Robert Louis Stevenson on the Plains of Nebraska
Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) is best remembered for his romantic fiction, but he was also the author of colorful accounts of his extensive travels. Across the Plains, the middle section of a three-part travelogue about his 1879 overland train trip from New York to California, included a chapter entitled “The Plains of Nebraska,” in which Stevenson recorded his impressions of the prairie landscape as seen from his railway coach. He wrote:
“We were at sea—there is no other adequate expression—on the plains of Nebraska. . . . It was a world almost without a feature; an empty sky, an empty earth; front and back, the line of railway stretched from horizon to horizon, like a cue across a billiard-board; on either hand, the green plain ran till it touched the skirts of heaven.
“Along the track innumerable wild sunflowers, no bigger than a crown-piece, bloomed in a continuous flower-bed; grazing beasts were seen upon the prairie at all degrees of distance and diminution; and now and again we might perceive a few dots beside the railroad which grew more and more distinct as we drew nearer till they turned into wooden cabins, and then dwindled and dwindled in our wake until they melted into their surroundings, and we were once more alone upon the billiard-board.”
As he journeyed through Nebraska, Stevenson described the “incessant chirp of grasshoppers—a noise like the winding up of countless clocks and watches,” and mused upon the effect of so much space upon the settler:
“His eye must embrace at every glance the whole seeming concave of the visible world; it quails before so vast an outlook, it is tortured by distance; yet there is no rest or shelter, till the man runs into his cabin, and can repose his sight upon things near at hand. Hence, I am told a sickness of the vision peculiar to these empty plains. Yet perhaps with sunflowers and cicadae, summer and winter, cattle, wife and family, the settler may create a full and various existence.”
Stevenson wasn’t the first traveler to describe his railroad journey across the state. A lively account by German travel writer Ernst von Hesse-Wartegg, who crossed the state by rail in 1877, is online at the Nebraska State Historical Society’s website, along with other articles from past issues of Nebraska History magazine. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications