I’ve been so busy hacking away at research and writing that I totally missed posting anything to this blog for the entire month of July! Gadzooks.

So I figure the best way to rectify this is to share a wee bit of what I’ve been working on. Below is the introduction to my paper “Robinson Crusoe: Cultural Reflections and the “Man in a State of Nature” Theme,” which will be presented at the International Sociesty for the Study of Religion, Nature & Culture, next week at Pepperdine University. Only 904 words (a wee bit more than I thought)

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Approaching its 300th anniversary publication date, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe continues to draw two things: sales and scholarly intellectual swipes. Type in “Crusoe” in the IMDB (International Movie Data Base) website’s search engine and nearly seventy hits are returned.[1] In the twenty-first century, NBC (National Broadcasting Company) used $35-million for, alas, but one season of Crusoe.[2] More than a century prior, French director Georges Méliès released Les aventures de Robinson Crusoé in 1903, a silent one-minute black and white film available for post-modern audiences on YouTube.[3] In between Méliès and NBC, scores of production companies scattered throughout the globe produced films and television series dedicated to Defoe’s most famous of prose. A similar “Crusoe” search on JSTOR (short for “Journal Storage”) returned 6,944 hits.[4] Perhaps “art” is more difficult than “smart.”

Sequel fever, additionally, gripped Robinson Crusoe’s creator, Daniel Defoe, who wrote two follow ups within two years. In addition to the sequel, seven printings of the original were published and distributed during Defoe’s lifetime. Robinson Crusoe’s contemporaneous popularity, argues Donald Crowley, immediately spawned a new genre, “Robinsonads,” in the wake of the novel’s success, and newspapers such as the London Times serialized the story.[5] On the bicentennial celebrating the book’s staying power, Virginia Woolf noted that the book “so resembles one of the anonymous productions of the race itself rather than the effect of a single mind” that it seems “the name of Daniel Defoe has no right to appear upon the title-page.”[6] The rarity of any novel achieving such success measured out in centuries and through various mediums certainly has pushed, and will continue to push, scholars to investigate Defoe’s work more closely.

Please, forgive mine. I argue that the lasting power of Robinson Crusoe resides within the novel’s ability to connect, and to continuously connect, within several treasured Western cultural traits. Think of it, three centuries, and though the novel’s language, style, and punctuation appear most dated, at its core dwells some of the most persistent of Western values; mercantile-capitalism – replete with an inherent need to put nature and things to order, and to use, otherwise they possess little value; religious tolerance – mostly along Christian lines, somewhat tolerant of differing Protestant sects, but little else; materialism – the fetish desire to accumulate and consume material goods either to maintain social standing or a bound up attempt to find happiness through buying and spending. All of these traits exist today much as they are reflected in Daniel Defoe’s 1719 publication of Robinson Crusoe.[7]

Further, that in addition to these cultural traits, the political culture of the novel remains recognizable to us today because the story of Crusoe is based largely on Hobbesian and Lockean ideals: the very exemplars our Constitution. As political philosophy, Hobbe’s Leviathan and Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, both employed the thought experiment of “Man in a State of Nature.” Daniel Defoe transposed this very theme, from a series of political tracts written for the few, into a work of fiction, a novel in fact, available now to significantly more than those who read the former. And this is where my political/cultural obsession with Defoe’s Crusoe lay. If we can accept Margaret Doody’s assertion that novels can tell true history,” then Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe provides a plethora of political, social, and cultural contexts from which to draw. Crusoe allows scholars to reach a “deeper” level, to discover early-eighteenth-century cultural complexities and the demands upon which individuals became “subject to – and part of – human structures and arrangements over which they sometimes have little and sometimes no control…”[8] It is from this general postulate that I wish to explore Defoe’s Crusoe as, not just a cultural/political signpost, but as an actual cultural/political highway erected in the early modern era remaining very much in use today.

After a quick touch on Hobbes and Locke, I’ll explore the idea that Defoe begins his story with an Englishman in that proverbial state of nature, an extension, perhaps, of Enlightened ideals into fictional form. However, Defoe’s work is not purely secular, but rather a necessary merging of Protestant piety and political acuity resultant of a vacillating nation-state embarked upon global Empire-building among competing European powers. Further, Crusoe’s interactions with nature reflect much about English/British culture in the early eighteenth century; how reconciliation over the intense capitalization of Africa and the Americas coexisted among the overt religious expressions emanating from within the British archipelago.


[1] Including such titles as Robinson Crusoe Goes to Mars (starring Adam West, 1964), Lt. Robinson Crusoe, U.S.N. (Dick Van Dyke, 1966), and an animated flick, Molly Moo Cow and Crusoe (1936). See   http://www.imdb.com/find?q=Crusoe&s=all, accessed July 1, 2012.

[2] Other “Crusoe” inspired knock offs are Swiss Family Robinson (1960), and Castaway (2000).  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1117552/, accessed July 1, 2012.

[5] Daniel Defoe, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner, J. Donald Crowley, editor (Oxford University Press, 1983), vii-xxv. Hereafter referred to as: Defoe, Crusoe.

[6] The Living Age, vol. 301 (Boston: Littell & Littell, 1919), 619.

[7] Brian Cooney writes “how strange and even frightening it is to think that a novel written in 1719 might pose excruciating questions” relevant to our global complexities. See, Brian C. Cooney, “Considering Robinson Crusoe’s “Liberty of Conscience” in an Age of Terror,” College English, vol. 69, No. 3 (January 2007), 197.

[8] Margaret Doody, The True Story of the Novel, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 263.

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