The First Novel to Read

Containing Some Scandalous Remarks About Robinson Crusoe

By Young E. Allison.


The very best First-Novel-To-Read in all fiction is “Robinson Crusoe.” There is no dogmatism in the declaration; it is the announcement of a fact as well ascertained as the accuracy of the multiplication table. It is one of the delights of novel reading that you may have any opinion you please and fire it off with confidence, without gainsay. Those who differ with you merely have another opinion, which is not sacred and cannot be proved any more than yours. All of the elements of supreme test of imaginative interest are in “Robinson Crusoe.” Love is absent, but that is not a test; love appeals to persons who cannot read or write—it is universal, as hunger and thirst.

The book-reading boy is easily discovered; you always catch him reading books. But the novel-reading boy has a system of his own, a sort of instinctive way of getting the greatest excitement out of the story, the very best run for his money. This sort of boy soon learns to sit with his feet drawn up on the upper rung of a chair, so that from the knees to the thighs there is a gentle declivity of about thirty degrees; the knees are nicely separated that the book may lie on them without holding. That involves one of the most cunning of psychological secrets; because, if the boy is not a novel reader, he does not want the book to lie open, since every time it closes he gains just that much relief in finding the place again. The novel-reading boy knows the trick of immortal wisdom; he can go through the old book cases and pick the treasures of novels by the way they lie open; if he gets hold of a new or especially fine edition of his father’s he need not be told to wrench it open in the middle and break the back of the binding—he does it instinctively.

There are other symptoms of the born novel reader to be observed in him.  If he reads at night he is careful to so place his chair that the light will fall on the page from a direction that will ultimately ruin the eyes—but it does not interfere with the light. He humps himself over the open volume and begins to display that unerring curvalinearity of the spine that compels his mother to study braces and to fear that he will develop consumption. Yet you can study the world’s health records and never find a line to prove that any man with “occupation or profession—novel reading” is recorded as dying of consumption. The humped-over attitude promotes compression of the lungs, telescoping of the diaphragm, atrophy of the abdominal abracadabra and other things (see Physiological Slush, p. 179, et seq.); but—it—never— hurts—the—boy!

To a novel reading boy the position is one of instinct, like that of the bicycle racer. His eyes are strained, his nerves and muscles at tension—everything ready for excitement—and the book, lying open, leaves his hands perfectly free to drum on the sides of the chair, slap his legs and knees, fumble in his pockets or even scratch his head as emotion or interest demand. Does anybody deny that the highest proof of special genius is the possession of the instinct to adapt itself to the matter in hand? Nothing more need be said.


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Now, if you will observe carefully such a boy when he comes to a certain point in “Robinson Crusoe” you may recognize the stroke of fate in his destiny. If he’s the right sort, he will read gayly along; he drums, he slaps himself, he beats his breast, he scratches his head. Suddenly there will come the shock. He is reading rapidly and gloriously.  He finds his knife in his pocket, as usual, and puts it back; the top-string is there; he drums the devil’s tattoo, he wets his finger and smears the margin of the page as he whirls it over and then—he finds—“The—Print—of—a—Man’s—Naked—Foot—on—the—Shore!!!”

Oh, Crackey! At this tremendous moment the novel reader who has genius drums no more. His hands have seized the upper edges of the muslin lids, he presses the lower edges against his stomach, his back takes an added intensity of hump, his eyes bulge, his heart thumps—he is landed—landed!

Terror, surprise, sympathy, hope, skepticism, doubt—come all ye trooping emotions to threaten or console; but an end has come to fairy stories and wonder tales—Master Studious is in the awful presence of Human Nature.


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For many years I have believed that that Print—of—a—Man’s—Naked—Foot was set in italic type in all editions of “Robinson Crusoe.” But a patient search of many editions has convinced me that I must have been mistaken.

The passage comes sneaking along in the midst of a paragraph in common Roman letters and by the living jingo! you discover it just as Mr. Crusoe discovered the footprint itself!

No story ever written exhibits so profoundly either the perfect design of supreme genius or the curious accidental result of slovenly carelessness in a hack-writer. This is not said in any critical spirit, because, Robinson Crusoe, in one sense, is above criticism, and in another it permits the freest analysis without suffering in the estimation of any reader.

But for Robinson Crusoe, De Foe would never have ranked above the level of his time. It is customary for critics to speak in awe of the “Journal of the Plague” and it is gravely recited that that book deceived the great Dr. Meade. Dr. Meade must have been a poor doctor if De Foe’s accuracy of description of the symptoms and effects of disease is not vastly superior to the detail he supplies as a sailor and solitaire upon a desert island. I have never been able to finish the “Journal.” The only books in which his descriptions smack of reality are “Moll Flanders” and “Roxana,” which will barely stand reading these days.

In what may be called its literary manner, Robinson Crusoe is entirely like the others. It convinces you by its own conviction of sincerity.  It is simple, wandering yet direct; there is no making of “points” or moving to climaxes. De Foe did unquestionably possess the capacity to put into his story the appearance of sincerity that persuades belief at a glance. In that much he had the spark of genius; yet that same case has not availed to make the “Journal” of the Plague anything more than a curious and laborious conceit, while Robinson Crusoe stands among the first books of the world—a marvelous gleam of living interest, inextinguishably fresh and heartening to the imagination of every reader who has sensibility two removes above a toad.

The question arises, then, is “Robinson Crusoe” the calculated triumph of deliberate genius, or the accidental stroke of a hack who fell upon a golden suggestion in the account of Alexander Selkirk and increased its value ten thousand fold by an unintentional but rather perfect marshaling of incidents in order, and by a slovenly ignorance of character treatment that enhanced the interest to perfect intensity?  This question may be discussed without undervaluing the book, the extraordinary merit of which is shown in the fact that, while its idea has been paraphrased, it has never been equalled. The “Swiss Family Robinson,” the “Schonberg-Cotta Family” for children are full of merit and far better and more carefully written, but there are only the desert island and the ingenious shifts introduced. Charles Reade in “Hard Cash,” Mr. Mallock in his “Nineteenth Century Romance,” Clark Russel in “Marooned,” and Mayne Reid, besides others, have used the same theater.  But only in that one great book is the theater used to display the simple, yearning, natural, resolute, yet doubting, soul and heart of man in profound solitude, awaiting in armed terror, but not without purpose, the unknown and masked intentions of nature and savagery. It seems to me—and I have been tied to Crusoe’s chariot wheels for a dozen readings, I suppose—that it is the pressing in upon your emotions of the immensity of the great castaway’s solitude, in which he appears like some tremendous Job of abandonment, fighting an unseen world, which is the innate note of its power.


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The very moment Friday becomes a loyal subject, the suspense relaxes into pleased interest, and after Friday’s funny father and the Spaniard and others appear it becomes a common book. As for the second part of the adventures I do not believe any matured man ever read it a second time unless for curious or literary purposes. If he did he must be one of that curious but simple family that have read the second part of “Faust,” “Paradise Regained,” and the “Odyssey,” and who now peruse “Clarissa Harlowe” and go carefully over the catalogue of ships in the “Iliad” as a preparation for enjoying the excitements of the city directory.

Every particle of greatness in “Robinson Crusoe” is compressed within two hundred pages, the other four hundred being about as mediocre trash as you could purchase anywhere between cloth lids.


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It is interesting to apply subjective analysis to Robinson Crusoe. The book in its very greatness has turned more critical swans into geese than almost any other. They have praised the marvelous ingenuity with which De Foe described how the castaway overcame single-handed, the deprivations of all civilized conveniences; they have marveled at the simple method in which all his labors are marshaled so as to render his conversion of the island into a home the type of industrial and even of social progress and theory; they have rhapsodized over the perfection of De Foe’s style as a model of literary strength and artistic verisemblance. Only a short time ago a mighty critic of a great London paper said seriously that “Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver appeal infinitely more to the literary reader than to the boy, who does not want a classic but a book written by a contemporary.” What an extraordinary boy that must be! It is probable that few boys care for Gulliver beyond his adventures in Lilliput and Brobdignag, but they devour that much, together with Robinson Crusoe, with just as much avidity now as they did a century ago. Your clear-headed, healthy boy is the first best critic of what constitutes the very liver and lights of a novel. Nothing but the primitive problems of courage meeting peril, virtue meeting vice, love, hatred, ambition for power and glory, will go down with him. The grown man is more capable of dealing with social subtleties and the problems of conscience, but those sorts of books do not last unless they have also “action—action—action.”

Will the New Zealander, sitting amidst the prophetic ruins of St.  Paul’s, invite his soul reading Robert Elsmere? Of course you can’t say what a New Zealander of that period might actually do; but what would you think of him if you caught him at it? The greatest stories of the world are the Bible stories, and I never saw a boy—intractable of acquiring the Sunday-school habit though he may have been—who wouldn’t lay his savage head on his paws and quietly listen to the good old tales of wonder out of that book of treasures.


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So let us look into the interior of our faithful old friend, Robinson Crusoe, and examine his composition as a literary whole. From the moment that Crusoe is washed ashore on the island until after the release of Friday’s father and the Spaniard from the hands of the cannibals, there is no book in print, perhaps, that can surpass it in interest and the strained impression it makes upon the unsophisticated mind. It is all comprised in about 200 pages, but to a boy to whom the world is a theater of crowded action, to whom everything seems to have come ready-made, to whom the necessity of obedience and accommodation to others has been conveyed by constant friction—here he finds himself for the first time face to face with the problem of solitude. He can appreciate the danger from wild animals, genii, ghosts, battles, sieges and sudden death, but in no other book before, did he ever come upon a human being left solitary, with all these possible dangers to face.

The voyages on the raft, the house-building, contriving, fearing, praying, arguing—all these are full of plaintive pathos and yet of encouragement. He witnesses despair turned into comfortable resignation as the result of industry. It has required about twelve years. Virtue is apparently fattening upon its own reward, when—Smash! Bang!--our young reader runs upon “the—print—of—a—man’s—naked—foot!” and security and happiness, like startled birds, are flown forever. For twelve more years this new unseen terror hangs over the poor solitary. Then we have Friday, the funny cannibals later and it is all over. But the vast solitude of that poor castaway has entered the imagination of the youth and dominates it.

These two hundred pages are crowded with suggestions that set a boy’s mind on fire, yet every page contains evidence of obvious slovenliness, indolence and ignorance of human nature and common things, half of which faults seem directly to contribute to the result, while the other half are never noticed by the reader.

How many of you, who sniff at this, know Crusoe’s real name? Yet it stares right out of the very first paragraphs in the book—a clean, perhaps accidental, proof of good scholarship, which De Foe possessed.  Crusoe tells us his father was a German from Bremen, who married an Englishwoman, from whose family name of Robinson came the son’s name which was properly Robinson Kreutznaer. This latter name, he explains, became corrupted in the common English speech into Crusoe. That is an excellent touch. The German pronunciation of Kreutznaer would sound like Krites-nare, and a mere dry scholar would have evolved Crysoe out of the name. But the English-speaking people everywhere, until within the past twenty years or so, have given the German “eu” the sound of “oo” or “u.” Robinson’s father therefore was called Crootsner until it was shaved into Crootsno and thence smoothed to Crusoe.

But what was the Christian name of the elder Kreutznaer? Or of the boy’s mother? Or of his brothers or sisters? Or of the first ship captain under whom he sailed; or any of them; or even of the ship he commanded, and in which he was wrecked; or of the dog that he carried to the island; or of the two cats; or of the first and all the other tame goats; or of the inlet; or of Friday’s father; or of the Spaniard he saved; or of the ship captain; or of the ship that finally saved him?  Who knows? The book is a desert as far as nomenclature goes—the only blossoms being his own name; that of Wells, a Brazilian neighbor; Xury, the Moorish boy; Friday, Poll, the parrot; and Will Atkins.


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You may retort that all this doesn’t matter. That is very true—and be hanged to you!--but those facts prove by every canon of literary art that Robinson Crusoe is either a coldly calculated flight of consummate genius or an accidental freak of hack literature. When De Foe wrote, it was only a century after Drake and his companions in authorized piracy had made the British privateer the scourge of the seas and had demonstrated that naval supremacy meant the control of the world. The seafaring life was one of peril, but it carried with it honor, glory and envy. Forty years later Nelson was born to crown British navalry with deathless Glory. Even the commonest sailor spoke his ship’s name—if it were a fine vessel—with the same affection that he spoke his wife’s and cursed a bad ship by its name as if to tag its vileness with proverbiality.

When De Foe wrote Alexander Selkirk, able seaman, was alive end had told his story of shipwreck to Sir Richard Steele, editor of the English Gentleman and of the Tattler, who wrote it up well—but not half as well as any one of ten thousand newspaper men of today could do under similar circumstances.

Now who that has read of Selkirk and Dampierre and Stradling does not remember the two famous ships, the “Cinque Ports” and the “St. George?” In every actvial book of the times, ship’s names were sprinkled over the page as if they had been shaken out of the pepper box. But you inquire in vain the name of the slaver that wrecked “poor Robinson Crusoe”— a name that would have been printed on his memory beyond forgetting because of the very misfortune itself. Now the book is the autobiography of a man whose only years of active life between eighteen and twenty-six were passed as a sailor. It was written apparently after he was seventy-two years old, at the period when every trifling incident and name of youth would survive most brightly; yet he names no ships, no sailor mates, carefully avoids all knowledge of or advantage attaching to any parts of ships. It is out of character as a sailor’s tale, showing that the author either did not understand the value of or was too indolent to acquire the ship knowledge that would give to his work the natural smell of salt water and the bilge. It is a landlubber’s sea yarn.

Is it in character as a revelation of human nature? No man like unto Robinson Crusoe ever did live, does live, or ever will live, unless as a freak deprived of human emotions. The Robinson Crusoe of Despair Island was not a castaway, but the mature politician. Daniel Defoe of Newgate Prison. The castaway would have melted into loving recollections; the imprisoned lampoonist would have busied himself with schemes, ideas, arguments and combinations for getting out, and getting on. This poor Robin on the island weeps over nothing but his own sorrows, and, while pretending to bewail his solitude, turns aside coldly from companionships next only in affection to those of men. He has a dog, two ship’s cats (of whose “eminent history” he promises something that is never related), tame goats and parrots. He gives none of them a name, he does not occupy his yearning for companionship and love by preparing comforts for them or by teaching them tricks of intelligence or amusement; and when he does make a stagger at teaching Poll to talk it is for the sole purpose of hearing her repeat “Poor Robin Crusoe!” The dog is dragged in to work for him, but not to be rewarded. He dies without notice, as do the cats, and not even a billet of wood marks their graves.

Could any being, with a drop of human blood in his veins, do that? He thinks of his father with tears in his eyes—because he did not escape the present solitude by taking the old man’s advice! Does he recall his mother or any of the childish things that lie so long and deep in the heart of every natural man? Does he ever wonder what his old school-fellows, Bob Freckles and Pete Baker, are doing these solitary evenings when he sits under the tropics and hopes—could he not at least hope it?--that they are, thank God, alive and happy at York? He discourses like a parson of the utterly impossible affection that Friday had for his cannibal sire and tells you how noble, Christian and beautiful it was—as if, by Jove! a little of that virtue wouldn’t have ornamented his own cold, emotionless, fishy heart!

He had no sentimental side. Think of those dreary, egotistic, awful evenings, when, for more than twenty years this infernal hypocrite kept himself company and tried patiently to deceive God by flattering Him about religion! It is impossible. Why thought turns as certainly to revery and recollection as grass turns to seed. He married. What was his wife’s name? We know how much property she had. What were the names of the honest Portuguese Captain and the London woman who kept his money?  The cold selfishness and gloomy egotism of this creature mark him as a monster and not as a man.


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So the book is not in character as an autobiography, nor does it contain a single softening emotion to create sympathy. Let us see whether it be scholarly in its ease. The one line that strikes like a bolt of lightning is the height of absurdity. We have all laughed, afterward of course, at that—single—naked—foot—print. It could not have been there without others, unless Friday were a one legged man, or was playing the good old Scots game of “hop-scotch!”

But the foot-print is not a circumstance to the cannibals. All the stage burlesques of Robinson Crusoe combined could not produce such funny cannibals as he discovered. Crusoe’s cannibals ate no flesh but that of men! He had no great trouble contriving how to induce Friday to eat goat’s flesh! They took all the trouble to come to his island to indulge in picnics, during which they ate up folks, danced and then went home before night. When the big party of 31 arrived, they had with them one other cannibal of Friday’s tribe, a Spaniard, and Friday’s father. It appears they always carefully unbound a victim before despatching him.  They brought Friday pere for lunch, although he was old, decrepit and thin—a condition that always unfits a man among all known cannibals for serving as food. They reject them as we do stringy old roosters for spring chickens in the best society. Then Friday, born a cannibal and converted to Crusoe’s peculiar religion, shows that in three years he has acquired all the emotions of filial affection prevalent at that time among Yorkshire folk who attended dissenting chapels. More wonderful still! old Friday pere, immersed in age and cannibalism, has the corresponding paternal feeling. Crusoe never says exactly where these cannibals came from, but my own belief is that they came from that little Swiss town whence the little wooden animals for toy Noah’s Arks also came.

A German savant—one of the patient sort that spend half a life writing a monograph on the variation of spots on the butterfly’s wings—could get a philosophical dissertation on Doubt out of Crusoe’s troubles with pens, ink and paper; also clothes. In the volume I am using, on page 86, third paragraph, he says: “I should lose my reckoning of time for want of books, and pen and ink.” So he kept it by notches in wood, he tells in the fourth paragraph. In paragraph 5, same page, he says: “We are to observe that among the many things I brought out of the ship, I got several of less value, etc., which I omitted setting down as in particular pens, ink and paper!” Same paragraph, lower down: “I shall show that while my ink lasted I kept things very exact, but after that was gone I could not make any ink by any means that I could devise.” Page 87, second paragraph: “I wanted many things, notwithstanding all the many things that I had amassed together, and of these ink was one!” Page 88, first paragraph: “I drew up my affairs in writing!” Now, by George! did you ever hear of more appearing and disappearing pens, ink and paper?

The adventures of his clothes were as remarkable as his own. On his very first trip to the wreck, after landing, he went “rummaging for clothes, of which I found enough,” but took no more than he wanted for present use. On the second trip he “took all the men’s clothes” (and there were fifteen souls on board when she sailed). Yet in his famous debit and credit calculations between good and evil he sets these down, page 88:

I have no clothes to cover me. But I am in a hot climate where, if I had clothes (!) I could hardly wear them


On page 147, bewailing his lack of a sieve, he says: “Linen, I had none but what was mere rags.”

Page 158 (one year later): “My clothes, too, began to decay; as to linen, I had had none a good while, except some checkered shirts, which I carefully preserved, because many times I could bear no other clothes on. I had almost three dozen of shirts, several thick watch coats, too hot to wear.”

So he tried to make jackets out of the watch coats. Then this ingenious gentleman, who had nothing to wear and was glad of it on account of the heat, which kept him from wearing anything but a shirt, and rendered watch coats unendurable, actually made himself a coat, waistcoat, breeches, cap and umbrella of skins with the hair on and wore them in great comfort! Page 175 he goes hunting, wearing this suit, belted by two heavy skin belts, carrying hatchet, saw, powder, shot, his heavy fowling piece and the goatskin umbrella—total weight of baggage and clothes about ninety pounds. It must have been a cold day!

Yet the first thing he does for the naked Friday thirteen years later is to give him a pair—of—LINEN—trousers! Poor Robin Crusoe—what a colossal liar was wasted on a desert island!


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Of course, no boy sees the blemishes in “Robinson Crusoe;” those are left to the Infallible Critic. The book is as ludicrous as “Hamlet” from one aspect and as profound as “Don Quixote” from another. In its pages the wonder tales and wonder facts meet and resolve; realism and idealism are joined—above all, there is a mystery no critic may solve. It is useless to criticize genius or a miracle, except to increase its wonder.  Who remembers anything in “Crusoe” but the touch of the wizard’s hand?  Who associates the Duke of Athens, Hermia and Helena, with Bottom and Snug, Titania, Oberon and Puck? Any literary master mechanic might real off ten thousand yards of the Greek folks or of “Pericles,” but when you want something that runs thus:

“I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows!
Where oxlip and the nodding violet grows--.”

why, then, my masters, you must put up the price and employ a genius to work the miracle.

Take all miracles without question. Whether work of genius or miracle of accident, “Robinson Crusoe” gives you a generous run for your money.






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