Apr 13 2010

Robinson Crusoe

Today I finished Daniel Defoe‘s 1719 classic “The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe“. The original edition had a much longer title but I’m sticking with this one. Crusoe is considered by some to be the first English novel. Those people are smoking crack. Defoe himself wrote an earlier novel titled “The Consolidator” in 1705. For some earlier English works, check out: “The Pilgrim’s Progress” (1678), “Beware the Cat” (1553), and perhaps the most famous of all, “Le Morte d’Arthur” (1470). Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” stands out however as being the most popular English book of the time. Not only was it popular then but it continues to fascinate people today. There have been hundreds of spin-offs. My earliest memory of a Robinsonade story is sitting at a Cub Scout meeting in a country church, watching an old black and white movie reel of the “Swiss Family Robinson” (1940). Not sure what that had to do with scouting (other than the Pioneering merit badge), but there you have it. Today, echoes of Crusoe’s castaway adventures can be found in movies, television reality shows, and even the radio plays of Herbert “Daring” Dashwood and his stalwart ghoul manservant, Argyle!

So, what about the book? The book is tedious. While I have to give Defoe credit for being a pioneer of adventure fiction, “Props!” (can I haz street cred?), Voltaire’s “Candide” (1759) is much more enjoyable. Is it fair to compare the two? Why not, it’s my blog! “Candide”, at its heart, is satire. Crusoe is a series of ship manifests in the shape of a novel. To spice-up the story, Defoe has given us insight into Robinson’s moral and religious development over the course of twenty-eight years! More please! *Ugh* From a modern perspective, this is laughable because despite Crusoe’s many epiphanies, he still refers to his Carib slave Friday as a “poor honest creature”. For me, the most interesting part of their relationship was Friday’s questions regarding Crusoe’s god in “Chapter XV – Friday’s Education”. When asked questions about the Devil, Crusoe is unable to give a well-reasoned answer to Friday, but instead of finding fault with the source (i.e., Bible) he ascribes this failing to Friday’s savage and ignorant mind. Was this risqué dialogue in the early 18th century? Defoe was the son of Presbyterian dissenters after all… To Crusoe’s (and Defoe’s) credit, he treats Friday very well.

Spoiler alert! My only other problem with the book is that it just sort of meanders to an end. Crusoe gets off the island, returns to Europe, gets his affairs in order, and sets out for other adventures (almost as an after-thought, for Defoe). There’s a completely frivolous section at the end where they fight hundreds of wolves in the French Pyrenees. Some have claimed that this is a metaphor for entering the land of Canaan (after a long journey), but it smells an awful lot like the gratuitous car explosions in “CHiPs” (1977-1983). In summary, the book is too much a cornerstone of English literature to be considered a waste of time… Not everything that is important has to be enjoyed.

“The tears would run plentifully down my face when I made these reflections; and sometimes I would expostulate with myself why Providence should thus completely ruin His creatures, and render them so absolutely miserable; so without help, abandoned, so entirely depressed, that it could hardly be rational to be thankful for such a life.”

3 out of 5

Oct 21 2009

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Eliza Crossing the Icy RiverI just finished Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s 1852 abolitionist classic “Uncle Tom’s Cabin“. I have of course known about this book for as long as I can remember, but never really intended to read it (until recently). Why? Not sure. Maybe I thought it was irrelevant? Maybe I thought it would be awkward? Old racist stereotypes often are. Maybe I was just embarrassed to read a book surrounded by such negative connotations (which it doesn’t deserve). Much of the criticism for the book actually stems from unsanctioned “Tom Shows” during the 19th century where the main character was depicted as a subservient fool who would not stand up to his white owners.

The book is filled with cookie-cutter stereotypes: demonic slave-owners, dancing and singing black children, angelic golden-haired white children (well okay… just one), large brutish black men, etc., but that’s completely understandable given the book’s purpose. This was never meant to be a great work of literature (though it was the best selling novel of the 19th century); it was composed to illustrate the plight of slaves in pre-Civil War America to a populace that had become complacent (Fugitive Slave Act of 1850). The entire book was an appeal to “Christian values” (I won’t go into that) and an attempt to expose the horrors of slavery to white readers that either had no clue what was going on or didn’t care enough to do something about it.

Was it successful? In its time, absolutely. Today’s reader may find the story a bit of a slog through a seemingly unending barrage of Bible passages, hymns, and perorations on the importance of accepting Jesus and his gospel. The main character pretty much goes down without a fight because he believes it’s the Christian thing to do. Some might argue that his faith and restraint made him the ultimate victor (i.e., “he’s gone to a better country”), but that doesn’t change the fact that his story ends in a grave (spoiler?). Again, it’s important to recognize the audience she was writing for, and how best to stoke their passions. I also found it interesting that Stowe’s idea of reparations seemed to consist of freeing the slaves, educating them, and shipping them off to Liberia.

So, is it a good read? If you have ever had troubles staying awake through a sermon, you’re going to have troubles with this book.  If you’re able to appreciate the importance of this book in its historical context, it is worth reading. It was important 150+ years ago and prelude to where we are today.

“…there can be no high civilization without enslavement of the masses, either nominal or real.”

4 out of 5