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American Literature 75.4 (2003) 783-811
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The Wide, Wide World and Robinson Crusoe
Cried over by Jo March and loved by Vincent Van Gogh, praised by critics, pirated by printers, and read by hundreds of thousands all over the United States and Europe, Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World (1850) was a best-seller of the "seepy-weepy" variety, classified in the twentieth century as sentimental, and thus not taken seriously as literary realism. 1 When feminist critics recovered the novel from obscurity, they examined its place in cultural history and its influence on sentimental fiction. One of the earliest studies appears in All the Happy Endings (1956), in which Helen Papashvily argues that women in the nineteenth century used sentimental fiction to engage in a hidden subversion of men. Warner drew more sustained critical attention, however, in the wake of two seminal works. In Woman's Fiction (1978), Nina Baym explained the principles of the plot common to domestic novels, approaching The Wide, Wide World as a female bildungsroman, while Jane Tompkins, in Sensational Designs (1985), examined the historical and religious assumptions behind sentimental fiction, demonstrating its place—and Warner's—in the cultural work of the period. Although a few academic studies discuss Warner as a regional writer, most take a feminist approach, often gravitating toward a concern with how women find power or cope with losing it. 2
The dynamics of gender and power have provided the principal critical means for analyzing religion in The Wide, Wide World. Tompkins, for example, links sentimental fiction and evangelical reform in her afterword to Warner's novel: "This fiction shares with the reform movement a belief that all true action is not material but spiritual, that [End Page 783] one obtains spiritual power through prayer, and that those who know how, in the privacy of their closets, to struggle for possession of their souls will one day possess the world through the power given to them by God." 3 Other critics link male authority with the novel's "thoroughly patriarchal God," approaching religion as part of a system of social, economic, and psychological oppression. 4
Yet religion comprises more in The Wide, Wide World than its often paradoxical role in relationships of power. Warner's beliefs have significant literary effects that cannot be accounted for through sentimental convention alone. Placing The Wide, Wide World within a different literary tradition, that of Puritan literature, illuminates the cognitive, interpretive, and formal dimensions of Warner's approach to literary realism, which is often underexplored in critical assessments of Warner, in part because of a long-standing distinction between sentimentalism and realism. 5 The novel exemplifies what I will call Puritan realism and resembles closely Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe (1719). 6
Robinson Crusoe engages in a specific type of realism that unites, first, a realistic physical world with Puritan typology, and second, a realistic character development with the paradigms of spiritual biography. As Defoe depicts the problem of survival, he creates an intense material existence in his novel. Crusoe must scavenge the shipwreck, forage for food, and build his own shelter. Further, he makes mistakes and suffers practical consequences; he makes a canoe too heavy to push into the water, for example, wasting months of work. Through typology, however, this physical world, so insistently literal, coexists with a transcendent reality. Because a type affirms the literal existence of both type and antitype, Defoe can situate a divine reality in the midst of phenomenal life without allegorizing the material world and without reducing the divine into a merely symbolic presence. Some of the most famous material elements of the narrative, such as the footprint and the earthenware pot, are biblical types. Further, Crusoe's characterization brings to life the patterns of conversion, repentance, backsliding, and growth common in Puritan literature.
Warner loved Robinson Crusoe and used its narrative approach in The Wide, Wide World. Like Defoe, Warner drew upon Puritan typology, with its ability to unify historical events and set them in the context both of spiritual progress...