- Unseasonable Youth: Modernism, Colonialism, and the Fiction of Development by Jed Esty, and: Children’s Literature, Popular Culture, and Robinson Crusoe by Andrew O’Malley
Both of the monographs under review here treat canonical novels associated with bourgeois, imperialist, and capitalist themes. Though Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) did not begin as a children’s book, it became one; and though the works under Esty’s consideration were not written with a child audience in mind, all are varieties of bildungsroman, and may be read by young adults, whether in school or independently. O’Malley’s book studies the evolution of Robinson Crusoe from pedagogical tool for shaping good bourgeois subjects to all-out consumerist bonanza. Esty’s volume charts the breakdown of belief in Goethe’s premise, in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, that the individual can forge an acceptable compromise between desire and necessity in a capitalist framework: the breakdown, in other words, of the Robinson Crusoe ideal. Together, the works bookend England’s imperial project, from its seventeenth-century encroachments in the West Indies to its long retreat during the twentieth century. Both are valuable additions to a library and offer useful ways of thinking about literary history, literary texts, and readers.
Children’s Literature, Popular Culture, and Robinson Crusoe is part of Palgrave Macmillan’s Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature series edited by Kerry Mallan and Clare Bradford. It uses the canonical yet popular text to consider the overlap between mass and children’s texts and culture and to trace late-Enlightenment attitudes linking children and the common folk. O’Malley recounts how Robinson Crusoe became a children’s book and its hero a folkloric icon. By the end of the nineteenth century, he shows, Robinson Crusoe had been transformed from a model of bourgeois self-reliance, thrift, industry, and piety, to a fairy-tale figure nostalgically associated with childhood and simplicity. Adopting Michael Preston’s term, O’Malley’s account of this “shadow canon” of Robinson Crusoe spinoffs emphasizes the ways Crusoe is redacted, extracted, and reenacted by active and occasionally subversive reader-consumers.
Most literary historians agree that Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is a “harbinger of a modern, Western, individualism and . . . the quintessential [End Page 325] ‘sovereign subject’” (O’Malley 1). At the same time, Crusoe’s island experiences lent themselves to incorporation by Romantic primitivists, who invested children and peasants with a new glamour as urban industrial modes defined modernity. Crusoe’s story, in other words, “taps into a shared longing for a lost horizon of possibilities that childhood and the Golden Age have come to represent” (19). Nostalgia for this “lost horizon” becomes a key component in Robinson Crusoe adaptations even as they buttress the values and dispositions conducive to modernity.
O’Malley’s first two chapters provide the historical and cultural context for these developments. Chapter 1 describes how pedagogical theorists as different as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Comtesse de Genlis asserted the positive effects on children of playing at Robinson Crusoe either through structured exercises or formal scripted dramas (19). Chapter 2 relates how pedagogues adapted Robinson Crusoe’s story to underscore his dangerous wanderlust, his resultant sufferings, and his belated turn to filial piety. Others retained the original premise, but rewrote the story to feature family groups or other settings, such as the Canadian wilderness, in a new genre, the “robinsonade.” Defoe’s account of individual self-sufficiency was deemed too potent to be given unedited to children, so many of the robinsonades composed for their benefit provided appropriate authority figures and emphasized the way each “Crusoe” “explore[s], tame[s], and domesticate[s]” the wilderness (75). Illustrations and text celebrated the cozy spaces constructed out of the simple materials available. Also emphasized were variations on the theme of “man Friday”’s rescue by Crusoe, naturalizing the “civilizing” project of colonialism.
Not all adaptations, however, supported these pious and domestic renderings of Crusoe’s story, as chapter 3...