On an Island

Daniel Defoe is officially credited as the author of 28 titles, but it is likely that he was the author of twice that, if one counts the pamphlets, essays, and other works he published under pseudonyms.

One of his titles keeps his name famous almost three centuries after he published it: Robinson Crusoe. Its full title on its publication in 1719 was longer (ahem): The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates.

Defoe did not attach his name to the book; after that long title a single line of type is set aside with a dark line above and one below and “Written by himself” between.

Thus, from the birth of the novel in English, one of its creators started toying with the basic concept of fiction. It is the truest conceit of all fiction writing and it is there from the beginning: “This is a true story, I swear.” (“A guy told it to me once,” provided the next variation.)

Defoe was no castaway, although more than once in his life he might have desired a deserted island life away from creditors and the crown. A dissenter, he was once put in the pillory and sent to Newgate Prison for writing a satirical pamphlet; a lifelong merchant who was sometimes on the unscrupulous side of unscrupulous deals, he spent time in debtors’ sanctuaries and on the run. He even died on the run, aged 70 or so. (His birth date, even the year, was not recorded.) He added the Francophilic “de” to his plain-sounding birth name of “Foe” to give himself a name redolent with upper-classiness.

And he wrote what many consider the first novel in English.

Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur was written and published more than two centuries before Robinson Crusoe and is a work of prose fiction that was popular enough to have been read by Defoe and his contemporaries, but its tales are interlocked, not interwoven. It is a collection of semi-separate tales. Robinson Crusoe is a first-person account of events that never happened to someone who never existed written by someone who was not that particular (fake) person. It is an adventure and it is a novel.

Within two decades, other types of novel were added to the fiction shelves: Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and Pamela (picture for yourself modern-day romance novels with Fabio on the cover), Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones (endless, convoluted plots and comic characters), and Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (a story about how impossible it is to tell a straight story), and most of the elements that make the novel as we still read it to this day were in place. (The mystery novel and police procedural came along later and complete the picture.)

By 1719, ships had been sailing between the Old World and the New for more than two centuries. The Caribbean was well-mapped, America was colonized by multiple countries, and the South Pacific was being explored, but the idea of a ship running aground on a previously unknown island was no mere fantasy: it was a reality and the story of a shipwrecked sailor long thought dead returning home would have been a familiar one to 18th Century readers.

One such sailor had returned home to London in 1711 after spending the years 1704–1709 alone on an island off the coast of what is now known as Chile. His name was Alexander Selkirk, and while literary scholars still debate whether Defoe was writing a version of Selkirk’s story or that of one of the many other shipwrecked European sailors, it appears most likely that Robinson Crusoe’s tale is an amalgam of Selkirk’s remarkable story and the others. Crusoe was shipwrecked in the Caribbean and Selkirk had been marooned by his own request in the South Pacific; Crusoe made a friend of a local cannibal and named him Friday, and Selkirk spent more than four years utterly alone. (Why was Selkirk marooned by his own request? Rather than sail any further on what he considered a compromised and not seaworthy ship, he asked to be let off. His request was complied with, and, indeed, the ship sank further on.)

After his return to London, Selkirk was the subject of many books and gazetteer articles about his life alone far from home, but he quickly returned to his pre-maroon life of continuous bar fights interrupted by brief jail stays, and he took to the sea again, where he died of yellow fever in 1721. In 1966, the government of Chile renamed the island on which Selkirk had resided, Isla Más a Tierra, “Robinson Crusoe Island” and one of its companion islands, Isla Más Afuera, as “Alejandro Selkirk Island.”

The imagined life of a solitary shipwrecked sailor, far from the madding crowd and free to read his Bible (as Selkirk claimed he spent his days), retains its hold on readers, almost three centuries after Defoe fictionalized what was already a remarkable tale.

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This first appeared in December 2014.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for July 3 asks us to reflect on the word, “Island.”

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