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119-year-old rebuttal of critic of Damien retains power today


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POSTED: Monday, October 26, 2009

First a president from Hawaii, and now a saint. Not as well known as St. Damien's saintly accomplishments, however, was his contribution to English literature, one not made until after his death.

Shortly after Damien died in 1889, the famous Scots writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife visited the islands, becoming friends with King Kalakaua and staying with many prominent Honolulans, including the Rev. Charles M. Hyde. Although suffering from tuberculosis, and against medical advice, Stevenson spent a week at the leper colony on Molokai, absorbing stories about Damien from people who knew him.

“;As the boat drew nearer,”; Stevenson later wrote, “;we beheld the stairs crowded with abominable deformations of our common manhood ... a population as only now and then surrounds us in the horror of a nightmare ... the butt-ends of human beings lying there almost unrecognizable but still breathing, still thinking, still remembering ... a pitiful place to visit, a hell to dwell in.”;

Damien's hands-on approach to this pitiable flock mightily impressed Stevenson. His week on Molokai, he claimed, changed the direction of his life.

After some months Stevenson set out for the South Pacific—eventually settling in Samoa—but was in Sydney when a letter was published in the Sydney Presbyterian about Damien. The Rev. H.B. Gage of Sydney had written to Hyde for background on the Belgian priest, who, in death, had become a celebrity. Hyde's response was unexpected. Damien, Hyde insisted, was “;no saintly philanthropist.”; Instead he was “;a coarse, dirty, headstrong bigot ... not a pure man in his relations with women,”; and his leprosy was “;due to his vices and carelessness.”;

Hyde's published note appalled Stevenson. The author's wife recalled that he began muttering and locked himself in his room, pen scratching furiously. Within a few days, on Feb. 25, 1890, Stevenson showed up at the Sydney Morning Herald with a manuscript in a packet, a densely written rebuttal to Hyde within. On legal counsel, the paper refused to print it, but other newspapers soon did, and the entire “;AN OPEN LETTER TO THE REVEREND DR. HYDE OF HONOLULU”; was eventually published in chapbook form. It became one of the most famous and angriest polemics ever written, a torrent of elegance delivered in a reckless flash of fury.

An example: “;But, sir, when we have failed, and another has succeeded; when we have stood by, and another has stepped in; when we sit and grow bulky in our charming mansions, and a plain, uncouth peasant steps into the battle, under the eyes of God, and succors the afflicted, and consoles the dying, and is himself afflicted in his turn, and dies upon the field of honour—the battle cannot be retrieved as your unhappy irritation has suggested. It is a lost battle, and lost for ever. One thing remained to you in your defeat—some rags of common honour; and these you have made haste to cast away.”;

Although Hyde dismissed Stevenson as “;a bohemian crank, a negligible person whose opinion is of no value to anyone,”; the damage was done, to the point where some still believe Hyde became the role model for the monstrous alter ego in “;The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”; (the novel had actually been published in 1886, before Stevenson visited Honolulu).

“;Is it growing at all clear to you what a picture you have drawn of your own heart?”; Stevenson concluded, adding, “;Well, the man who tried to do what Damien did, is my father, and the father of the man in the Apia bar, and the father of all who love goodness; and he was your father too, if God had given you grace to see it.”;

The complete text of Stevenson's “;Open Letter”; can be found in dozens of sites on the Internet. And even though it was written in 1890, Stevenson accurately predicted that “;If that world at all remember you, on the day when Damien of Molokai shall be named a Saint, it will be in virtue of one work: Your letter to the Reverend H.B. Gage.”;