I have been pitifully slow getting started with Robinson Crusoe. I’ve been pitifully slow getting through all of my reading lately, really. Even Written in My Own Heart’s Blood – which is long, yes, but not difficult – is going to end up taking me a full three weeks, or close to it. So it seems unlikely that I will finish Robinson Crusoe before the end of June, though I will have some down time at work tomorrow and may be able to make some good headway.
But the thing is, I’m enjoying Robinson Crusoe. It’s a funny thing to contemplate: the first novel in English. I know that there are people out there who would argue with that claim – and I own, though I haven’t read, that book called The Novel: The Beginnings to 1600 that caused such a stir a few years ago by arguing that human beings have been writing novels since the earliest days – and, yes, I know about The Satyricon and The Golden Ass and The Tale of Genji (none of which was written in English). But still – the consensus does seem to be that Robinson Crusoe approaches the modern standard of what a novel is more so than any of its predecessors.
Let’s think about this for a minute. Daniel DeFoe was born in 1660. His life span missed overlapping with Shakespeare’s by less than fifty years. He was born into a London in which John Milton and Samuel Pepys were key players; he was six years old when that city burned to the ground. He was born under Charles II, the king who served as the model for James Barrie’s Captain Hook. He was born before modern representative democracy, before calculus, before toilet paper, before atheism. DeFoe capitalizes every noun, the way the Germans do, and like others writing before the early 19th century, he has no concept of standardized spelling (“scissors” takes an especially charming beating: “Sissars,” “Scisars,” “Sizzers,” and so forth). DeFoe was, apparently, born after the invention of scissors.
You know the plot, of course: Robinson Crusoe (whose nickname is “Bob”; does anyone else find that fact as amusing as I do?) goes to sea, nearly dies in a shipwreck, and then lives alone on a deserted island for a long time before finding a footprint in the sand (those words give me goosebumps, and always have) and meeting up with (and subsequently oppressing) a nonwhite individual named Friday.
But did you know that this novel begins with a brilliant and funny diatribe on the late adolescent mind? Bob Crusoe’s elderly, gout-ridden father takes a break from hacking up phlegm to give a speech warning young Bob not to go to sea. Bob has two older brothers, one of which was killed at Dunkirk in a battle against Spain in what I am pretty sure was the Thirty Years’ War. Bob’s other brother had already disappeared: “What became of my second Brother I never knew any more than my Father and Mother did know what became of me” (3).
The subject of the elder Crusoe’s lecture is THE MIDDLE CLASS – which is the same thing Candy Crowley and her panel of experts were talking about on CNN this morning. He entreats his son that “mine was the middle State, or what might be called the upper Station of Low Life, which he had found by long Experience was the best State in the World, the most suited to human Happiness, not exposed to the Miseries and Hardships, the Labour and Sufferings of the mechanick Part of Mankind, and not embarrass’d with the Pride, Luxury, Ambition and Envy of the upper Part of Mankind” (4). This speech goes on for a while in this vein, and young Bob’s reaction is 1) to agree with it 100%, and 2) to completely disregard it and decide to go to sea. Later, Crusoe reflects back and recognizes that “I was born to be my own Destroyer” (37) – a statement that I have certainly made on a few occasions.
I also want to point out that this novel does NOT pass the political correctness test, which may be a reason that it’s rarely taught in schools these days. Crusoe participates happily in the slave trade and experiences nary a twitch of compunction about being a gun-toting white supremacist. At the same time, though, this novel has an unmistakably modern feel to it. Funny spelling aside, the longing that is at the core of this novel is not so different from the cris de coeur of Benjy Compson, of Jake Barnes, of Milkman Dead. Alienation – the great modern theme – takes center stage here. The Cosby Show feels more outdated than Robinson Crusoe, as do The Catcher in the Rye and The Awakening and Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.
I think that one of the marks of a great work of literature is the ease with which it talks back and forth with other great works of literature. Robinson Crusoe makes me think of Moby Dick, of The Odyssey, of The Tempest, of Gulliver’s Travels, of Candide, of Walden, and even of Gilligan’s Island and Lost. On the other hand, Written in My Own Heart’s Blood makes me think of – well – of An Echo in the Bone. The Great Santini makes me think of Lords of Discipline. Fifty Shades of Grey makes me think of Twilight. One way to judge the measure of a book, I suppose, is to track the quality of the other books one thinks of when one is reading it. I’m sure J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D will be happy to chart your data in a handy graph after you have finished collecting it.
And yes, I did just imply that Gilligan’s Island is 1) literature, and 2) great. Deal with it.
So, ultimately, all smoke and mirrors aside, I haven’t read very much. I’ve read about sixty of 282 pages. I should get a bit more done tomorrow, but I’m sure I’ll be dragging this novel along with me kicking and screaming into July. But I’m reading it and enjoying it, and I really don’t want to force myself to stay up all night reading it or doing anything else that will make me resent it. I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time, and I am happy that the Numbers Challenge compelled me to do so. Late, schmate.