Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Robinson Crusoe.

Robinson Crusoe, the favourite of the learned and the unlearned, of the youth and the adult; the book that was to constitute the library of Rousseau’s Emilius, owes its secret charm to its being a new representation of human nature, yet drawn from an existing state; this picture of self-education, self-inquiry, self-happiness, is scarcely a fiction, although it includes all the magic of romance; and is not a mere narrative of truth, since it displays all the forcible genius of one of the most original minds our literature can boast. The history of the work is therefore interesting. It was treated in the author’s time as a mere idle romance, for the philosophy was not discovered in the story; after his death it was considered to have been pillaged from the papers of Alexander Selkirk, confided to the author, and the honour, as well as the genius, of De Foe were alike questioned.

The entire history of this work of genius may now be traced, from the first hints to the mature state, to which only the genius of De Foe could have wrought it.

The adventures of Selkirk are well known: he was found on the desert island of Juan Fernandez, where he had formerly been left, by Woodes Rogers and Edward Cooke, who in 1712 published their voyages, and told the extraordinary history of Crusoe’s prototype, with all those curious and minute particulars which Selkirk had freely communicated to them. This narrative of itself is extremely interesting, and has been given entire by Captain Burney; it may also be found in the Biographia Britannica.

In this artless narrative we may discover more than the embryo of Robinson Crusoe. — The first appearance of Selkirk, “a man clothed in goats’ skins, who looked more wild than the first owners of them.” The two huts he had built, the one to dress his victuals, the other to sleep in: his contrivance to get fire, by rubbing two pieces of pimento wood together; his distress for the want of bread and salt, till he came to relish his meat without either; his wearing out his shoes, till he grew so accustomed to be without them, that he could not for a long time afterwards, on his return home, use them without inconvenience; his bedstead of his own contriving, and his bed of goat-skins; when his gunpowder failed, his teaching himself by continual exercise to run as swiftly as the goats; his falling from a precipice in catching hold of a goat, stunned and bruised, till coming to his senses he found the goat dead under him; his taming kids to divert himself by dancing with them and his cats; his converting a nail into a needle; his sewing his goatskins with little thongs of the same; and when his knife was worn to the back, contriving to make blades out of some iron hoops. His solacing himself in this solitude by singing psalms, and preserving a social feeling in his fervent prayers. And the habitation which Selkirk had raised, to reach which they followed him “with difficulty, climbing up and creeping down many rocks, till they came at last to a pleasant spot of ground full of grass and of trees, where stood his two huts, and his numerous tame goats showed his solitary retreat;” and, finally, his indifference to return to a world from which his feelings had been so perfectly weaned. — Such were the first rude materials of a new situation in human nature; an European in a primeval state, with the habits or mind of a savage.

The year after this account was published, Selkirk and his adventures attracted the notice of Steele, who was not likely to pass unobserved a man and a story so strange and so new. In his paper of “The Englishman,” Dec. 1713, he communicates farther particulars of Selkirk. Steele became acquainted with him; he says, that “he could discern that he had been much separated from company from his aspect and gesture. There was a strong but cheerful seriousness in his looks, and a certain disregard to the ordinary things about him, as if he had been sunk in thought. The man frequently bewailed his return to the world, which could not, he said, with all its enjoyments, restore him to the tranquillity of his solitude.” Steele adds another very curious change in this wild man, which occurred some time after he had seen him. “Though I had frequently conversed with him, after a few months’ absence, he met me in the street, and though he spoke to me, I could not recollect that I had seen him. Familiar converse in this town had taken off the loneliness of his aspect, and quite altered the air of his face.” De Foe could not fail of being struck by these interesting particulars of the character of Selkirk; but probably it was another observation of Steele which threw the germ of Robinson Crusoe into the mind of De Foe. “It was matter of great curiosity to hear him, as he was a man of sense, give an account of the different revolutions in his own mind in that long solitude.

The work of De Foe, however, was no sudden ebullition: long engaged in political warfare, condemned to suffer imprisonment, and at length struck by a fit of apoplexy, this unhappy and unprosperous man of genius on his recovery was reduced to a comparative state of solitude. To his injured feelings and lonely contemplations, Selkirk in his Desert Isle, and Steele’s vivifying hint, often occurred; and to all these we perhaps owe the instructive and delightful tale, which shows man what he can do for himself, and what the fortitude of piety does for man. Even the personage of Friday is not a mere coinage of his brain: a Mosquito Indian, described by Dampier, was the prototype. Robinson Crusoe was not given to the world till 1719, seven years after the publication of Selkirk’s adventures.1 Selkirk could have no claims on De Foe; for he had only supplied the man of genius with that which lies open to all; and which no one had, or perhaps could have, converted into the wonderful story we possess but De Foe himself. Had De Foe not written Robinson Crusoe, the name and story of Selkirk had been passed over like others of the same sort; yet Selkirk has the merit of having detailed his own history, in a manner so interesting, as to have attracted the notice of Steele, and to have inspired the genius of De Foe.

After this, the originality of Robinson Crusoe will no longer be suspected; and the idle tale which Dr. Beattie has repeated of Selkirk having supplied the materials of his story to De Foe, from which our author borrowed his work, and published for his own profit, will be finally put to rest. This is due to the injured honour and genius of De Foe.

1 The first edition was “printed for W. Taylor, at the Ship, in Paternoster Row,” as an octavo volume, in the early part of the year 1719. The title runs thus:—“The Life, and strange surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner,” and has a full-length picture of Crusoe, as a frontispiece, “Clarke and Pine, sc.“; which is the type of all future representations of the hero, who is depicted in his skin-dress upon the desolate island. It is a very wretched work of art; the hook was brought out in a common manner, like all De Foe’s works.

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