CLAY JENKINSON: The Jefferson Watch — ‘Robinson Crusoe’

Over the past few days, I have had the wonderful guilty pleasure of sitting down to read “Robinson Crusoe” cover to cover. I know I should have been doing other things, some of them pressing, but I just sat there and read this famous and fabulous account of a man who is shipwrecked on a small island off Venezuela and spends 28 years there, 26 alone with a parrot and some semi-domesticated flocks of goats.

When I took breaks, I wrote to a young friend who is about to go on a solo, backpack Jane Austen pilgrimage in England — think of that, wandering around southern England to sites associated with a 19th century novelist or her fictional characters. But hey, I once went on a Last Days of Mussolini Pilgrimage in northern Italy, spending a whole day trying to find the exact spot where he was shot by the side of the road near Lake Como.

And I have been remembering one of the supreme experiences of my life: reading Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” for the first time cover to cover without taking any breaks except to wolf down a steak and kidney pie or get a few hours of rest so that I could wake up and return immediately to my reading. The copy of “Anna Karenina” that I read straight through that magical summer — a thick Oxford classic paperback edition with a yellowish cover — is still with me, after a dozen moves. It is a sacred relic in my world, maybe my most valuable book, though it cost $8.

One definition of a great book is that it is greatly new every time you read it. I suppose I have read “Robinson Crusoe” half a dozen times in the course of my life. As a novel — a sustained work of fiction that begins on page one and ends on page 310 (I refer to the orange-backed Penguin Edition I bought at Blackwells Bookstore in Oxford, England) — “Robinson Crusoe” has some problems, including lots of prefatory material (can we just get him marooned on the island already!) and a comparatively weak ending. But once Crusoe drags himself half-drowned onto the shore of the deserted island coughing up seawater, the book is just spectacular for 150 or 200 pages.

Certain other works that have crept deep into the human consciousness — “Huckleberry Finn,” “Frankenstein,” “Dracula,” “Gulliver’s Travels,” “Don Quixote,” “Moby Dick” — have, as novels, certain structural issues, and almost everyone agrees that the parts that are now familiar to everyone — Huck and Jim drifting down the river; Gulliver waking up on the beach tied down with a thousand Lilliputian ropes that are no bigger than pack threads to him;  Ahab pounding a gold coin into the mast of the Pequod for the first person who spots the great white whale — are embedded in material that is sometimes confusing and sometimes disappointing. You just have to persevere. You cannot let yourself get tripped up.

What principally interests me, as a Jeffersonian, is how Crusoe uses the things he has salvaged from the wreckage of the ship to construct a life. The novel is in a sense the story of “Economic Man” (excuse the sexist term), who works his way up Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs: first, basic material needs, food, water, shelter, a place to rest; second, safety and security; third, relationships with others; fourth, prestige or a feeling of accomplishment; and fifth, self-actualization. If this were English 207 or Psychology 145, a student could cull the novel for evidence of each of these Maslowian stages in Crusoe’s island life.

Defoe takes it pretty far down the industrial path: before too long, Crusoe has become a farmer and a rancher, a stock breeder, a tailor and a carpenter, a baker, a ceramicist, a charcoal manufacturer, and he is just about to master the art of beer-making when he finds literature’s most famous footprint on the beach, and the tone and the trajectory of the novel change abruptly. By the middle of the novel Crusoe is calling himself the king and sovereign of the island. He has produced so much surplus food that he would establish an import-export business if only he could find a shipping firm that would pay a port of call now and then. All of this is utterly fascinating, especially Crusoe’s early attempts to make furniture without proper tools, or baskets, or water-proof ceramic pots.

At some point Crusoe (getting pretty high on the Maslowian scale of accomplishment and self-actualization) declares that there is no handcraft that he could not master over time if he set himself to the challenge. When I read that, I looked up from the book and gazed into the meditative distance out my window and asked, “Is that true of me? Could I learn to be a carpenter, a welder, an auto mechanic, a ceramicist, a canoe maker given enough time? Daniel Defoe’s answer seems to be: yes. This is what humans are, this is what humans do, this is what humans are capable of thanks to their very clever brain and their opposable thumbs. You can see why that would appeal to Thomas Jefferson.

I love literature that follows Theodore Roosevelt’s advice to do what you can with what you have where you are. Use the tools you have. Crusoe, who is Economic Man on steroids or at least caffeine, turns the whole island into a small industrial park. By the time the indigenous refuge whom he names Friday shows up, Crusoe has a primary home and a seasonal getaway place (his Poplar Forest), two grain farms, two pasturage farms (ranches), a fort and two boats, one of which he takes on cautious pleasure cruises. But then, he was able to harvest a very large number of items from the wreckage of the ship, not the least of which were a small arsenal of guns, and plenty of powder and lead.

By N. C. Wyeth, from the NYPL Digital Collections, c. 1920.
By N. C. Wyeth, from the NYPL Digital Collections, c. 1920.

For this same reason I enjoyed reading Andy Weir’s “The Martian,” wherein the hero has to rework all sorts of systems to survive after being marooned on Mars. He, too, becomes a farmer — a potato farmers, using his own excrement as fertilizer. And I absolutely love Tom Hanks’ “Cast Away,” maybe the best modern adaptation of “Robinson Crusoe.”

Three things about “Cast Away”: First, never leave the Swiss Army knife behind; second, notice that the deflated soccer ball he paints and names Wilson serves his Maslowian need for relationships, just as Crusoe teaches a parrot to speak a number of sentences so they can have “conversations.” When Wilson is lost in a Pacific storm, Hanks’ character is so overcome with grief that he essentially gives up his quest for rescue. Third, at the end of “Cast Away,” when Hanks realizes you cannot go home again, he delivers a FedEx package he’d preserved all that time to its intended recipient, who turns out to be an absolutely beautiful, whimsical, slightly new-age artist, clearly single and unattached, who makes it clear that she would help him heal him.

He’s literally at a rural crossroads and there she is, a gorgeous angel who helped sustain him on the island because he vowed that if he ever got rescued, by golly, he was going to deliver that package. And, though the film does not settle this question definitively, he appears to drive on into an uncertain future. Whenever I see this I want to reach through the television screen and grab Hanks by the throat and say, are you nuts??? You drive away from this, from her, from life, from Homer’s Nausicaa, and you don’t deserve happiness.

But at least “Cast Away” has a greater artistic integrity than “Robinson Crusoe.” Hanks is going to have re-entry issues. You could say he has PTSD. So, did Gulliver, who slept in the barn with the horses for years after his return from his fourth and final voyage — to the rational horse utopia of the Houyhnhnms. But Crusoe simply returns to England, dresses and talks precisely like an Englishman, reclaims the considerable wealth he has all this time amassed in his Brazil plantations, gets married, has three children and unceremoniously resumes his life as a roving entrepreneur. The bewildered and disoriented Tom Hanks is closer to the truth. Think of the hero of Jack London’s “Love of Life,” who after he is rescued, hoards as much food as he can pack into his ship’s quarters. That’s truth.

When I finished “Robinson Crusoe” on Monday night, I was sad to see it end. Time to reread “Gulliver’s Travels,” which is a much different, and in many respects much greater book, maybe the greatest satire in the English language. And I have a hankering to make another run at Dostoevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov.” I’m with my young friend on the Jane Austen trail. In the tiny Maslowian list of things that redeem life and make us monstrously glad to be alive, reading great books is right up there. Still, Tom Hanks, what the devil were you thinking?

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