Crusoe and His Consequences

JAMES DUNKERLEY


“No-one writing today in English on Latin America can match Dunkerley’s mix of deep conviction, keen eye for human and humanizing detail, and analytical rigor and exuberant wit.” —John Henry Coatsworth, provost, Columbia University

“The most extraordinary history book of the year.” —Eric Hobsbawm on Dunkerley’s Americana


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About the Book

300 years after it was first published, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe remains hugely influential and hotly debated. Since its initial release in 1719, discussions have surrounded the novel’s depiction of individual solitude and work, colonial and racial relations, and mankind’s relationship with the rest of the animal world.

To this day, Crusoe’s depiction of self-reliance and “rugged individualism” is often idealized in economics textbooks, mainstream politics, and popular culture. But many have also criticized this approach, most notably Karl Marx, who was one of the first in decrying the efforts of classical economists to extract the “rational actor” and “marginalist calculator” from the island castaway without reference to social history.

Alongside a precis with surprising revelations for those not familiar with the detail of the story, and a rich biographical sketch of its creator, Crusoe and His Consequences draws on a range of writers, including Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jacques Derrida and Jurgen Habermas, to bring the debates surrounding Defoe’s first novel vividly to life.

273 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-68219-202-3 • E-book 978-1-68219-205-4

About the Author

James Dunkerley author photo

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James Dunkerley OBE is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary, University of London, and former Director of the Institute for the Study of the Americas at the University of London. He has written extensively on history and politics in the Americas. Previous titles include The Long War: Dictatorship and Revolution in El Salvador, Power in the Isthmus, and Americana: The Americas in the World, Around 1850.

Read an Excerpt

It’s just possible that you have already read the full, unabridged text of Daniel Defoe’s The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, published on 25 April 1719. You might, however, be awaiting an experience like that of the great historian Christopher Hill:

Those who, like myself, first encountered Robinson Crusoe in an abridged edition are surprised when they read the original. It seems a very long time before we get to the point. An account of the hero’s early life occupies the first 50 or so pages, one-seventh of Part I, before he is shipwrecked on his island. The original, moreover, looks much more like a protestant homily or moral fable—a ‘parable’ as the Preface to Part II describes it—than the abridgements which made it such a popular children’s story.

Yet, if “. . . almost everybody who picks up Robinson Crusoe can outline some of its episodes before he starts reading,” that applies only to what Hill calls Part I. It is very unlikely indeed that you have read Part II, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, published on 20 August 1719; and, unless you are a dedicated Defoe scholar or greatly attracted to the intellectual history the paranormal, it is ardently to be hoped that you have not sought literary reward in Part III, Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe: with his Vision of the Angelick World, published on 6 August 1720. This last volume was something of a post hoc facto explication of Crusoe’s—never Defoe’s—composition of the previous volumes. Even more rambling than them, and with absolutely minimal pretence at providing adventure-added, it soon disappeared into an afterlife of consolidated editions. Part II was also less popular than its predecessor but throughout much of the eighteenth century continued to be bound together with it.

Part I, of course, is wholly different, even if it was not until the 1750s that it was once again being published on its own. Four official editions were issued—at the price of five shillings, equivalent to two days’ pay of a skilled urban worker—in the weeks of mid-1719 up to the appearance of Part II, by which time Crusoe/Defoe was already fulminating against the energetic competition of pirate versions. The narrative—the term ‘novel’ was rarely used by Defoe and was not common before the mid-nineteenth century—was serialised over seventy-eight instalments in the Original London Post, or Heathcot’s Intelligence between October 1719 and March 1720.

Such early success barely slowed down, either at home or abroad. By 1900 there were at least two hundred English editions, filling sixteen columns of the catalogue of the British Museum. Translations began within weeks, with fourteen into French between 1720 and 1729, nine into German between 1720 and 1783, five into Dutch and five into Italian up to 1791. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ‘rugged individualism’ that will be discussed shortly, attracted Benjamin Franklin, who was in London in the 1720s and who lauded the book in his Autobiography, forming part of a distinct republican enthusiasm that yielded over a hundred editions between 1774 and 1830. Thereafter only the most zealous bibliophile can keep up with translations, and, with versions in Maltese, Coptic, and Estonian as well as Welsh, Hebrew, and Maori, the best approach might be to seek out which language groups still lack their own version of Crusoe. It is, though, worth noting that before 1836 there was no translation in Spain, where the Inquisition—not overlooked in the original— was at work well into the nineteenth century.

If the present book has an ‘argument’ in the sense employed by social scientists and lawyers, it is that Ian Watt was correct, and that Crusoe constitutes a core mythic text of Western and capitalist civilisation over the last three centuries. In the words of Robert MacDonald,

We know that the book is full of faults, that it is repetitious and often boring, that it is sloppily written by a forgetful author. We are aware that the time scheme is improbable and the end of the novel tacked on . . . We know too that all these things matter very little, since the book has a mythic simplicity, an appeal that owes little to realism and nothing to chronology.

In MacDonald’s case, Defoe eventually provides, from the Godhead to the psyche, a comprehensive portrait of ‘order’. Watt takes a rather different line, admiring the text’s ‘realism’ at several levels.

Arguments of this type could, of course, be both verified and falsified, but I am not going there in the pages that follow. This is not a specialist book written by an expert. There are some endnotes, but they are there to keep the experts off as much of my case as I can contrive. This is a book written by an engrossed and enthusiastic beginner who, following Hill’s experience, has wanted to discover why a narrative text that is in so many ways a dreadful mess has come to be ‘a classic’, not just in literary terms but in those of economics (‘political arithmetick’), politics, and popular culture as well. On the assumption that even if you have read the full original text, a little refreshment of its outer lineaments and style might help, I have sought to provide a synopsis of the story in the following pages here. This is, of course, my ‘take’ on the book, and I am not an accomplished editor—not least in choosing between the sundry inconsistencies, particularly in terms of timing, in the story. It really would be best if you first read or re-read the original as a whole. If in more than momentary doubt about that, please stop, and go do it now.

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