Crusoe at 300: reexamining a cultural touchstone

September 11, 2019
book cover with three people riding a log on a river

The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean by R.M. Ballantyne, 1887. Hubbard Imaginary Voyages Collection.

By Lynne Raughley

On the 300th anniversary of the publication of Daniel Defoe’s novel "The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe," the University of Michigan library pulls from its extensive collection of Crusoe editions, translations, adaptations, and spin-offs — part of the Hubbard Imaginary Voyages Collection — for an exhibit aimed at examining this seminal and problematic novel’s enduring influence.

Crusoe lives in the popular imagination as a heroic adventure story; but amid the adventure, the novel presents a worldview that is explicitly racist, imperialist, and hypermasculine. Its central premise, the famous shipwreck, occurs while the titular character is en route to Africa to buy slaves for his plantation in Brazil; it ends with Crusoe back in his native England, enjoying the wealth generated by enslaved workers on his plantation in Brazil during the decades he spent on the island.

The exhibit, Other Crusoes, Other Islands: Mapping a Complex Legacy, considers how the novel’s worldview is propagated or challenged by the many authors and creators who have adapted or redrawn Defoe’s novel over the centuries — the sheer number of which necessitated its own genre designation, the robinsonade.

“Many people who have never read the novel nonetheless have a general awareness of the key plot elements and characters — Crusoe, his long survival on a desert island, and the Native man he rescues and names ‘Friday,’” says Librarian Juli McLoone, one of the curators of the exhibit. “What’s less widely known is how ingrained imperialism and racism are within the original text.”

According to McLoone, many of the subsequent versions and adaptations feed and reinforce these aspects. Others, particularly some from the late 20th century, use the castaway narrative to explore identity, otherness, and the role of gendered and racialized ideas in constructing the self; essentially, they co-opt the novel’s powerful motif to upend its malevolent ideas. “This exhibit is an opportunity to present the range of its influence over the 300 years it’s been with us,” says McLoone. And influence, she notes, is by no means always benign or positive.

three book covers
From the Hubbard Imaginary Voyages Collection: Foe by J.M. Coetzee, 1987; China Men by Maxine Hong Kingston, 1980; Remembrance & Pantomime: Two Plays by Derek Walcott, 1980.

The curators sought out a variety of resources beyond the collection to inform the final exhibit, among them the Library Diversity Council; an extensive body of literary and cultural criticism surrounding Crusoe; and U-M faculty members whose courses and research interests involve or overlap with Robinson Crusoe and its descendants.

Among the events associated with the exhibit is a panel discussion featuring curators and faculty. McLoone says that a key goal of this discussion and the exhibit is “to expand people’s understanding of all of the aspects of Crusoe, and to provide context for a conversation about its literary and cultural legacy.”

The items on display reflect this goal, and some of the images are disturbing. The curators have included a content advisory at the exhibit entrance to alert viewers that some items feature racist imagery and potentially painful content.

“Among the reasons libraries collect and preserve is so that scholars are able to consider the creations of the past in the light of the present,” says Dean of Libraries James Hilton. “The legacy of a novel like Robinson Crusoe can and must be interrogated, because it’s too deeply rooted in the culture to simply ignore. This exhibit invites the community to participate in a difficult conversation that I hope will nurture a more informed, just, and equitable future.”

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Established in 1923 with a donation of some 1500 titles by University of Michigan Regent Lucius L. Hubbard, the Hubbard Imaginary Voyages Collection now numbers more than 2800 titles, with the majority pertaining to Robinson Crusoe. 

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Last modified: 09/17/2019