, as the three most miserable English-speaking creatures in Tahiti; and beyond their misery, they knew next to nothing of each other, not even their true names. For each had made a long apprenticeship in going downward; and each, at some stage of the descent, had been shamed into the adoption of an alias. And yet not one of them had figured in a court of justice; two were men of kindly virtues; and one, as he sat and shivered under the purao, had a tattered Virgil in his pocket.

Only a great novelist would describe Tahiti as “bitter cold”, or make on the beach sound so forlorn.

This is a long way from the blissful romance of Treasure Island. Indeed, it might be Stevenson’s most Conradian novel, as it also contains a sort of Kurtz-like figure. Even the title is Conradian. Conrad excelled in novellas, and The Ebb Tide is like two novella’s joined together—which means it contains two great opening chapters.

PPS. In December 1980, an obscure Madison newspaper named City Lights published an article on a used bookstore. It contained this excerpt:

Interestingly, each volume is roughly 1 1/4 inches thick, but the page count varies from a bit over 300 to as much as 650. How is that possible? The thickness of the paper varies in each volume in such a way that the set will look uniform on a bookshelf. It’s one of those Edwardian complete sets where some of the pages must be separated before they can be read. I’m old school; I can’t read on Kindle—it has to be a real book. Hardcover is much preferred to paperback, and a book from 1901 (such as this set) is much preferred to a modern printing.

Happy Thanksgiving. I give thanks that a person such as Robert Louis Stevenson once existed. Even his letters are well worth reading.



39 Responses to “The strange case of Robert Louis Stevenson”

  1. Gravatar of William Peden William Peden
    24. November 2022 at 02:16

    I had the pleasure of reading Kidnapped while living in Scotland and Catriona while living in the Netherlands. Now I am living in Hong Kong, I might check if Stevenson had anything about this city, or at least Asia.

    A brilliant writer. He’s certainly up there with Orwell, Hemingway, and Walter Scott as authors who I think combined both the rare gifts of being great writers and great storytellers.

  2. Gravatar of Udee Udee
    24. November 2022 at 06:10

    As a middle school English teacher, I had a huge library of books in my classroom. There was a classics section, and I found both the boys and girls would pick Stevenson to read which was quite unusual.

  3. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    24. November 2022 at 08:37

    Seems like Stevenson’s relation to travel evolved like does the narrator’s in Baudelaire’s “Le voyage”. One of my personal favorites. Near the end he concludes

    “Amer savoir, celui qu’on tire du voyage!
    Le monde, monotone et petit, aujourd’hui,
    Hier, demain, toujours, nous fait voir notre image:
    Une oasis d’horreur dans un désert d’ennui!”

    “Bitter is the knowledge one gains from voyaging!
    The world, monotonous and small, today,
    Yesterday, tomorrow, always, shows us our image:
    An oasis of horror in a desert of ennui!”

  4. Gravatar of Garrett M Garrett M
    24. November 2022 at 18:24

    Hey Scott,

    Happy Thanksgiving! I’ve been looking for some book ideas lately so I’ll check that Western Canon out.

    Off topic, but I’m interested in your thoughts on FTX and Sam Bankman-Fried considering your past writings on utilitarianism. Zvi had this to say: “This is indeed rather strong evidence that something is deeply wrong with utilitarianism in practice. That said, my ethical position was already very different and has mostly not changed.”

  5. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    24. November 2022 at 19:03

    Everyone, Thanks for all of the good comments.

    Garrett, You quoted Zvi as follows:

    “This is indeed rather strong evidence that something is deeply wrong with utilitarianism in practice. That said, my ethical position was already very different and has mostly not changed.”

    If one of Earth’s 8 billion residents does something wrong, and that person happens to be religious, does that provide “strong evidence” that there is something wrong with being religious?

    Utilitarianism has nothing to do with committing fraud. I’m not sure he did commit fraud, but let’s say the news reports are correct. In that case, all this would show is that one particular person with utilitarian values did something bad. I very much doubt that it was the utilitarianism that caused him to do something bad. But even if it were, it would merely show that SBF had bad judgment, not that there is anything wrong will utilitarianism.

    As an aside, I’m a rules utilitarian and I believe in following sensible rules. “Don’t commit fraud” is a sensible rule to live by.

  6. Gravatar of MSS1914 MSS1914
    24. November 2022 at 19:25

    “Some critics wrongly equate greatness with difficulty.”

    Yes, and I would add that critics often look down on literature that is fun or sentimental. That Stevenson’s works are a lot of fun to read has probably hurt his reputation among “serious critics”.

    Finally, its a bit humbling to look at the Western Canon and realize how little I have read despite considering myself well-read.

    Happy Thanksgiving, Scott!

  7. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    24. November 2022 at 20:46

    Also an Stevenson fan. He, D.H. Lawrence and Mori Ogai are the three authors I read aloud even when reading to myself.

  8. Gravatar of Philo Philo
    24. November 2022 at 21:52

    Stevenson’s ghost should be happy to have such an appreciative reader.

    Given my own interests, I was brought up short by your remark that “all happiness is merely a promise of future happiness.” Of course, that is paradoxical; but it is certainly true that people are forward-looking, and (to take the negative case) if they expect bad circumstances in the future they are upset and uneasy—to that extent, unhappy. Perhaps we can remove the paradox by distinguishing orders of happiness. At any moment, your first-order happiness is how well off you are at that moment; your second-order happiness is how well off you expect to be from that moment on. To the extent that you foresee a first-order good future, you are second-order happy-—which is “happiness” as normally understood. (This is crude; I hope it is a step in the right direction.)

  9. Gravatar of Spencer Spencer
    25. November 2022 at 15:46

    My mom gave me “The Jewelers Eye” by Buckley in junior high. I read all his nonfiction books and subscribed to National Review.

    Novels are fiction. I read “Nobody can teach anyone anything”, by Wees in high school. He advocated nonfiction reading.

    Dr. George Sheehan went even further. He advocated reading only vocational works, vs. avocational pursuits.

    So, I think you should look at FED WIRE statistics, transfers up, volumes down.

  10. Gravatar of Spencer Spencer
    25. November 2022 at 15:58

    And I’d take George Santayana’s Ode 2 over any other poet.

  11. Gravatar of copans copans
    25. November 2022 at 21:44

    Alas, there is no audiobook version of “The Wrecker” on Audible. This isn’t the “canon” gatekeepers doing, I guess. As a big “Kidnapped” fan (but lukewarm about other Stevenson), I am embarrassed to say I had never heard of “The Wrecker.”

    I never heard anyone mention Edith Wharton’s “Custom of the Country” before making it the 7th novel of hers I read, but I have since found out that the most knowledgeable Wharton fans agree with me that it is her masterpiece. Maybe you have to be deep into Stevenson before you can see what Sumner sees in “The Wrecker.” I loved this post.

    I am in in the minority I know, but I think Grant’s “Notorious” may edge Stewart’s “Vertigo” and “Rear Window”. “North by Northwest” may not have “acting” writ large, but can you imagine anyone doing that role better? Happy we have all 4 of those movies.

  12. Gravatar of Sara Sara
    26. November 2022 at 01:53

    There is no such thing as “rule-based” utilitarianism.

    You either believe in the inalienable or you don’t.

    At least Bentham was consistent.

    Utilitarians who followed him, who realized they were wrong — big time — then sought to obfuscate, meander, and fiddle their tyranny back into the public through prattling and babbling, and through general incoherency in the form of postmodernist, neo marxist garbage in an effort to destroy the individual at the behest of the common good. The true utilitarians have already conceded that consequences are not all that one should consider, and that natural law superseceds man, either because it’s rooted in the state of nature, by rational deduction, or by the divine.

    But those who seek to use others as a means to an end; those who love thuggery and destruction, and elitism and power, and who want to mold the world to their evil machinations, who want to violate the inviolable, continue to blabber on unimpeded, unabated, like paleolithic paleonthropians.

    It’s time to admit defeat. It’s time to surrender to the enlightenment, and throw away once and for all the thuggery of the past.

    Locke wins! You and Bentham lose. Better luck next time.

  13. Gravatar of Lysseas Lysseas
    26. November 2022 at 08:03

    This made me think you might enjoy Papadiamantis, primarily the short stories, not the novels. For example

    Not sure how it would hold up in translation though, as a part of the appeal is an older, more complicated version of the greek language, closer to ancient, with a music or poetic quality to it. Although maybe not that typical of his other work,you might at least try the murderess.

  14. Gravatar of Francis Quinn Francis Quinn
    26. November 2022 at 10:17

    Thank you Scott. Best post of the year. More please!

  15. Gravatar of Edward Edward
    26. November 2022 at 20:20 👀👀


    A second Tiananmen Square? Or a serious challenge to the CCP?

  16. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    26. November 2022 at 21:06

    Everyone, Thanks for the comments.

    Copans, I also love Notorious–probably my favorite Cary Grant film.

    Edwards, I hope they succeed, but I fear it will be crushed.

  17. Gravatar of Mark Z Mark Z
    27. November 2022 at 15:26

    “Some critics wrongly equate greatness with difficulty.”
    I’ve long believed this is the reason Ulysses routinely gets listed as the greatest novel ever written according to experts. Joyce himself understood critics, and once said something along the lines of that he deliberately made Ulysses so obscure that critics would be debating what be meant for centuries, thereby immortalizing him, despite the novel being torture to read, in my opinion at least.

  18. Gravatar of Mark Z Mark Z
    27. November 2022 at 15:31

    The actual aforementioned James Joyce quote on Ulysses, that might help explain what you’re observing:
    “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”

  19. Gravatar of Riccardo Riccardo
    27. November 2022 at 23:22

    Hope you’re feeling better Scott (you hardly whine; had no idea you’ve been under the weather until this post).

    Like Francis Quinn, I loved this post. More please. You have a gift and it’s not limited to contrarian economics.

    Very well said, “all happiness is merely a promise of future happiness.” But while having lots of truth in it, it’s not completely true (missing, for example, the indescribable happiness that hits suddenly on a bright day in March; or for that matter the unexpected happiness of reading something really good).

    Copans is right, the Grant movies are better, less self-conscious.

    Lastly, for what it’s worth, I believe Sara has you with the much better argument. SBF is the logical extension of EA/utilitarianism, and no amount of “rule basing” saves you from the fraud since each rule is subjective, only becoming objective in the rear view mirror.

    But mainly, get well and write more like this!

  20. Gravatar of Monday assorted links – Marginal REVOLUTION Monday assorted links - Marginal REVOLUTION
    28. November 2022 at 09:30

    […] 1. Scott Sumner on Robert Louis Stevenson. […]

  21. Gravatar of ReverendWicksCherrycoke ReverendWicksCherrycoke
    28. November 2022 at 11:43

    “The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll” will bewitch any lover of Conrad and Stephenson, sure as day follows night.

  22. Gravatar of Brian Donohue Brian Donohue
    28. November 2022 at 13:14

    Great stuff, beautiful.

  23. Gravatar of steve steve
    28. November 2022 at 13:25

    Think I have read about half of his books and reread Kidnapped every year for along time. Agree that he is underrated by critics but among people who actually like to read I think his reputation remains good. Being a foodie I always use a food analogy. Reading Stevenson is like having a top notch steak and trimmings at a great steak house. Something you cant wait to do again. Reading the books the critics push is like going to the restaurant that tries to do “interesting” food, the kind where they put together 6 different things never put together before. You leave feeling you have had an adventure and will do it again in another couple of years.


  24. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    28. November 2022 at 14:09

    You’ve inspired me to go and read some RLS. I always loved his stories and characters.
    And, what you said about literary critics reminded me of Tom Wolfe’s theme of the priesthood of self-appointed experts in “From Bauhaus to Our House.”

  25. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    28. November 2022 at 14:35

    Riccardo, You said:

    “SBF is the logical extension of EA/utilitarianism, and no amount of “rule basing” saves you from the fraud since each rule is subjective, only becoming objective in the rear view mirror.”

    So if a religious person does something bad, does that discredit religion? Did 9/11 discredit Islam? Hard to take these claims seriously. In a few years the overreaction to SBF will look totally ridiculous.

    There is no reliable evidence that SBF’s fraud was motivated by utilitarianism. And legal rules against fraud are hardly “subjective”. SBF’s actions did not make the world a happier place. Utilitarians like me cannot be held responsible for idiots that think they are implementing the value system but in fact are merely committing fraud.

    ReverendWicksCherrycoke, Thanks, I just added it to my Amazon cart.

  26. Gravatar of Anglerfish Anglerfish
    28. November 2022 at 15:52

    Thanks for this nice post.

    Re: susceptibility to illness. Do you supplement with vitamin D? I used to get sick all the time, but when I began supplementing with vit. D (and vit. K) I stopped. Very striking pattern although n = 1, obviously.

    Note, I take ~3000 IU/day via patch and cannot speak to the efficacy of other doses and delivery methods.

  27. Gravatar of InBloom InBloom
    28. November 2022 at 16:44

    You’re an excellent writer, I return here now and again for film recommendations and always come away with a few sentences that bounce around my head for several days. I don’t know anything about economics but It seems to attract easily excitable characters to your comment section, pay them no mind and keep it up. Godspeed, I hope your health recovers.

  28. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    28. November 2022 at 20:19


    I’d agree that SBF does not in and by itself discredit either EA or utilitarianism. Both of which have limited appeal to be btw, I tend more to a deontologist. But I do find it concerning that a part of the, umm, “elites” (media etc, smart coders, what have you) seem to take SBF’s fraud more lightly, because he “did it with good intent”. Which apparently justifies anything. Concentration camps too, euthanasia, mass collectivisation. And that apologetic behavior reminds me of Western intellectuals’ apologies for the crimes of communism for 150 years, the Putin apologists, or those parents of kids found at Neo-Nazi camps in the woods who insist it’s all just “boys will be boys” nonsense.

    I am astonished that SBF isn’t in jail already. I mean, Martha Stewart was jailed for fudging a half-baked conversation with an FBI agent, not even having had any personal benefits from any trades that occurred. Meanwhile SBF runs around giving interviews and no comment from the legal system, nor a peep from the media. And that Alameda, umm, person? What is THAT even supposed to be? I mean, by comparison with such jokers, Trump appears like a beacon of ethical business dealings, grounded in reality, and a positive factor for society. (by comparison)

  29. Gravatar of Riccardo Riccardo
    28. November 2022 at 20:38

    Scott, thanks for responding “if a religious person does something bad, does that discredit religion?” I love your writing, so very briefly (and because I don’t think it’s right to piggyback on your comments section for debate by unknown readers like me), your religion analogy is false. It’s like saying, ‘if an American does something bad does that discredit America?’- obviously not, because the project of America is so wide and various (ditto for religion). But EA actively pushes an ‘ends justifies the means’ so when one of its chieftains goes down for getting caught in exactly that sin it does actually reflect badly on the whole project’s underpinning. Notice that I’m specifically not saying SBF is a charlatan; he may well have sincerely believed that the risks he was taking with other people’s money was worth it for the greater good of his philanthropy had his bet gone right. But whether he knew he was bilking customers and media heads with a clever disguise or not doesn’t change the indictment of EA no matter the nobility of its claims. Utilitarian is fine as an ideal, but (like many things) dangerous if pressed in the real world. Thank you again for letting me take up time in your comments section. I very much appreciate your writing and it’s immaterial whether we agree about everything.

  30. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    28. November 2022 at 22:21

    Anglefish, Thanks for the tip.

    Inbloom, Thanks.

    mbka, That’s interesting, as almost everything I read is highly critical of SBF, and almost everyone I read seems to think he’ll end up in jail at some point. These sort of cases are complex, and I would expect the case to drag out for years.

    For some reason, I have little interest in famous fraud cases like this one, Theranos, Madoff, Epstein, etc. I don’t tend to write on them because I don’t think I have much to add. Don’t be evil!! I focus more on public policy issues.

    Why do so many people think this case is especially important? Lots of money was lost? That happens every day in the financial system. Crime sucks, but it’s a big part of our world. What else is new?

    Ricardo, There are so many leaps involved in your post that my head is spinning. You equate SBF with EA, which is questionable (many people think he was just pretending to be a good guy), and then you equate EA with utilitarianism. So now utilitarianism is supposed to justify fraud? JS Mill would be spinning in his grave.

    So SBF wrongly thought that doing X would make the world a happier place, and that fact discredits trying to make the world a happier place? You lost me somewhere.

    What if some idiot uses deontological reasoning to take evil actions—someone like Putin, for example? Does that discredit deontological reasoning?

    What really kills me is when people say “this shows X about utilitarianism”. Obviously if you really believe utilitarianism justifies fraud, then your mind is already made up that utilitarianism is evil, and this case shows absolutely NOTHING new. We’ve always known that fraud exists and is bad.

    It’s like when Milton Friedman was once accused of excusing fraud when he suggested that firms should maximize profits, and he had to slowly explain to the moron that interviewed him that he obviously meant maximize profits through LEGAL means.

    Robin Hood is a fairy tale, not a guide to ethical behavior. Let’s be serious, please.

  31. Gravatar of Doug M Doug M
    29. November 2022 at 00:05

    If any author is still relevant 100 years after his death, there must be some quality to his writing.

    What is unfortunate for Stevenson’s legacy is that his work was classified as “children’s literature.” I tried to read Treasure Island as a child and couldn’t get very far, I don’t think RLS is appropriate for children. His language is just a little bit too challenging. Maybe this is just due to the fact that children of my generation didn’t read as much as those of previous generations.

  32. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    29. November 2022 at 11:52

    “What is unfortunate for Stevenson’s legacy is that his work was classified as “children’s literature.””

    Both unfortunate and inaccurate.

  33. Gravatar of Ray Lopez Ray Lopez
    29. November 2022 at 16:53

    I’m slowly reading Rafael Sabatini’s pirate novel “Captain Blood” and I’ve read “Treasure Island” but I’d hesitate to call them great literature. They are escapist literature, of the kind Disney tried to do in kid’s movies recently with “Strange World” that bombed.

    Then again, SS probably thinks Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales are great works of adult fiction and the Brothers Grimm’s folk tales are meant to be read as seditious adult morality tales. Considering SS is the “Pied Piper” of economics, leading many young minds astray, it’s fitting.

    In other news: SS probably thinks “Napoleon Dynamite” is a deep movie with layers of meaning. He also believes in money non-neutrality… which is a small step removed from the tin-foil hat crowd. But strangely, SS doesn’t think there’s any chance the Wuhan virus escaped from a lab. Truth is stranger than fiction.

  34. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    29. November 2022 at 16:56

    Hmmm, who has more discerning taste? Borges, Proust and Nabokov? Or Ray Lopez? That’s a tough one.

  35. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    30. November 2022 at 22:57

    Fantastic post. I’m pretty sure _Treasure Island_ and _Kidnapped_ were around the house when I was a kid; if only there had been blogs then, so someone could have told me to read them!

    When Bennett Cerf (and some other, less famous guy) put together _The Bedside Book of Famous British Short Stories_, in 1940, they selected 80 stories (from Chaucer to Waugh) and 78 authors – the only two included twice were Stevenson and Kipling.

    That’s perhaps not very interesting, but I wonder if Kipling isn’t sort of the third of the pair (along with Stevenson and Conrad). And Kipling was also a Borges favorite, I believe.

    Anyway, I was curious about how many of those 24 volumes were short stories – Conrad, of course, wrote some great short (sometimes not so short) stories, did Stevenson also?

  36. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    1. December 2022 at 07:31

    anon, Stevenson wrote some short stories, as did Conrad, but most of their output was novels. I read and enjoyed Kim, but need to read more of Kipling. I have a complete set of his work, maybe I’ll read the set next year.

  37. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    1. December 2022 at 17:45

    I’m not sure how this devolved into a debate about the merits of utilitarianism, but as long as that’s where it has gone…The challenge I see with utilitarianism is how to agree on the boundary of whose utils we are seeking to maximize. We can say in the abstract that the goal is to maximize the utils of all Homo sapiens but that’s hardly a goal that will seem very appealing to anyone with more than their proportional share of any resource. For example, I doubt the Native Americans would have felt very receptive to the argument that they will be helping to maximize utils in the Americas by welcoming the Europeans because the Europeans will increase the carrying capacity of the land. I’m not saying I have a good answer to the question—a question that lies, I believe, at the center of the appeal of nationalism, family loyalty and many of the most powerful uniting and dividing forces among us Homo sapiens—I’m just pointing out that I think utilitarianism’s appeal often founders on the borders of that question.

  38. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    1. December 2022 at 17:47

    Conrad wrote some great stories though, although not so many perhaps if things like “Typhoon” and “Heart of Darkness” count as novellas or short novels or something.

  39. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    1. December 2022 at 18:09

    Carl, I agree, but I also believe that official (government) foreign aid doesn’t do much good, and we’d be better off letting voluntary private charities try to help people in poor countries. I also oppose invasions of other countries.

    Anon, I did a post on Conrad last year. I mentioned “Tales of Land and Sea” as my favorite book by any author. It’s a collection of Conrad’s best novellas.

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