Preferred Citation: Creeley, Robert. The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1989 1989.

With Crusoe, on Familiar Shores

With Crusoe, on Familiar Shores

There was a moment, just a few years ago, when a human, simply one of us, suddenly saw the world from such a distance in space that all of its surface resolved as a single sphere, that familiar globe of our childhood. One wanted heroic acknowledgment, words so to dignify this remarkable and pristine sight of Henry Vaughan's "eternity" that no human eyes had hitherto witnessed. But the voice, as I recall, said only, I can see all of Florida and part of the Mississippi basin  . . . Pragmatic though it was and even had to be, the statement said nothing either of the world left or the world come to.

Yet Defoe's story of an equal adventure, despite its determined fiction—it is the first novel to be written in our common English—became almost instantly the measure for all such tales ever after. Robinson Crusoe has had the respect of a bizarrely incongruous company, from Dr. Johnson to Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf to Alexander Pope. Mocking the romantic disposition of its enthusiasts, Rimbaud made a verb of this persistent novel's hero in one of his early poems: "Le coeur fou Robinsonne à travers les romans . . ." But in two lectures given in March 1912 for much-needed money, James Joyce proposed that Robinson Crusoe was a far more representative Englishman than John Bull ever was. The qualities of this person—"the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty, the persistence, the slow but effective intelligence, the sexual apathy, the practical and well-balanced religiosity, the

Harper's , September 1985.


calculating silence"—are particular to a very substantial place and time, the early eighteenth century in an England of some 6 million people, 2 million of whom were by Defoe's calculation Dissenters, that is, Protestants who had been variously sympathetic to the Puritans and who, following the Restoration, were therefore held responsible for the excesses of the Commonwealth.

I take these facts from several sources (Richard Ellmann's biography of Joyce, for example, and James Sutherland's excellent study Daniel Defoe ). However, my point is a simple one—that our relation to this forthright story of shipwreck involves the recognition of habits most familiar, for instance, our unquestioning respect for someone who, as Joyce put it, "shipwrecked on a lonely island with a knife and pipe in his pocket," "became architect, carpenter, knife-grinder, astronomer, baker, ship-builder, potter, saddler, farmer, tailor, umbrella-maker, and clergyman." He can do so many things, as we say. Surely that argues well on his behalf.

In fact, it is a perverse delight that our "first novel"—whatever that may finally mean—is a narrative told in the first person, and that for over half its length there is no other voice at all except that of a parrot that has been taught to say, among other things, "Poor Robinson Crusoe! Where are you? Where have you been? How came you here?" It is an exceptionally real story for contemporary lives, having no island, it is true, nor any hope that some passing ship will find them, their money still wadded, stored up, in boxes, banks, or what have you. But the isolation, the intense value of things (any things), the preoccupation with keeping busy so as to assuage loneliness, the foursquare application of brutally simplistic principles—these we know indeed. In a changing social and economic disposition of what we had presumed to know, we are also cast away, washed up, forced to learn rigorously altered manners and methods. We peer from suburban windows with much the same question as Crusoe, who, having come upon a human footprint in the sand after fifteen years of no one, "the very print of a foot, toes, heel, and every part of a foot," can find no relieving explanation. And what does that dilemma provoke as feeling?

 . . . after innumerable fluttering thoughts, like a man perfectly confused, and out of myself, I came home to my fortification, not feeling, as we say, the ground I went on, but terrified to the last degree, looking behind me at every two or three steps, mistaking every bush and tree, and fancying every stump at a distance to be a man; nor is it pos-


sible to describe how many various shapes affrighted imagination represented things to me in; how many wild ideas were formed every moment in my fancy, and what strange unaccountable whimsies came into my thoughts by the way.

It is, of course, a pervasive, displacing fear—that a balance, however ironic, a place, however confining, will be lost, violated. He has become so one that no other can be recognized as simply another, a peer, human company and solace. There must be a hierarchy in which one is above or below, dominates or is subservient, wins or loses. It is to the point that Crusoe now becomes successful, secures Friday as tacit slave, outwits both natives and mutineers, and so on to the requisite happy ending, whose moral has a peculiar authority for us, whatever we may say to the contrary. It is that faith reveals an advantageous "Providence," one willing to strike a bargain and to pay its supporters a handsomely explicit reward. Nor need one wait. The arrangement provides an immediate return.

Defoe had been long acquainted with these tenets, being a businessman of various successful ventures, if an eventual bankrupt. He was also a committed Dissenter, who supported himself by producing pamphlets and tracts on topics of the day. One in particular, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters , a harshly satiric hoax, proposes that the government rid itself of the dissident group by executions and exile. "If one severe law were made, and punctually executed, that whoever was found a conventicle shou'd be banish'd the nation and the preacher be hang'd, we shou'd soon see an end of the tale; they wou'd all come to church, and one age wou'd make us all one again." This remarkable confidence in irony caused him to be attacked by both sides.

One might think that his turning to fiction (or, more accurately, inventing it, even at fifty-nine) was so inspired. But during the five years of that activity—beginning with Robinson Crusoe (1719) and including Moll Flanders (1722), A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), and Roxana (1724)—he continued to produce essays and pamphlets, employment that had sustained him since his bankruptcy in 1692. What one suspects is that his brilliant powers of reflection, surmise, and proposal wanted a less constrained occasion. He certainly knew the particulars of the world. The novels gave him the chance to use that information most amply. For example, the frequent reports of shipwreck during the period, including that of Alexander Selkirk, whose story is said to be the one Defoe used in the writing of Robinson Crusoe , have characteristic recourse to


divine will. But the making of this specific person, this curious Puritan amalgam, proves something far more complex and enduring. Crusoe's presence—his cranky determinations, naively effective presumptions, insistently pragmatic values—much echoes in our own.

Not that we need reminding that the Puritan disposition of our culture is the bedrock for all else that may inform it. We are usually persuaded by appeals to our own advantage, find touch almost always difficult, suppose ourselves lonely yet are easily displaced by any presumption of another, have what we consider tender hearts while being capable of great social violence. Though we are patently secular, we have a sense of inherent righteousness, as if a god were truly on our side. So it is that in times of imminent national crisis—an election pending and foreign and domestic relationships in tatters—we can consider the issue of the legal status of prayer in the schools to be of paramount importance. Such ability to have overbearing purpose, no matter how fantastic, mistaken, or unpleasant, is both our apparent need and our insistent determination.

Various readers of this novel have proposed its narrative as an allegorical "quest," a searching after divine reconciliation and providence. Surely it is that, even explicitly. But again in a fascinating echo of our habits, it is difficult to say which comes first, the desire or the need, the hope or the advantage. Possibly these pairs are, in fact, one. Certainly they are for Robinson Crusoe. The poet Charles Olson used to say, when Wordsworth starts talking to his sister Dorothy in a poem, Look out! Because that's where he gets sententious, where he begins finger-wagging and generalizing. Just so "Poor Robin," whose apostrophes to the footprint as manifesting "Divine wisdom" are as tedious as might be expected and not at all convincing. He is, by his own statement, far more apprehensive of unidentified "savages" than he is of any "Devil." With a canny argument he proposes that the Devil would never put such a mark in such a remote place, "where 'twas ten thousand to one whether I should ever see it or not, and in the sand too. . . . Abundance of such things as these assisted to argue me out of all apprehensions of its being the Devil. And I presently concluded that it must be some more dangerous creature. . . ." Verily, a true pragmatist!

He is also a peculiar enthusiast, for having settled in Brazil as a planter after all the early vicissitudes of his foundering existence, he is easily persuaded to act as "supercargo" for the purpose of securing slaves from Guinea. He has been one himself, but of course his situation now defines him as otherwise, and he is inevitably


open to the opportunity of the moment. This voyage provides the setting for his shipwreck, and for what readers over the years have always remembered as the story: his years as a castaway, the meeting with Friday, and their eventual rescue.

The book begins, however, with as impressive a panegyric to stay-at-home middle-class sentiment as one might hope to find. The "middle state," Crusoe's father tells him, is "the state of life which all other people envied," "the just standard of true felicity." But Robin doesn't listen, and by the book's end he has gained an affluence far more than a "middle fortune" might be thought to provide. This depends on our reading the edition that includes the final three chapters, which describe Crusoe's adventures following his return.

Otherwise, we leave him at that moment when he "arrived in England the 11th of June, in the year 1687, having been thirty-and-five years absent." A haunting, equivocal prospect, either in mind or in fact, not only because the present may be discovered as a place of utter unfamiliarity but because the past, all those claustrophobically vast particulars of physical, daily existence, is fading as surely as all memory, all elsewhere that ever was. I suspect that this aspect of the book's experience, which is common to any book once we have done with reading it, haunts us more than is often the case.

Whatever paradigm or moral it may prove, the wonder of Robinson Crusoe finally is in its writing, the word-by-word accumulation of feeling, of location, of a fibrous content of presence. Ostensibly the voice is Crusoe's. But of course a person is writing it all, pacing, inventing, appropriating, determining each detail, what shall be its company, whereto all shall be directed. There is a paragraph just after Crusoe has managed to reach the shore:

After I had solaced my mind with the comfortable part of my condition I began to look around me to see what kind of place I was in, and what was next to be done, and I soon found my comforts abate, and that in a word I had a dreadful deliverance, for I was wet, had no clothes to shift me, nor anything to eat or drink to comfort me, neither did I see any prospect before me but that of perishing with hunger, or being devoured by wild beasts. And that which was particularly afflicting to me was, that I had no weapon either to hunt and kill any creature for my sustenance, or to defend myself against any other creature that might desire to kill me for theirs—in a word, I had nothing about me but a knife, a tobacco-pipe, and a little tobacco in a box. This was all my provision, and this threw me into terrible agonies of mind, that for awhile I ran about like a madman. Night coming


upon me, I began with heavy heart to consider what might be my lot if there were any ravenous beasts in that country, seeing at night they always come abroad for their prey.

As the last sentence emphasizes, it is what everyone knows—the stock-in-trade truths, the prejudices—that makes this work so solid, so reassuring, no matter what it tells us. The grace of its writing is so undemanding, so common. The genius, then, of Defoe's invention is this painstakingly accumulated person, who, as any one of us, believes he can know, and so lives.


With Crusoe, on Familiar Shores

Preferred Citation: Creeley, Robert. The Collected Essays of Robert Creeley. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1989 1989.