All aboard the Ark of Possibility; or Robinson Crusoe Returns from Mars as a Small-Footprint, Multi-Channel Indeterminacy Machine

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In the thirty-two years between the presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe generated two characterizations, one comic-parodic and one serious-academic: first, that of the rollicking and faintly comical children's story; second, that of the leading candidate for the first genuine "novel" in English literature. The first characterization underwrote such burlesque, ironic, humorous, or otherwise displaced recastings as the Disney film Robinson Crusoe on Mars (featuring Dick van Dyke as an astronaut stranded on Mars, where he experiences numerous funny misadventures); the perennially popular comic television serial Gilligan's Island, billed as "the madcap adventures of seven castaways engaged in the funny business of survival"; and the science-fiction television series Lost in Space, featuring cantankerous characters and a whimsical robot amusing their audience with their struggle to stay alive on uncharted planets. The second characterization, by way of contrast, has produced a whole school of synoptical-historical criticism about the purported "rise" of a monumental "novel," a "rise" in which major critics from Ian Watt to Maximillian Novak have placed Robinson Crusoe at or near the beginning. Between the 1960s and the early 1990s, Robinson Crusoe did an amazing job in fulfilling two sets of expectations. In the academy, it stood as the keystone of the great English prose tradition; in popular culture, it stood as a parodic vehicle for low pratfalls and goofy slapstick. One would be hard put to find any instance in literary history of a work that has so fluently and pervasively elicited such contrary responses.

In an equally unprecedented turn of events, these two schools of interpretation seem to have acceded over the last decade not to other, new and improved critical analyses of this polyvalent novel, but to nothing at all. True, there is a vast up-to-the-minute critical literature on Defoe, yet most of it is aimed at his other works, particularly at works written in a female or a piratical-countercultural voice (Moll Flanders, Roxana, Captain Singleton, Jonathan Wild).(1) Much of this critical literature is rather antagonistic to a middle-class white mercantilist colonialist Protestant adventurer like Robinson Crusoe, being more concerned with applauding Defoe' s minorities and women. Unexpectedly, among Defoe's characters Crusoe would qualify as the most "oppressed" and the greatest victim of injustice. The most moral of Defoe's protagonists, Crusoe spends too much time in prayer to draw the charges--theft, piracy, treason, pickpocketing--that could and have been leveled against Defoe's other characters. Despite all there is to recommend it, however, Robinson Crusoe has become a kind of castaway again, a strange vacuity in contemporary Defoe studies. Moreover, the leading citizens of Defoe's critical island-Ian Watt, J. Alan Downie, Paula Backscheider, John Richetti, Manuel Schonhorn, J. Paul Hunter, Maximillian Novak-are now, in their seniority, entering the laureled world of legend, leaving behind something of an empty atoll, at least with respect to history's favorite castaway.

To some degree, the occasional disappearance of part of Defoe's canon is probably necessary as a critical survival technique. No critical approach can encompass so big, elusive, and protean an author as Defoe. There are probably more tenable approaches to Defoe than there are available Defoe critics. Defoe's taste for strong topics--pirates, pilferers, solitaries, abused women, "what d'ye call 'ems"--encourages critics to try out every possible approach. Disagreement flourishes: Moll Flanders is either about women's liberation or about spiritual whoredom; Captain Singleton is either a celebration of the underclasses or a mystery play against evildoers. Critical conflict is nothing new, but the fact that Defoe's writings can plausibly sustain so many contradictions points up their unique resistance to critical closure. …