Ford Madox Ford on Daniel Defoe

Someday, probably some winter, I will sit down and actually read Ford Madox Ford’s The March of Literature, and take the full eclectic journey through Ford’s brain. But until that day arrives, the best I can do is hope for a few pages here and there when I look up a recently read author in the index and see what Ford might have to say. Thus, him on Daniel Defoe:

…[I]t would be unreasonable not to consider that Defoe, looking for new avenues by which to make a living by his pen, saw that there would undoubtedly be a market for English picaresque fiction—and supplied it. …

It is difficult to write at all dogmatically about Defoe, in part because his historical position and his untiring personal activities in public fields obscure a little the critical vision. As in the case of Goethe, one hesitates to write down that in ninety per cent of his writings outside Moll Flanders Defoe is an insufferable bore.

Of Moll Flanders:

It will be observed that the writing, if not very trig or distinguished, is yet worthy of respect for a certain quality of balance and rhythm calculated to show off very skilfully the sense of the content. It is as if Defoe in beginning a paragraph saw at once its end, its convlutions, and its whole shape. And that is very high praise which could be accorded to few enough of his later successors.

But as he went on his his career of outpourings of words, the life, very naturally, faded from his prose—the last traces of the seventeenth century prose tradition died out of it and the form of the paragraph went. Consider this from Captain John Gow: [excerpt omitted]

Sheer backboneless could not go much further.

Ford is pretty much will to give Defoe a break on this, since he’s getting old at this point and “though a man in those years may still write good prose, the odds are that he will not be able to do it incessantly, untiringly and to earn a scanty living.”

Of Robinson Crusoe, unfortunately, Ford does not have too much to say, because “since we have all of us read it in our first childhoods, hardly any of us could form any exact estimation of its technical, literary value.” Having not read it in my first childhood, I would have appreciated a more sustantive discussion—though certainly the case to pick up Moll Flanders (Norton Critical Edition already on the shelf, naturally) has been made. And I think I would agree about the skillfully rhythmic language in much of Robinson Crusoe, which Ford does admit “may pass for a masterpiece almost marmoreal and universally esteemed.”

His final word on Defoe is probably his best: “we shall have to produce yet many masterpieces, indeed, before his figure shall pass from the consciousness of posterity. He may have died a mere Grub Street hack but he shall be a hard, angular pebble indeed for oblivion to swallow.”

Robinson Crusoe, the neverending story

Does anyone call Robinson Crusoe a picaresque? Do we have to be questing or adventuring to be picaresque, or is it enough to be episodic? In any case, Robinson Crusoe is episodic, and unevenly so, in exactly that way that will leave the well-versed reader saying, “This was totally written before 1750.”

I actually like this style sometimes, although perhaps when it actually is written a bit later and a bit more mature use of the form. Say Humphrey Clinker, which I loved, but which is completely episodic and definitely picaresque. On the other hand I do also appreciate it in things like The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights—of course, that version was written a bit late. But other times, as here, it leaves me wondering whether people really did not know how to tell stories in a more “normal” way three hundred years ago. How judgmental of me.

So let’s talk about the end. Believe me, this is not a spoiler, because it’s obvious Crusoe does make it off the island (otherwise he would not really be telling anyone about it, would he?), and this ending is immune to spoilage. Because you see, after you’ve dragged yourself through several hundred rather meandering pages with no discernable rhyme or reason to how much time is passing how quickly, you figure it’s all over once Crusoe is picked up by a ship headed across the Atlantic. But if you remember, you also figured this was just a book about a guy on a desert island.

Crusoe finds himself, on his rescue, rather well-off. He’s still a partner at his plantation back in Brazil, though he refuses to return to that country on religious grounds. Instead, he has his money sent to him in Portugal. Then he must return to England to take possession of the remainder of his worldly goods (and to return to his homeland, finally). But he’s a little iffy on another sea voyage, you can imagine, so he decides to go with Friday overland to Calais, minimizing the time that must be spent afloat.

This should be, what, a page wrapping things up? “We went to Calais, crossed to Dover, and everyone lived happily ever after.” Instead, the episodes continue. There are disasters in Spain and France. Crossing the Pyrenées turns out to be almost as hazardous as dodging cannibals—perhaps more so. Friday acts completely ridiculous, allowing himself to be chased around by a bear. Europe would appear to be more dangerous than the New World here—perhaps it’s just because Crusoe is still stuck in Catholic countries? It didn’t seem to come up at that point, but I certainly could have missed some of the anti-Papism.

The overwhelming sense is that Defoe simply did not know how to end his story. Even when such an obvious ending was right there—rescue! I think virtually any reader now would simply assume that that was the end, barring a bit of wrap-up. A whole extra voyage, a whole set of extra tribulations, are completely unexpected and wreak havoc on any kind of emotional arc we’ve been taken through by Crusoe’s final salvation.

Not to say I don’t like it. Not to say I’m not extremely pleased to have read it. And certainly not to say you shouldn’t argue with me about the merits of its form or structure. I actually love dealing with things that seem aesthetically bizarre like this.

Robinson Crusoe and Early Novel Syndrome

So the religious/didactic element is a definite sign of Early Novel Syndrome, as is, I believe, the issue of time passing strangely that I wrote about a bit yesterday. Two more posts on two more symptoms of ENS should do it for Defoe, for now, and then I’ll try to perk us up next week. Ha, we’ll have to see with what.

The structure of Robinson Crusoe is kind of a mess. For a while on the island, he keeps a journal, and his journal is inserted into the main text of his narration, which is clearly done after the fact of his rescue. It’s pretty uneven and rudimentary for the epistolary form, at least in my experience. But I want to look at something smaller.

When Crusoe first finds himself alive and on the shore of his desert island, he is overcome with emotion.

I walked about on the shore…reflecting upon all my comrads that were drowned, and that there should not be one soul saved but myself; for, as for them, I never saw them afterwards, or any sign of them, except three of their hats, one cap, and two shoes that were not fellows.

I quite liked that, and I think it’s a popular quote; I think I have seen it before. It has an inkling, at least, especially in the “that were not fellows,” of first-rate novelistic detail. But Defoe isn’t really up to that just yet. This is really just a list, and there are a lot of lists.

The next one is a bit further down the page: “I had nothing about me but a knife, a tobacco pipe, and a little tobacco in a box; this was all my provision….” Later, he begins salvage operations, which provide obvious opportunities for listing. When he begins to build things, more listing. When he begins to husband animals, more listing. It’s never too long before we are reminded of Crusoe’s provisions, or what is stored up in his house, and how many bushels of corn he plants and saves for the off-season.

I feel like I should be put in mind of Laura’s Pa, and the wonderful things he knows how to do and the wonderful descriptions she gives of him making and doing all sorts of things. Wilder is expressing a childlike wonder as well as the process of growing up and becoming a competent adult. Certainly, as I discussed in my post on religion, Crusoe’s work is vital to his conversion story. But the actual method or technique of these lists simply seems less well-formed or well-developed. What is included or excluded doesn’t really make sense or bear on anything. It becomes, I suppose, the opposite of novelistic detail: lists to give the appearance of exhaustivity and, I think more importantly, realism. Funny how it turns out we find it more realistic not to do this.

Robinson Crusoe and the will to live

Yesterday’s bite wasn’t exactly tiny. But folks, there was so much more to say! Today, for a break, I will be truly brief.

Last week I discussed the extreme lengths of time that pass in Robinson Crusoe, throughout the book, with very little indication that so much time is going by. The narration will proceed apace, and suddenly Crusoe tells us that he spent a few years like this, or ten years like that, or that by now, 20 years had passed on his island. Jarring, for sure. Also seemingly unnecessary—I would have been more than impressed with 10 years on the island. I would have been very impressed with just five. The time just seems extreme, as if Defoe is trying to show the unimaginableness of the horror of being alone, in danger, in continual fear, for so long.

Long before Crusoe finds a meaningful relationship with God, he admits that “I had great reason to consider it as a determination of Heaven, that in this desolate place, and in this desolate manner, I should end my life.” He is very unhappy being alone, and he has no hope of being rescued. I want to be very clear about that. Once in a while he considers ways of possible escape, but with no real hope. And does not believe there is any chance at all of being found. This is borne out pretty well by the fact that for over 20 years, he is quite stuck there all alone.

And yet never does he consider suicide. Or at least, not enough to mention it. When he’s overcome with desolation, instead, he thinks about how all his fellows from his ship did drown, and how he was saved. “‘Why were you singled out? Is it better to be here or there?'” he asks himself. “And then I pointed to the sea. All evils are to be considered with the good that is in them, and with what worse attended them.”

But reading this quite long section before much of anything happens on the island, I couldn’t help being struck with the complete absurdity of this position. I would like to think that a rational person would, after making a determination that escape or rescue was permanently impossible, at least seriously consider ending his own life. It sounds harsh, I know, but if you really thought you were never going to get off that rock and see anyone ever again, would you really think life still worth living? Crusoe not only lives, but makes massive improvements upon the land. He increases his comfort exponentially, of course, but he has no hope of ever interacting with society again or having a family or anything like that. Certainly, suicide would have been a very taboo subject for Defoe to bring up, but I think then that it should have been incumbent upon him to lessen Crusoe’s tribulations, at least by a few years. Because otherwise it just seems absurd.

Of course, Defoe does prove Crusoe wrong and show how incredibly awful it would have been had he actually done something of the kind. There would have been no one to save Friday, no one to return to Europe and collect all Crusoe’s wealth, which has been accumulating all this time. He’s trying to prove me wrong here too, that suicide would not have been rational. Pah! What are the chances? Of course, in a novelist’s hands, they are pretty good.

Religion in Robinson Crusoe

I implied yesterday that I had writer’s block. I don’t. I have time issues, and a block as far as being able to write something in the allotted time (say…ten minutes). But then again maybe it is a certain kind of writer’s block: I want to make an argument, but I don’t have the time, or really the space. My week+ of posting on Your Face Tomorrow was awesome from my perspective, but an abuse of the blogging medium as well. I need to try to bite off less. Let’s see how that works out.

First, I wanted to get to the religious elements of Robinson Crusoe. They are many, and fairly interesting. This is a very Protestant didactic novel. The bare bones: Crusoe’s parents are hard-working bourgeois who believe in pious toil with the goal of a limited, reasonable happiness—happiness with one’s lot in life, to the extent that one can reasonably improve it from that of his parents. Thus they are not at all fans of Crusoe’s plan to go to sea; they are far too risk-averse for this. Stay home, work hard, you’ll do okay.

Crusoe, as a young man, doesn’t take any of this very seriously, including the religious element. He’s not an unbeliever by any means, just a thoughtless sinner. When he gets caught in his first storm at sea, a very minor one all things considered, he begins to pray. But he backslides almost immediately (and with the help of strong drink). Then he spends several years among heathens (that is, among the Moors as a slave and later among Catholics in Brazil). Again, this is not a big deal for him from a religious perspective.

On the desert island is where he begins really to find God. After he begins to work.

And now I began to apply myself to make such necessary things as I found I most wanted, particularly a chair and a table; for without these I was not able to enjoy the few comforts I had in the world; I could not write or eat, or do several things with so much pleasure without a table.

So I went to work; and here I must needs observe, that as reason is the substance and original of the mathematics, so by stating and squaring every thing by reason, and by making the most rational judgment of things, every man may be in time master of every mechanic art. I had never handled a tool in my life, and yet in time, by labour, application, and contrivance, I found at least that I wanted nothing but I could have made it, especially if I had had tools….

After Crusoe works—and there’s more to that passage than just work, but hold a moment—he receives his next sign from God (how many he ignored earlier, warning him not to go to sea!). Suddenly, he finds, grain has begun to grow near his new home. A miracle! But after some thought he unravels the miracle—he had dropped some seed there without realizing it—and his gratitude diminishes once more. But soon he will get the message that sends him on his path for good. A dreadful illness turns Crusoe to prayer once more, and his recovery holds him to it. He’s had a vision, and begins to wonder about the creation of heaven and earth, the meaning of life, and why he is here.

Crusoe actually wrestles in the text with some of these questions.

Sure we are all made by some secret Power, who formed the earth and sea, the air and sky; and who is that?

Then it followed, most naturally: it is God that has made it all: well, but then it came on strangely; if God has made all these things, he guides and governs them all, and all things that concern them; for the Being that could make all things, must certainly have power to guide and direct them.

If so, nothing can happen in the great circuit of his works, either without his knowledge of appointment.

And if nothing happens without his knowledge, he knows that I am here, and am in a dreadful condition; and if nothing happens without his appointment, he has appointed all this to befal me.

Thus he begins to “look back upon a dreadful mispent life” that has landed him in such a situation. He will read the Bible a lot. He will contemplate killing the cannibals he finds on his island, but ultimately decide their judgment is in God’s hands, not his. He will instruct Friday in Christianity, learning more about his own beliefs as he does so. And of course, in a very Protestant way: how easy it is to teach a new pupil when any Christian can look directly to the Bible, interpreting it for himself, without the need for “priestcraft”!

And with that, back to that first passage about work. Crusoe is doing the same thing there, and wherever he must teach himself something to get by on his own. How lucky are we, rational humans, with our ability to learn. All one must do is rationally consider mathematics and he can make himself a table! All one must do is thoughtfully read the Gospels and he can impart the wisdom and comforts of Christianity to a new friend! Hard work, of course, but who isn’t up to some hard work when the rewards are so great?

A sonnet on Robinson Crusoe

Let me break my writer’s block once more with a poem:

Young Robinson was born a Romantic
To dour Christian parents, hard-working and content
To remain at home, never crossing the Atlantic
Where he, tempest-tossed, found life progressing without his consent;
Leaving him first enslaved, then escaped, with life
And limb intact but little else; forced to start anew
In Brazil. Sugar could make a man rich, but instead new strife
When work is not enough: another ocean voyage leaves Crusoe’s life askew.
Stranded on a desert beach, Crusoe gives Defoe a chance
To run through civilization’s course, beginning with the hunt
Through agriculture and religion, until he’s a king with no pants
But goatskin breeches: God’s grace slow to come, but in a torrent.
Decades spent on the Isle of Despair might weary him body and mind,
But it was early life wasted; solitary contemplation and toil the best use of Robinson’s time.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Robinson Crusoe, or The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, was first published in 1719, and you probably think you know the story. Daniel Defoe’s novel, you imagine, relates the tale of a castaway lost on a desert island, where he saves the life of a fellow unfortunate, a black man he names Friday after the day he saved him. This is both true and ridiculously surprisingly not at all what the novel seems to be about as you read it.

First, Crusoe has some not-so-minor adventures long before he’s shipwrecked off the coast of Venezuela. He runs away from home as a teenager, because his parents don’t want him to go to sea. Almost immediately he’s caught in a storm that gives him some pretty serious second thoughts. But with the calm return his romantic notions, and he sets off. Captured by pirates, Crusoe is enslaved by Moors. Were you expecting that? Or, rather, should I have been?

Crusoe is a slave for two years, which pass in the space of about a page, until he manages to escape with a young boy. They sail along the African coast for a time, witnessing exotic sites, before being picked up by a Portuguese ship with an extremely kindly captain who helps Crusoe get back on his feet again. Crusoe makes for Brazil, where he starts a sugar plantation and does pretty well for himself.

It’s only after Crusoe has been settled in Brazil, again for years, that he goes on the voyage that will make him famous, so to speak. On his way to Africa to purchase slaves, he is shipwrecked, finally, on the desert island we’ve been waiting for. And guess how long he spends there? Years! Guess how long before Friday shows up? Years! And I mean, more than twenty! Crusoe is alone, on the island, for decades—and he’s busy, growing crops and keeping livestock and building a pretty unbelievable fortress. It also takes him years to discover that he actually needs the fortress (though he built it anyhow), because occasionally cannibals land on the island to dance, eat their enemies, dance some more, and then leave.

It’s a very weird book. This is the early novel, you know. Tomorrow I’m going to talk about the didactic element of Robinson Crusoe, because that’s important to the issue as well, so I won’t get to the whole “super early novel what the hell is this” question so much until Wednesday. But it’s pretty strange (though not terribly surprising) to read a book like this when we take so much about the novel for granted—and when we think we have a pretty decent handle on the plot. And I didn’t even mention that the book pretty much ends in France. Yeah.

Defoe also published a follow-up to the main Robinson Crusoe story, which I did not read. My understanding is that The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, though included in my free Kindle edition of the book without a very clear delineation between the two parts, is not so historically or literarily important, and by the time it rolled around I was pretty ready to move on. But dear readers, do let me know if this is not the case. I can’t say I would get to it anytime soon if you recommend it, but I will at least not write it off entirely in my mind.