recess radio program

02/28/06
Robinson Crusoe Month
    by Rita Smith

February is Robinson Crusoe Month, named in honor of the anniversary of the rescue on February 1, 1709, of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor who had been put ashore in September 1704, on an uninhabited island at his own request after a quarrel with his captain. Ten years later, Daniel Defoe published The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe loosely based on Selkirk's adventures on the island. It was not originally written for children, but, in 1719, there was hardly anything written for children; they had to make do with what they could find to their taste from literature written for adults. One of the first of such books, which they took over for themselves was The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. It isn't hard to see the attractions such a work had, and still has, for children--with their desire for privacy, their love of hideouts and their wish to organize and control their lives--especially when all this is told with Defoe's careful attention to the most minute details.1 Children read Robinson Crusoe and continue to read it because it is an exciting story that stirs the imagination.

Abridgements began to appear almost as soon as it was printed, and, by 1750, the original 300-plus page text could even be found in chapbooks of 16 or 8 pages. The first abridgement intended especially for children was published in 1768 by Francis Newbery. Many other children’s versions followed, and, in a poll taken in 1888, it was far and away the favorite boy's book. Robinson Crusoe has remained hugely popular with children and inspired a whole genre of literature, known as the Robinsonnade. Early imitators such as Campe's The New Robinson Crusoe and Wyss’ The Swiss Family Robinson followed Rousseauesque themes of education through exercise of the natural arts as required by necessity. Victorian versions of the Crusoe story, such as Marryat’s Masterman Ready and Ballantine’s Coral Island stressed adventure, manliness, and self-help.

Elements of the Robinsonnade turn up again and again in the typical children’s adventure story from the mid 19th century onward. More recent examples include O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphin and Taylor's The Cay. The lure of the struggle of one person in cruel and unforgiving conditions of nature continues to this day. The Crusoe story is one of unparalleled adventure in concert with the ingenuity and inventiveness needed to establish a semblance of domestic routine. I’m not going to advocate finding an island to tame, but, in honor of Robinson Crusoe Month, maybe a re-reading of The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe would be appropriate, and, in the spirit of Robinson Crusoe, make February a month to be adventurous and self-reliant.

Notes:
1 Dixon, Bob. Catching Them Young 2, Political Ideas in Children's Fiction, Pluto Press, 1977. pp. 74-119. Reprinted on the Literature Resource Center website of the Gale Group website: http://galenet.gale.com/

Sources:
Carpenter, Humphrey and Mari Prichard. The Oxford Companion to Chldren’s Literature. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. p. 457-459.

Copyright 2006© Rita Smith

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