The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Robinson Crusoe

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The Encyclopedia Americana
Robinson Crusoe
Edition of 1920. See also Robinson Crusoe on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

ROBINSON CRUSOE, the best-known work of Daniel Defoe and one of the most widely read of all modern books, was published at London, on or about 25 April 1719, by William Taylor at the Sign of the Ship in Pater Noster Row, in an octavo volume somewhat exceeding 350 pages, with a frontispiece representing the hero in his goatskin clothes, and under the following show-case or display title: “The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pyrates. Written by Himself.” It was a rather expensive, not ill-looking book, marred, however, by a considerable number of typographical blunders.

Defoe at the time of its publication was apparently in his 60th, possibly in his 61st year. He was very widely but not favorably known as a bankrupt merchant who more than 20 years before had turned pamphleteer and politician. His satire ‘The True-Born Englishman’ (1701) had brought him fame, but shortly afterward he was ruined through his exposure in the pillory and his imprisonment for writing his ironical tract ‘The Shortest Way with the Dissenters,’ and he became in consequence a political journalist, a secret government agent and a miscellaneous writer whose pen was supposed to be as venal as it was prolific. Since the accession of the Hanoverians in 1715 he had been much attacked for his relations with Jacobite newspapers, the fact that he was in reality employed by the government to watch them not being generally known. Of his thousands upon thousands of pages in periodicals, pamphlets and books nearly all had been anonymous, and, while his style often betrayed him, he had been detected in writing nothing that on the surface markedly resembled ‘Robinson Crusoe.’ Yet it was not long before his hand was recognized in that, a fact which led to some rather stupid criticism of the book; and in our own day certain preliminary essays of his in more or less fictitious writing have been discovered, which make his success in the new vein, which he soon began to practise assiduously, somewhat less surprising than it would have been had he suddenly changed to an unwonted field of composition and produced a masterpiece. That something novel and important had been added to English fiction was speedily shown by the unparalleled popularity of ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ in its full form, in cheap abridgments, in translations and in frank imitations. We do not know the size of the editions, but we do know that before the end of 1719 there were probably six authorized impressions, a Dublin reprinting and several piratical issues, not counting serial publication in a newspaper. No previous English story had been so circulated, and by August 1719 the canny author had presented the public with a second instalment of his hero's history, likewise published by Taylor, ‘The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe; Being the Second and Last Part of his Life, And of the Strange Surprizing Accounts of his Travels Round three Parts of the Globe.’ This, while fairly popular and a creditable piece of travel-fiction, was not, as Defoe fondly thought, contrary to the usage of second parts “every Way as entertaining as the First,” a verdict which applies with still greater force to the so-called third part published by Taylor a year later (1720), really not fiction at all but a volume of essays entitled ‘Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe: With his Vision of the Angelick World.’ Both of these parts, like the first, bore the legend “Written by Himself,” for those were days when serious people denounced fiction as “lies,” and Defoe indulged in some curious exegesis in his prefaces in order to justify to his Non-Conformist's conscience his lucrative story-writing.

To follow the fortunes of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ after 1719 would require a large volume. Here only a few salient facts can be given. At least three additional authorized reprintings were needed before Defoe died in 1731, quaint illustrations were introduced, several abridgments appeared, one of which, apparently made by Defoe himself and covering all three parts, went through numerous editions during the next hundred years, the three parts were translated into Dutch, French and German, and a large number of imitations made unsuccessful attempts to rival the popularity of the original, although in some cases attaining themselves considerable vogue. The story took root more strongly perhaps in Germany than in any other foreign country, but it was and remained very popular in France, and before many years had elapsed Italians also could read it in their native tongue. It has since been translated into all sorts of languages and dialects, it has fascinated wandering Arabs, it is taught to school children in our island possessions and it is accessible in Esperanto. One of the largest collections of “Crusoes,” that of Mr. William S. Lloyd of Philadelphia, contains some 400 volumes, but unrecorded issues in English and in other tongues are continually coming to light. Some of the modern editions are true works of art, very distinguished artists, especially in France, having striven to illustrate adequately so famous a book.

It has naturally attracted also both scholars and literary critics and gossips, with the usual darkening of counsel. It may fairly be said that scarcely one of the numerous stories and speculations about Defoe and his chief book will bear investigation. He cannot be shown to have made misuse of Selkirk's papers, it is highly unlikely, to say the least, that Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, had anything to do with writing the first part, it is far from certain that Defoe had any difficulty in getting that part published, it could not possibly have been written at most of the places assigned for its composition, and was probably thrown off hastily at Defoe's house at Stoke Newington not long before it was issued, and, finally, all attempts to see in the book a serviceable allegory of Defoe's life, however much support they may receive from his sophisticated prefaces, are likely to prove valueless and not a little absurd. The truth is that scarcely anything definite is known about the origin of the great story except that it is clearly Defoe's, since it was assigned to him by fellow-journalists of the time, and since in all three parts, from first page to last, the minute student finds the stylistic evidence of his authorship overwhelming, and that doubtless the occasion for Defoe's attempting to describe the life of a shipwrecked sailor upon a far-off deserted island was the publication of accounts by Capt. Woodes Rogers, Capt. Edward Cooke, Sir Richard Steele and others of the strange adventures of the Scotch sailor Alexander Selkirk or Selcraig, during a more than four years' solitary sojourn on the island of Juan Fernandez off the coast of Chile. That this is not Crusoe's island the very title-page of the book plainly shows — many persons, inquisitive in small matters, seem to be unduly positive that Tobago should have that honor — but it is about as clear as such things can ever be that poor Selkirk's story influenced Defoe. He may have taken hints from the experiences of other castaways and from other narratives of travel, also — indirectly if at all — from Grimmelshausen's ‘Der abenteuerliche Simplicissimus and from a Dutch story, Hendrick Smeeks' ‘Beschrijvinge van het magtig Koningrijk Krinkle Kesmes’; but in the main most of the “sources” for the masterpiece discovered by indefatigable scholars are imaginary or at best barely possible, and ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ like ‘Paradise Lost’ and many of Shakespeare's plays, may truly be said to derive its greatness from the appeal of its subject matter and from its author's own genius. It is doing Defoe no injustice to say that, on the whole, it is the exceptional interest attaching to the central part, the island portion, of the first volume of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ that has contributed most to giving the story its extraordinary currency. The third volume, the ‘Serious Reflections,’ while not without merit, has been but seldom reprinted and is little known. The second volume, ‘The Farther Adventures,’ possesses more merit and has been many times reprinted to accomplish the first, but it is seldom specially in mind when the book is mentioned. Even the extra-island portions of the first volume — the experiences in Africa and Brazil and the concluding journey through Spain — good of their kind though they are — do little to make the book impressive. What profoundly impresses us is the frightful loneliness, the struggle of the ordinary sailor-hero against what seem to be overwhelming odds, his final success, although his endowments, except perhaps in physical resistance, are no higher than we may well suppose our own to be. Our sympathy and our curiosity — two mighty elements in the success of a book if the author can but arouse them thoroughly — are brought into play from the shipwreck to the departure, although some may experience a slight flagging of interest after the life with Friday has been described. “Would I have thought of doing that?” is the question, however egotistical, that continually presents itself, and in reflecting upon it we can legitimately bring Defoe in for a high share in the praise we bestow on his book. ‘Robinson Crusoe’ through the universality of its appeal has much of the carrying power of the world's greatest poems, but Defoe, although possessed of more imagination than is often given credit for, was not a great poet. He was, however, as a journalist and much experienced, versatile and wideawake man, endowed with qualities that stood him in good stead when he began his book at a remarkably late period in life for the inception of new literary enterprises. His English, if careless, was easy and unaffected, his methods of narration were straightforward, and he had not only a very large knowledge of character and of the details of life but an exceptional power of lending vividness and reality to whatever he described. This last he attained chiefly through a skilful use of minute features and circumstances, which beguile the reader into belief of all he is told. It may be at bottom a journalistic faculty, but, as Defoe seems to be the only professional journalist who has a ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ a ‘Moll Flanders,’ and a ‘Journal of the Plague Year’ to his credit, it would seem either that he was a good deal more than a journalist, or else that critics need to revise their notions as to what the term “journalistic” should connote.

We have already seen that Defoe had made some mild attempts at semi-fictitious writing before the second edition (1718) of Woodes Rogers' ‘Cruising Voyage’ brought, in all probability, the story of Selkirk, much in evidence six years before, once more to his attention. An omnivorous reader, he undoubtedly knew the work of preceding picaresque writers, like the author of ‘The English Rogue,’ as well as that of Mrs. Aphra Behn, but in the main his contribution to English fiction was original. He had learned early as a pamphleteer to narrate and to describe in a lifelike fashion — vide his ‘True Relation of the Apparition of one Mrs. Veal’ (1706) — and he had also learned to manage dialogue and to tell anecdotes effectively. Later he had learned how to construct books of some length and to make them less and less sprawling; he had even begun to create characters and to move in imagination in foreign countries and in the past — vide, his ‘History of the Wars’ of Charles XII of Sweden (1715) and his ‘Continuation’ of the famous ‘Letters’ supposed to be written by a “Turkish Spy” (1718). Shorter pieces more specifically fictitious might be added to these, but the main point is that he had gradually, probably without knowledge of it or conscious purpose of any sort, been assembling the qualities and materials necessary to the writing of fiction. The story of Selkirk supplied the occasion, the spark, and Defoe was doubtless influenced also by the facts that he now lived at home, being no longer sent by the government on tiresome journeys, and that, writing as he did with great ease, the more books he could produce, the more money he could lay by to furnish dowries for several daughters, to whose attractiveness one of his future sons-in-law, the naturalist, Henry Baker, has borne testimony. In some such uninvolved and human way, we may imagine, one of the most uninvolved and human books ever written came into existence, and it was in giving this book, not merely to his countrymen, but to the world, and in showing other writers what it was to be uninvolved and human in their stories that Daniel Defoe proved himself to be a benefactor to the race. To the student he is in his mixed character and in his perplexing career one of the most interesting of men; to the masses of mankind he is and will always remain “the Author of Robinson Crusoe,” a name and little else. The thing created has swallowed its creator, which is not far from being the highest tribute that can be paid to any achievement.

Convenient editions of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ may be found in the Globe, Golden Treasury and other well-known series, and in the late George A. Aitken's edition of Defoe's ‘Romances and Narratives.’ The text of most editions, however, leaves much to be desired. The writer has endeavored to supply an accurate text of the first part in a school edition published in 1916 by Ginn and Company, and he has an edition of the same part with full apparatus in the press of the same firm.

W. P. Trent.