Children's Literature: A Reader's History, from Aesop to Harry Potter

By Seth Lerer | Go to book overview

6
Canoes and itslegacies
ROBINSON CRUSOE AND ITS LEGACIES

Almost from its original publication in 1719, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe had an immense impact on literature for children and adults. It has been widely seen as one of the first major novels in English; as the stimulus for a range of adventure stories; as the kernel for abridgments and adaptations; and as the marker for particular personal and political experience.1 The novel brings together the two major early modern philosophical and social strands that contributed to children's literary culture: Puritan devotion and Lockean epistemology. Robinson Crusoe's emphasis on self-inspection, its preoccupation with lists and inventories, and its overarching concern with salvation, Providence, and the right reading of the world all associate it with the Puritan legacies of Bunyan, Janeway, and the seventeenth-century divines. In addition, the novel's fascination with particulars, its catalogues of experiences and technologies, and its commanding faith in a knowledge gained about the physical world through the senses all place it squarely in the heritage of Locke. As Robinson himself puts it, in an exclamation that yokes both traditions together, “How strange a Chequer-work of Providence is the Life of Man! And by what secret differing Springs are the Affections hurry'd about as differing Circumstances present!”2

In effecting this synthesis, Robinson Crusoe did something new, as if it gave voice to the childhood of the English novel itself. And indeed, this is a novel about children. Robinson begins with his genealogy. He gives the etymology of his last name, and in so doing links inheritance with spiritual journey. “Crusoe” is an Anglicized version of the German name Kreutznaer—one who approaches the cross (compare the German word

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