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Robinson Crusoe

( Originally Published 1877 )



Fifty Pounds Reward

IN England, a great many years ago, —when Anne had just become queen, and when the Duke of Marlborough was making those dashing marches on the Continent of Europe which went before the fearful and the famous battle of Blenheim ; and when the people of Boston, in New England, were talking about printing their first newspaper (but had not yet done it), —there Appeared in the London Gazette a proclamation, offering a reward of fifty pounds for the arrest of a " middle-sized, spare man, about forty years old, of a brown complexion, and dark brown-colored hair, who wears a wig, and has a hooked nose, a sharp chin, and a large mole near his mouth." And the proclamation further said that " he was for many years a hose-factor in Free-man's yard, in Cornhill."

And what do you care about this man with a hooked nose, for whose capture a reward was offered about the year 1703 ?

Had he plotted to kill the queen? No. Had he forged a note? No. Had he murdered anybody? No. Was he a Frenchman in disguise? No.

What then?

He had written some very sharp political pamphlets, which the people in authority didn't at all like, and were determined to punish him for.

But I suppose there were a great many hot political writers who were caught up in the same way in those old-fashioned times, and put in the pillory or in prison for the very same sort of wrong-doing, whose names we don't know, and don't care to know.

Why, then, have I brought up this old proclamation about this forty-year-old, hook-nosed man ?

Only because his name was Daniel Defoe, and because he wrote that most delightful of all the story-books that ever were written, —ROBINSON CRUSOE !

To be sure, he had not written " Robinson Crusoe " at that time : if he had, perhaps the sheriff, or whoever sent out the proclamation, would have described him as the writer of a story-book about being cast away on a desert island, and full of monstrous fables, instead of describing him as a hosier of Freeman's Court. But I don't know. People in authority never know or care so much about the books a man writes, as about the shop he keeps and the debts he owes.

But did they catch the hook-nosed man? and did somebody get the fifty pounds ?

Yes, they caught him ; and yes, too, about the pounds.

Poor Defoe had not only to go to prison, but to stand in the pillory. Perhaps you do not know what the pillory was. It was a movable framework of wood, so arranged that a criminal was forced to stand in it with his head and hands thrust through holes in a plank ; and in this condition he was put on show in the public streets. It was an awkward position for a man to be placed in ; and when he was disliked by the crowd, he was pretty sure to have mud thrown at him, and to be met by jeers and hootings. What if some of our thieves and forgers were to be set up in this way at the head of Wall Street !

We thank God that we have outlived the times of such savage treatment. I wish we could thank God that we had outlived the crimes which seem to de-serve it.

But Defoe, in those political writings I spoke of, had said no worse things, and no more severe things, than we meet with nowadays in our newspapers. Nor was the crowd of street people imbittered against him : in fact, they brought garlands of flowers, and placed on the pillory, and threw roses in the street as the officers moved him from place to place.

He had been befriended by King William, who died only a short time before ; and who — as you know — had been brought over from Holland to govern England in place of James the Second, who had been driven away from the throne.

The Culprit's Work

What had most brought him into favor with King William and his government, was a little pamphlet in rhyme which be had written,—called the True-born Englishman ; and this had met with great favor too, from the people of London. It had been written to show that those acted very unwisely who found fault with King William for being a foreigner, —and to show further that the whole population of England was made up by the mingling of different nationalities ; and that every man was to be judged by his devotion to the interests of Britain, and not by his race or birth. This would very naturally be well relished by a great city population, which had come from all quarters. No book —it was only a small pamphlet, to be sure —had met with so large a sale for years and years. Hence, I think, came those flowers which were hung upon the pillory where Daniel Defoe was set up in 1703.

He had written other things as well, which had made him well known ; —among the rest a satire in rhyme called, "Advice to the Ladies : Showing that as the World goes, and is like to go, the best way is for them to keep Unmarried."

You would think this a strange way to make himself popular. But he says in the preface to this, — "You will say 'tis a great fault to persuade People against Marriage. I answer, ' That to the utmost of my power I will ever expose those Infamous, Impertinent, Cowardly, Censorious, Sauntering, Idle Wretches, called Wits and Beaux, the Plague of the Nation, and the Scandal of Mankind. But if Lesbia is sure she has found a Man of Honor, Religion and Virtue, I will never forbid the Banns : let her love him as much as she pleases, and value him as an Angel, and be married to-morrow if she will."

Now, as every young woman thinks she has found the Angel, when it comes to the fact of marriage, I think other flowers would have been given to Defoe on this score.

But, nevertheless, he had the prison before him ; and he tells us he had an awful time there, and chafed horribly. He was one of those restless, impatient busy-bodies, who want always to be at work, and at work in their own way. He did, in fact, edit a " Review " while he was in prison, — and procured the printing of it, — in which there was a great deal of sharp talk.

He was what would have been called in our time, I dare say, a hot-headed radical ; and if he had been born a century and a half later, would have made a capital editorial writer for a slashing morning journal, in either New York or Washington. But our people in authority would never have offered a reward for his arrest : they would have shrugged their shoulders ; or, perhaps, have given him an office.

Yet, for all his political sharpness, this hook-nosed man had a head for business,—or, at least, for projects of business. Some four years before the prison experience, he had published an "Essay on Projects," which was full of excellent suggestions, but in advance of his time. Dr. Franklin relates, that he fell in with a copy of this book in his father's library, when a young man, and that he gained ideas from it, which had great influence with him in after-life.

The business project into which Defoe did really enter was the establishment of tile-works at Tilbury — where were made first in England those queer-shaped tiles for roofing, which — if you ever go there - you will see on a great many of the houses of Rotterdam and Amsterdam ; and some of them are to be found yet upon old houses in some of our southern seaboard cities.

A few years ago — in 1860 — the workmen upon a new railway cutting dug through the meadow where these tile-works of Defoe had stood ; and they turned up a great many broken tiles, and some curiously-shaped tobacco-pipes. And it happened that some visitor, who knew the history of the place, told these workmen that the tiles they were turning up had been made by the writer of Robinson Crusoe : straightway there was a rush to gather the best fragments —most of all the pipes. They had read the book.

I think I should have liked myself to lay hold of one of those pipes, and compare it with one which Robinson contrived, and rejoiced over in his cavern,—though "it was a clumsy thing, and only burnt red like other earthern-ware."

But the prison life made an end of the pottery works. He could write in Newgate, and did ; but he could not superintend the tile-yard.

There were good friends of his who meanwhile were bestirring themselves to loose poor Defoe from his prison life. Though he was doing more work there than most men were doing outside ; yet the narrow bounds of the prison-yard, and the bad air, and the con-tact with all sorts of wretched criminals, were wearing upon his health and strength ; so that when at last a messenger came to him from one high in power—asking what could be done for him ; he says that he took his pen, and wrote the reply of the blind man in the Gospel, "Lord, dost thou see that I am blind, and yet ask what thou shalt do for me? My answer is plain in my misery, — Lord, that I may receive my sight."

This meant liberty ; and he was given his liberty a short time afterward.

His Family

I have told you he was the author of that book you all know so well ; but because he wrote that book you must needs want to know who was his father, and what he did, and if he had a wife or children.

Well, his father was not a man who could put his son into relations with people in high place, — as Sir William Temple did for Jonathan Swift, —not far from the same time.

Defoe's father was a butcher —named James Foe — in the parish of St. Giles, in the city of London,—where Daniel was born. How his father's simple name of Foe grew into Defoe, is something that I am afraid could not be explained without saying that our good friend Daniel had the vanity to think that the long name sounded better than the short one ; —which is after all, no worse a vanity than that of our lady friend, who thinks a long ribbon to her hat is more becoming than a short one.

Not that Defoe was ashamed of his parentage : no, no, —ten times over. Always, when he speaks of his father, it is with respect and love. And there is nothing to show that he did not deserve it. He certainly sent him to a good school, and would have given him a training to be a clergyman ; this was not to Daniel's taste, so he became a hosier, and then —failing in that —went into tile-making (as we have seen), to which the prison brought an end.

A British admirer says that his grandfather, Daniel Foe, "kept hounds " in Northamptonshire, —as if keeping hounds to kill foxes (for sport) were a great deal better than keeping sharp knives to kill lambs (for food). Perhaps so ; at least it is one of those social puzzles with which the Daniel Defoe who wrote the True-born Englishman did not concern himself greatly. Hear what he says, in what is very bad poetry certainly : —

"Then let us boast of Ancestors no more, Or Deeds of Heroes done in days of yore For Fame of Families is all a cheat: 'Tis Personal Virtue only makes us great"

But perhaps he wrote in this way because he could make no boast himself. It is poorly worth while to in-quire. When we find a man writing common sense, the presumption ought to be that he writes thus because it is common sense.

Did the author of Robinson Crusoe have a wife and children? Oh, yes!—there were some six children, and a wife, to whom Queen Anne sent a gift of a hundred pounds—the while her husband was in prison. Defoe slipped out of London the moment he was :set free from Newgate, —to go down and meet that wife and those children, who were living just then in the old town of Bury-St.-Edmunds.

[The name of that town sounds familiar : did you ever hear it before? Have you ever read Pickwick? Didn't Mr. Pickwick take a coach-ride in that direction once? And was there not an Angel Inn? and a man in a mulberry suit?]

He did not go back into trade, —either hosiery or tile-making; perhaps he saw his unfitness for it. There is something in a book he wrote called "The Complete Tradesman," which looks like it.

"A wit turned Tradesman! " he says : "what an in-congruous part of Nature is thus brought together ! No apron-strings will hold him; 'tis in vain to lock him in behind the counter, he's gone in a moment ; instead of journal and ledger, he runs away to his Virgil and Horace."

But you must not believe he was very poor : some of the people about Queen Anne found out that he was a most serviceable writer ; and he was sent down to Scot-land, under pay, to help forward some designs of the government. The Scotch did not like him, for they did not like the business he was sent upon ; and though he wrote a poem on Caledonia to put them in good humor, it did not succeed.

His pen was all the while busy however, but mostly with political matter, which passed out of sight with the occasion that called it up. There was though an ac-count of the apparition of Mrs. Veal (after death, and in a scoured silk gown) to one Mistress Bargrave, which set all the street world of London agog. It was so wonderfully told!—so well told, people thought Mrs. Veal must have come to life ; and crowds went hunting after Mrs. Bargrave to hear if it were really so.

Fifteen years or more after he went out of prison, down to Bury-St.-Edmunds, we hear of him as living in a big house which he had built at Stoke-Newington with a coach-house attached. This meant —as it does not always mean now—that he had money. There were some five acres of pleasure ground attached, where he pleased himself with working at gardening.

He had certainly three daughters living with him there, besides his wife Susannah. And his daughters were quick-witted, winning girls ; Sophia being the most so : she married, ten years later, a Mr. Baker, who is authority for this account of them all.

And in this big, square, uncomely house, —of which I show you a picture, —was written in the year 1718 by this hook-nosed man — then well on toward sixty years of age — " The Life and Strange Surprising Ad-ventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner, who lived Eight-and-Twenty Years, all alone, in an Uninhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the mouth of the great River Oroonoque."

The Book

Ah, what a book it was ! what a book it is!

You do not even know the names of those political pamphlets which this man wrote, and which made him a friend of the great King William, and gave him fame ; nor do you know the names of those others which brought him to prison ; nor do you know the names of those later ones which made Queen Anne befriend him, and kept her his friend until the queen died ; nor do you know — nor do your fathers or mothers know much about those other books which this man wrote upon Trade, and Religious Courtship, and a score of other things ; nor are they by anybody much read or called for. But as for that dear old figure — in the high goat-skin cap, — and with the umbrella to match, — and the long beard, —who does not know him, and all about him, all over the Christian world?

Why, long as it is since I first trembled over the sight of those savage footmarks in the sand, and slept in the cave, and pulled up the rope-ladder that hung down over the palisades,—yet, if that dear old Robinson in his tall cap and his goat-skin leggings were to march up my walk on some mild spring evening, I don't think I should treat him as a stranger in the least. I think I should go straight to him, and clap him on the back, and say, —

My dear Mr. Crusoe, I'm ever so glad to see you ! And did Friday come with you?

"And is Poll at the station?

And have you been to York ?

And do you think of going to sea again ? "

I don't know any figure of the last two centuries that it would be so hard to blot out of men's minds as the figure of Robinson Crusoe.

How came this hook-nosed man to write it?

Well — Queen Anne was dead : this had thrown him somewhat off his track. Then, the people about George I. who had just come to the throne did not much favor Mr. Defoe ; perhaps they were afraid of him ; perhaps they thought him gone by, and useless. Perhaps Han-over George had too many friends of his own.

But what suggested such a subject? Was there really a Mr. Robinson whose father lived down at Hull ? No : but there had lived a man named Selkirk, —

Alexander Selkirk, — in Fife, Scotland, who went mate on a trading-voyage with Capt. Stradling, in a ship called the Cinque Ports.

Off the island of Juan Fernandez, which is abreast of Chili on the South American coast, Selkirk fell into a quarrel with his captain ; and, being a high-strung young fellow, he said he would rather be put ashore than to sail with the captain farther.

So the captain put him ashore — with only his bed-ding, a gun, and a very few such useful things. He staid alone on that island four years and four months before a British ship touched there by accident, and brought him off. He was in goat-skin clothes, and had his last shirt on when Capt. Dover took him off.

This much was all true as gospel, and was printed in Woodes Rogers's account of his voyage in 1712 (being seven years before Robinson Crusoe was printed) : the whole story of Woodes Rogers would have filled about one column of a newspaper.

Some jealous people said Defoe stole his story of Robinson Crusoe from it.

But a man can't steal a silver dinner-service out of a pewter plate.

He used the incidents without question, — as any one else might have done — but didn't. Ten shipwrecked men might tell their stories to you or me, and yet no Robinson Crusoe come of it.

There are plenty of good incidents all abroad ; it is the art which builds upon them that is rare, and which, in place of a jumble of words that will set the facts only before you, will twist out of them a drama that kindles your passions and your love, and dwells with you as a tender memory forever. And all this is done — not by fine words and long words, and by what young people are apt to call — splendid writing. This " splendid " writing is indeed a very bad thing to aim at, and the very last thing to admire. I wish all school-masters thought so ; but unfortunately they do not.

How could any thing be more homely and modest and straightforward than the language which Defoe uses to tell the adventures of Robinson ? Yet no words could be better for the purpose he had in mind ; — and that was — to make everybody feel that the things told of did really and truly happen.

There were critics, to be sure, who, in the day of its first printing, thought it was " carelessly written," and that there was a great deal which was very " improbable " in it ; and they didn't imagine for a moment that there was the stuff in it which would be pondered, and read over and over, and admired and dearly cherished — years and years after they and all their fair culture and fine words and very names should be forgotten.

I don't at all believe that Defoe himself knew how good a thing he had done. If he had, he wouldn't have gone about to weaken its effect by writing a sequel to Robinson ; which, though it has some curious and wonderful things in it, is yet hardly worth your reading. And not content with this, Defoe —under the spur, I suppose, of money-making publishers,—wrote, the next year, "Serious Reflections during the life of Robinson Crusoe, with his Vision of the Angelic World."

Nobody knows it or reads it. Poll and Man Friday are all alive ; but the Vision of the Angelic World is utterly dead.

Defoe also published shortly afterward the History of the Life and Adventures of Mr. Duncan Campbell ; and in the same year Memoirs of a Cavalier. This last, however, was understood to be based upon a manuscript written by another hand. The following year there appeared by Defoe " The Life, Adventures, and Piracies of the famous Captain Singleton." But I cannot tell you, nor would you care to know, the names of all that he wrote. The titles alone, if I were to write them out in full, would fill a hundred pages as large as this.

His Religious Courtship may entertain you if you happen to be of age for thinking on such a subject; and his Complete Tradesman has a great many capital suggestions in it, —full of the pith which belonged to Poor Richard's maxims.

He wrote also a long history of the Great Plague in London, which is so dreadfully real that it would make you shudder to read it. You seem to see all the sick people, and the dead ones with their livid faces ; and the wagons that bore the corpses go trundling every morning down the street. You would wonder, if you read it, how old man Defoe could have gone about prying amongst such fearful scenes, as if he loved grief and wailing and desolation ; for he don't tell you that he helped anybody, or even lifted the dead into the carts. How could he? He wasn't there at all. The Great Plague raged and ended before Defoe was grown. He may have heard old men and old women talk of it; but he couldn't have been more than two years old when it first broke out.

Good-by, Robinson !

But I will close this half-hour's talk with only dear old Robinson Crusoe in our mind. Defoe wrote of him, as I said, when he was well toward sixty ; and he lived to be over seventy,—having a great grief to bear at the last. His son deserted and deceived him as Robinson Crusoe had deserted and deceived his old father at York !

"This injustice and unkindness," writes Defoe to a near friend in the last year of his life, "has ruined my family, and has broken my heart. I depended on him, I trusted him, I gave up my two dear unprovided children into his hands ; but he had no compassion, and suffered them and their poor dying mother to beg their bread at his door ; himself, at the same time, living in a profusion of plenty. It is too much for me. My heart is too full. Stand by them when I am gone, and let them not be wronged."

This is a true letter of Defoe's, and one of the last which he ever wrote ; but the old man was sadly broken in the latter years of his life, and looked too despairingly upon his home affairs : it is certain that his wife did not beg her bread, nor was she at that time in a dying condition. But I suspect there was only too good ground for his shaken confidence in the son; and I fear the poor old gentleman died without forgiving him, and without being asked to forgive.

He lies buried in Bunhill Fields —where Bunyan lies buried too. The epitaph which would commemorate him best would be one which should say simply, " He wrote the story of Robinson Crusoe." And methinks a figure of the dear old adventurer in his goat-skin clothes, and his goat-skin cap, might well stand upon his grave.

Who would not know it? Who has not read the book? How could people help reading it? How could they help being terribly concerned about the fate of that madcap, who would leave that sober old father of his in Hull, and that mother who cried over his fate, you may be sure, more than ever you or I? Who could help reading on, when he escaped so hardly from wreck and death, on the shores of England; near to Yarmouth ; and fell in with such bad fellows in London ; and hesitated, and wavered, and finally broke into new vagabondage ; and was followed up by storms and wreck, and at last, as you know, cast ashore with scarce life in him, on that far-away island, where he bewailed his fate for months and years, and toiled hard, and tamed his goats, and planted his palisades?

A great many thousand eyes looked out with him, year after year, for the sail that never came. Of course there had been a great many stories of adventures written before, and there have been a great many since ; but never, I think, any that took such hold of the feelings of all, as this story.

Why, do you know that crowds of people believed in Robinson Crusoe when Defoe was living, and continued to believe in him after Defoe was dead? I know I believed in him a long time myself ; though the preface, and the sober-sided old school-ma'am (who caught me one day at the reading of it in school-hours, and made me wear a girl's bonnet for punishment), — though such as these, I say, warned me that it was a fable and untrue, yet I kept on, somehow, believing in Robinson, and in Poll, and Man Friday ; and thought, if I ever did make a long voyage, and the ship had a yawl, I would ask the captain, when he came opposite the island, to "heave to," and let me go ashore in the yawl, and find the cave and the creek, and very likely the remnants of that big canoe in the forest, which Robinson Crusoe hewed from so huge a log—that he never could and never did move it.

I believed in that old deserted father, down in York-shire : — somehow, I think he is living there yet, --repining, grieving, praying, weeping !

Oh, Robinson, Robinson !



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