Tuesday, December 30, 2014

`A Way of Being in Any Circumstances'

The shipboard library was large and shallow, generously stocked, as expected, with self-help and thrillers. The only book that tempted me was a collection of Ring Lardner’s baseball stories, but I skipped it. What I coveted but couldn’t find was a novel marketed as a children’s book when I was a child, Robinson Crusoe. With Swift and Melville, Defoe was sold as a writer for kids, often in radically chopped and bowdlerized editions. So too was Stevenson, but he was a lesser light and, except for his letters, has not sustained my interest. For more than half a century, despite evolving tastes in literature, I’ve remained faithful to those other misunderstood writers. 

Back home, gratification deferred a week, I read Robinson Crusoe again, most of it in one night, and found myself agreeing with Dr. Johnson: “Was there ever any thing written by mere men that was wished longer by its readers, excepting Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, and the Pilgrim’s Progress?”(The inverse of what he said of Paradise Lost: “None ever wished it longer.”) The man on the island has generated much critical rubbish about capitalism and colonialism and other hobbyhorses du jour, but the book remains essentially an excellent adventure story for boys and waywardly adventuresome girls of any age. Crusoe lives a common fantasy: he is alone and must fend for himself. Like an earlier hero, Odysseus, he is cunning, courageous and resourceful – precisely the image of ourselves we devise in reveries. He is also frightened and despairing – precisely our true selves, at least on occasion. I most admire Crusoe’s competence and self-reliance. He gets things done. The best gloss on the story I know comes from an unlikely source – Shirley Robin Letwin’s The Gentleman in Trollope (1982): 

“What defines a gentleman is a way of being in any circumstances. Even alone on his island, Robinson Crusoe is a gentleman. He reveals a gentleman’s attitude to his plight in his unfailing respect for the humanity of himself and all men; his ability to appreciate the treasures of civilization; his efforts to refashion them for new circumstance; his readiness to build new skills on old; his learning to recognize and repent for his sins; his determination to give his days an orderly shape, to reconcile himself to his misfortune and endow his life with what grace and contentment he can manage.”

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