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Summary Article: Robinson Crusoe (1719)
from The Cambridge Guide to Children's Books in English

Daniel Defoe’s first book of fiction, one of the most popular adventure stories in world literature, which influenced the development of the realistic novel and has engendered innumerable abridgements, imitations and adaptations for children and adults. Defoe (1660?—1731), a prolific political journalist critical of society, travelled widely and wrote semi-fictional biographies as first-person narratives. He heard accounts of Alexander Selkirk’s experiences as a sailor left alone on the Island of Juan Fernandez from 1704 to 1709, and when Defoe was nearly 60 and in debt, he completed The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner . . . Written by Himself. Following the success of this story about Crusoe’s 28 years stranded on a tropical island, W. Taylor of London immediately reprinted it and published Defoe’s two less enduring sequels by 1720.

Unauthorised abridgements of the popular first book appeared immediately and continued to the 20th century. chapbooks versions, beginning in the mid-18th century, concealed Defoe’s authorship to perpetuate the illusion that Crusoe’s story was true. Some were as short as eight pages, with woodcuts. Illustrated abridgements were marketed for children by Newbery Medal and Carnan, Thomas from 1768, and their text and other versions were sold thereafter by other printers in hundreds of editions, making Robinson Crusoe one of the few fictional stories both available to poorer families and recommended for educated children before the mid-19th century. Later high-quality editions were illustrated by prominent artists such as George Cruikshank, ‘Phis’ (H.K. Browne) and N.C. Wyeth.

Among many writers who recorded the influence of Robinson Crusoe on young readers and praised its detailed portrayal of the isolated individual teaching himself how to survive in the wilderness, Jean Jacques Rousseau was most influential. Ignoring the ‘irrelevant’ parts before Crusoe’s shipwreck and after his rescue, Rousseau declared in Émile (1762) that Defoe’s ‘complete treatise on natural education’ was the only book young boys needed, as imagining themselves in the heroic role of ‘solitary adventurer’ would instill an eagerness to learn everything useful. Moralists who opposed the castaway’s freedom and individuality were overshadowed by generations of readers fascinated with the romance and realism in Crusoe’s struggles against natural dangers, loneliness and cannibals. His painstaking efforts to make tools and clothes, build homes, grow food, domesticate animals and rule his self-made kingdom attract readers of all ages and social classes. Many accounts in fiction and non-fiction place Robinson Crusoe next to the Bible as a treasured book in households throughout the British Commonwealth. Since the late 18th century, the story has been adapted in drama, opera and poetry. Although Defoe’s treatment of ‘savages’, especially Crusoe’s servant Friday, has been questioned by postcolonial critics and 20thcentury revisionists such as novelist Michel Tournier, Crusoe’s discovery of a native’s footprint in the sand after years of solitude is one of the most suspenseful, unforgettable moments in the history of fiction. The worldwide popularity and mythic proportions of this exotic island adventure led to a vast body of related literature called robinsonnade.

-Bettina L. Hanlon: Ferrum College, Virginia, USA.

Cambridge University Press 2001

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