- The Cambridge Companion to "Robinson Crusoe," ed. by John Richetti
This is the newest eighteenth-century volume in a series that already has good coverage of the most commonly taught authors of the period (including a volume on Defoe, also edited by Richetti). Robinson Crusoe is a good choice for a single-title focus: one of the most read, reprinted, abridged, and imitated works from the eighteenth century, it has enjoyed a long afterlife in various media up to the present day. The Cambridge Companion adequately reflects this reception history, while covering the major strands of criticism on the original text. Students and those new to this corner of the field will find it an excellent collection to orient themselves with the most significant arguments and topics from the last half century; scholars familiar with recent work on Crusoe and on Defoe may find it sometimes rather thin.
The book consists of a preface, chronology, and fourteen chapters by different contributors, divided into three sections: "Robinson Crusoe and Daniel Defoe: The Eighteenth Century," "Robinson Crusoe in the Wider World," and "Robinson Crusoe over Three Hundred Years." The chapters generally progress from more focused interpretations of the original book to broader examinations of its contexts, including other literary and philosophical writings in the eighteenth century and the illustrations, imitations, adaptations, and films based on the story through the late twentieth century. In his brief preface, Richetti cites some of the key questions and topics that recur throughout the essays—questions of genre, religion, colonialism, and the ways the text has changed—as well as referring briefly to the ongoing critical debate over Defoe's canon. The all-star list of contributors includes many who have published extensively on Defoe, including several who have been publishing on Defoe since the 1960s. The best essays are those that, although coming from a perspective of established authority, attempt to go beyond the arguments their authors have already put into print in more developed forms.
The book opens with two chapters that meditate on genre, by J. Paul Hunter and Rivka Swenson. Hunter quite rightly points to the ways that Crusoe has enjoyed a central role in literary history in part because of its apparent relationship to later novels, which causes us to ignore certain parts of the book: "We are critically more apt to see a modern Defoe as novelist rather than the explorer of narrative forms and methods that he was." Instead, Hunter suggests, readers might be better served by remembering the variety of genres that the book draws on (ten of which he lists). Swenson also highlights Crusoe's generic variety but takes a different tack by drawing the various genres of allegory, journalism, travel writing, and so forth under the umbrella of "novel." She focuses on the way that Crusoe remains in charge of his story, retelling some details more than once with the benefit of hindsight to direct the reader to his point of view. Both essays are suggestive [End Page 197] and do well in opening new lines of inquiry, though more specific examples of the other genres to which they allude would have been helpful.
No scholar of Defoe will be surprised by Maximillian E. Novak's contribution to this book: his chapter on "Robinson Crusoe and Defoe's Career as a Writer" sets Crusoe in the context of Defoe's life as Novak reconstructed it at length in his magisterial biography (2001). Following the same lines of the first two chapters, Novak emphasizes the generic experimentalism in Defoe's other published writings as a clue to the genres of Crusoe, from irony and fantasy to allegory and history, concluding that the book "might be viewed as the inevitable result of his interests as a writer." He avoids the issue of Defoe attributions, but that is taken up directly (albeit briefly) by Pat Rogers in the next essay. Unlike many of the essays in this volume, Rogers's chapter goes against a standard line of thinking and will interest scholars while remaining accessible to...