Stevenson's "emigrant" experience came in answer to the call of his future wife, American Fanny Vandegrift, who was ill though awaiting him so they might be married, her divorce being finalized. Stevenso wanted to take advantage of his immediate journey to America in order to witness then chronicle how the common classes of emigrants experienced their journey. Being advised to avoid the lowest class, steerage, of passage Stevenson traveled in Second Class. His essay chronicles how the idealism of his uninformed image of emigration was changed to one of melancholy despair for his fellow travelers.
His essay begins with sailing down Scottland's Clyde River to the ship that was take him and his fellow passengers to sea and to America. During the river passage, he notes that two women cried giving him the first glimpse of the complexities and unimagined realities of emigration (to emigrate: to leave one's country).
On the ship, Stevenson begins the general description of emigrant travels, two of the most interesting points of which are the (1) differences between Steerage and Second Class and the (2) he struck up with a man also traveling in Second, with whom he had in common an interest in psychological study of fellow humans: "I come to my excellent friend Mr. Jones." Stevenson notes that during this ocean journey he could call to mind the comforting fact that he was in truth a gentleman and not of the suffering class of those around him, no matter how thoroughly he found he fit in with his companions.
I was like one with a patent of nobility in a drawer at home; and when I felt out of spirits I could go down and refresh myself with a look of that brass plate.
In Steerage, passengers were obliged to bring along their own dinning utensils and sleeping linens, though they had to make do without a table. In Second, these were all provided though the difference in price between the two classes was minimal. From these general observations, where the smells and the sounds, and the unbreathable air and cramped spaces get highlighted attention, Stevenson turns his hand to describing some specific individuals who then come to represent types of travelers. He describes the musicians who played through rough seas; the Irish-American returning homeward with "no buttons to his trousers"; and the engineer who believed "in the unlimited perfectibility of all machines" but not of human beings. He uses the sick man on deck as a type for how the wretched are left to their own course as they are "none of my business" to most others (it is Stevenson with his bureau drawer nobility that made it their business). He uses the stowaways to illustrate the type that is cavalier about regulations and daring about opportunity (though most got turned out ashore) and strangely lucky in results. He uses the woman who falls down ill on a crowded deck to illustrate that we all are types determined by our dress and physical presentation:
I had [out out in] part of London simply attired in a sleeve-waistcoat ... [in] humble rig, ... I had often not detected [women's attention] when it was given, [yet] I was well aware of its absence when it was withheld. My height seemed to decrease with every woman who passed me, for she passed me like a dog.
Finally he arrives in New York and is surprised at the mixture of rudeness and kindness he met with there. He was told he was not trusted, then, after a reprimand from anger, practically escorted on his way.