Survivor, 18th Century Style

The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was an instant success upon its publication in April of 1719. Four editions sold out before the sequel, Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was issued in August. Its fame was not fleeting, and the myth of the runaway who finds himself in solitude due to tragic circumstances and is later rewarded has persisted across time. Crusoe is the prodigal son of Milton’s new Christian hero. The story is not new, and owes much to John Bunyan’s allegorical Pilgrim’s Progress of 1678. Told in first person narrative, Defoe’s achievement is marked by a departure from indirect language into an experiential norm, where the locus of description is not mythic precedent, but immediate experience. Experience is related with matter-of-fact precision, and inventories of provisions and delineation of seasons. Progress emerges from commonplace facts, a bible, and the providence of nature. Like Behn, Defoe removes himself from the narrative:

The Story is told with Modesty, with Seriousness, and with a religious Application of Events to the Uses to which wise Men always apply them (viz.) to the Instruction of others by this Example, and to justify and honour the Wisdom and Providence in all the Variety of our Circumstances, let them happen how they will.

The Editor believes the thing to be a just History of Fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it: And however thinks, because all such things are dispatch’d, that the Improvement of it, as well to the Diversion, as to the Instruction of the Reader, will be the same; and as such, he thinks, without further Compliment to the World, he does them a great Service in the Publication. (Preface, Robinson Crusoe)

Rather than the top-down structure of the romantic hero, which lends itself so neatly to a tragic view of degeneration, the new Protestant hero of Defoe rises from low circumstances to triumph. The pursuit is clearly a heroic model meant to both entertain and instruct. The claim to history is of a different form— it is a experiential rather than genealogical. Through mastery and alliance with nature, Crusoe survives to tell his story, while Defoe recedes into the shadows. Edgar Allan Poe claims:

Not one person in ten— nay, not one person in five hundred, has, during the perusal of Robinson Crusoe, the most remote conception that any particle of genius, or even of common talent, has been employed in its creation! Men do not look upon it in the light of a literary performance. Defoe has none of their thoughts— Robinson all. The powers which have wrought this wonder have been thrown into obscurity by the very stupendousness of the wonder they have wrought! We read, and become perfect abstractions in the intensity of our interest— we close the book and are quite satisfied we could have written it ourselves?

Generations have been enthralled with Crusoe, eclipsing the series of “autobiographical” histories Defoe produced in the early 1720s. Historically, it is difficult to discern just who the readers were that made Defoe popular. In 1720, the South Sea Company’s stock failure threw England into depression the same year Memoirs of a Cavalier and Captain Singleton were published. The prolific Defoe continued to exploit the form in 1722 with Moll Flanders, Colonel Jack, and Journal of a Plague Year. In each case, the Miltonic virtues of endurance and heroic martyrdom are asserted— but to whom?

It is uncertain if Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) is a response to the comedic prosperity enjoyed by Crusoe and Singleton, but a 1727 review in The Flying Post of Swift’s single attempt at adventure narrative suggests that it was meant to be enjoyed by “the Superior Class of Mankind,” while “Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and Colonel Jack have had their admirers among the lower rank of Readers.” However, evidence existing in Spence’s Anecdotes, suggests that arch-critic Alexander Pope read and enjoyed many of Defoe’s works, including Robinson Crusoe. G.A. Star suggests that the lack of writing from the heroic critics like Swift need not suggest that they did not read Defoe, but only that the subject matter addressed by Defoe was just too remote formally and stylistically from the established genres to warrant comment. The subject matter of Moll Flanders in particular marked a departure. Rather than using his typical male rovers turned penitent, Defoe tackles a more difficult task:

The Pen employ’d in finishing her story, and making it now what you now see it to be, has had no little difficulty to put it into a Dress fit to be seen, and to make it speak Language fit to be read: When a Woman debauch’d from her Youth, nay, even being the Off-spring of Debauchery and Vice, comes to give an Account of all her vicious Practices, and even to descend to particular Occasions and Circumstances, by which she first became wicked, and of all the progression of Crime which she run through in threescore Year, an Author must be hard put to wrap it up so clean, and not to give room, especially for the vitious Readers to turn it to his Disadvantage. (1)

The problem of avoiding the heritage implied through romantic genealogy is addressed, as well as the problem of readership. In a footnote, Defoe disclaims this section of his preface by arguing that those who would approach a tale of vice and wickedness as implying a similar wickedness on the part of the author— a sanctioning of crime— as reflecting a problem of the reader, not the writer. Is this a literary ploy to avoid criticism of his exploitation of a salacious subject to pander to readers? This refers us back to the problem of who Defoe’s readers were in the first place.

Understanding the readership of the eighteenth century is difficult. Taken by volume alone, sermons would be the dominant literary form. As Swift related in Tale of the Tub, the pulpit is one of the surest ways of gaining an audience. However, it hardly seems likely that either men of letters or common people drew most of their reading material from sermons. Distribution of printed material was certainly uneven, and circulating libraries had barely begun to rise. The most prevalent means of distribution for written works among men of letters were still private, and the popular culture of the coffeehouse gave longer works distribution only through serial publication.

The majority could not afford books except through inexpensive abridged knock-offs, and Defoe was pirated frequently. Defoe’s mode of moral instruction, perhaps deriving from the rise of journalism and the assertion of the value of witnesses to events, arises alongside “instructional poetry” and new critical consciousness, alongside conflicting tastes for irony and romantic tales of the strange and new in periodical publications. There is a significant gap between his writing and the complex evolution of the new form labeled as the novel. From the publication of Defoe’s last effort in this form, Roxana, in 1724 and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in 1726 more than a decade passes before Richardson’s Pamela. Both Swift and Defoe were old men at this time, and the newer generation of writers do not return the form until much later. The only reasonable explanation for this lapse appears to be that the ladder climbed by Swift and Defoe was eclipsed by the third strategy of gaining the necessary elevation to address an audience— the stage-itinerant— a newly invigorated English drama.

2 thoughts on “Survivor”

  1. what would you say about the language used in moll flanders- was it written for all to understand or did it hinder the reader

  2. It was written in a clean, spare and to the point way to connect with readers. The archaism perceived by modern readers is just a matter of change over time. He was distinctly “non-literary” in his style— just the facts, maam.

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