Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Adventure classics -- Merchant, debtor, author, spy

Robinson Crusoe

by Daniel Defoe


“For all the writing that Defoe had done before the composition of Robinson Crusoe, indeed for all the prose fiction that he had written, Robinson Crusoe must have come to him as almost as wonderful a surprise as it was to his readers. . . For the first time Defoe created a work that drew upon all his talents, knowledge, and experience,” biographer Maximillian E. Novak writes in Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions.

Who but a writer of pamphlets satirizing German George I’s favoritism toward foreigners could imagine a quintessential English character whose family blandly anglicizes its German name of “Kreutznaer” to “Crusoe?” Who but a failed merchant imprisoned for debt could give his castaway a capitalistic fortune from earnings his properties accrued, without so much as a finger lift from him, during his absence on a tropical island? And who but a religious dissenter could imagine that island as a secular paradise where Protestants, Catholics and, yes, even pagan cannibals could live in peace?

But I’m getting ahead of the complex 1719 story of the world’s most famous castaway and the still more complex story of his inventor.

Robinson Crusoe runs away to sea, repents, runs away again, vows to change his way of life, and no sooner does so than he’s backing a scheme of illegal slave trading. For all these sins, he’s shipwrecked on an uninhabited island. While there, he finds a single human footprint where he thought nobody had set foot except himself.

How strange it was, Crusoe marvels, coming across the mysterious print, “That I, whose affliction was that I seemed banished from human society. . . that I was ready to sink into the ground at but the shadow or silent appearance of a man having set his foot in the island.”

He will go on to rescue a young cannibal he names “Friday,” for the day of his discovery. And he and Friday will in turn be rescued, even though inadvertently, by pirates (as fashionable among eighteenth century readers as they are today). And of course, he’ll find up fabulously rich.

In spite of -- or because of -- the money Robinson Crusoe’s four authorized editions made for the aging Defoe and his large family, casting doubt on Defoe’s accomplishments soon became a popular pastime.

The “real” Robinson Crusoe was Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, detractors said. Or a character imagined by medieval Arab philosopher Ibn Tufayl, living on an island without other human beings. Or Crusoe was “really” Henry Pitman, shipwrecked after escaping from a Caribbean penal colony. Pitman is a likely influence, since Defoe’s book was published by the same firm that published Pitman’s memoir. And since one of Defoe’s typically harebrained financial schemes was colonizing the territory around the mouth of the Orinoco River in South America, where he conveniently locates Crusoe’s island.

And by the way, others wrote, Crusoe’s companion Friday was really a marooned Native American whose story had been much publicized early in the eighteenth century. I don’t doubt Crusoe and Friday were all these. But they were also much more.

Defoe would go on to write more groundbreaking novels in the next decade, including A Journal of the Plague Year and Moll Flanders. But no matter how much money his writing (and work as a secret agent for at least two political regimes) brought in, it was never enough. He died in 1731, having spent the last six months of his life hiding from his creditors.

Of course, Robinson Crusoe, Novak’s biography, and Tim Severin’s book, Seeking Robinson Crusoe, are available on Amazon. Perhaps even at your local library.

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues an August of adventures at sea with Walter Lord’s story of the Titanic’s last hours, A Night to Remember.)

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