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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

I. Defoe—The Newspaper and the Novel

§ 22. Robinson Crusoe and its sequel

The immediate and permanent popularity of Robinson Crusoe is a commonplace of literary history. Defoe, who had a keen eye for his market, produced, in about four months, The Farther Adventures of his hero, which had some, though less, vogue, and, a year later, Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, a volume of essays which had no vogue at all. The original part, The Strange and Surprizing Adventures, at once stirred up acrimonious critics, but, also, attracted many imitators and, in the course of years, became the occasion of legends and fantastic theories. All these—for example, the story that Harley was the real author of the book—may be dismissed without hesitation. Almost equally without foundation, despite his own statements, is the notion that Robinson Crusoe is an allegory of Defoe’s life. It may even be doubted whether he ever hawked his manuscript about in order to secure a publisher. Some things, however, may be considered certain with regard to this classic. Defoe wrote it primarily for the edification, rather than for the delectation, of his readers, although he did not evade giving them pleasure and although, assuredly, he took pleasure himself in his own creation. It is equally clear that, in many of its pages, Defoe the writer of pious manuals is to be discovered; in others, Defoe the student of geography and of volumes of voyages; in others, Defoe the minute observer and reporter. The book is a product that might have been expected from the journalist we know, save only for the central portion of the story, the part that makes it a world classic, the account of Crusoe alone on his island. Here, to use a phrase applied by Brunetière to Balzac, Defoe displays a power of which he had given but few indications, the power to make alive. This power to make alive is not to be explained by emphasis upon Defoe’s command of convincing details or by any other stock phrase of criticism. It is a gift of genius, denied to preceding English writers of prose fiction, displayed by Defoe himself for a few years in a small number of books, and rarely equalled since, although after him the secret of writing an interesting and well-constructed tale of adventure was more or less an open one. The form of his story could be imitated, but not its soul. The universal appeal implied in the realistic account of the successful struggle of one man against the pitiless forces of nature was something no one else could impart to a book of adventure, something Defoe himself never caught again. It is this that links Robinson Crusoe with the great poems of the world and makes it perhaps the most indisputable English classic of modern times, however little of a poet, in a true sense, its author may have been.