Monday, July 06, 2009

Robinsonade

Add this one to the list of classic literature I have never read: Robinson Crusoe is a book I've never opened, and I'm sure I've passed it by numerous times during my book-shopping habits. Not that it never would have appealed to me. I'd bet 10-year-old me, who enjoyed Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Dickens, would probably have liked it a lot.

The reason it hasn't jumped out at me as a book requiring my attention may be the huge amount of artistic homage to Defoe's 18th century novel. Lost in Space, Swiss Family Robinson, Gilligan's Island: people are constantly ending up on uncivilized, ignored islands, left to fend for themselves. Men imagine each other are some form of beef-based junk food. Tom Hanks names a ball Wilson, which has become a part of American culture as the best name for a self-named friend. This continual reference to Robinson Crusoe even has its own, rather obvious and clumsy name: Robinsonade. The Germans loved the Robinsonade genre more than anyone else during the 18th century, but that doesn't mean they were necessarily good at it, according to The History of German Literature:
[Robinson Crusoe] appeared in a German translation in 1721, and elicited in Germany, as well as throughout Europe, the greatest admiration and a countless host of imitators. Between 1722 and 1755 more than forty Robinsons appeared in Germany, and were read with frantic eagerness. There were the German Robinson, the Italian Robinson, the clerical ditto; the Saxon, the Silesian, the Franconian Robinson; two Westphalian Robinsons at once; the moral, the medicinal, the invisible Robinson; and even the Bohemian Robinson. Then there was the European Robinsonetta: "Miss Robinson, or the cunning young maid;" "Robunse, with her daughter, Robinschen," and so forth. The books are generally worse than the titles.
We Americans lay claim to a genre called "Westerns" that is just about as full of waste as the German Robinsonade genre, so I can't complain too much. Even as a genre, "western" tosses a wider net , in terms of geography and characters, than the "robinson-crusoe" genre. A Robinsonade needs a main character, a one-way mode of transportation, and a civilization-free destination — the rest tends to lean on the level on ingenuity the character has, on on what aspects of civilization they can do without. For as narrow that view is, we've seen a couple hundred years of revamping and re-processing that same story in a myriad of styles, covering wide-ranging genres from contemporary fiction to sci-fi. To see more, the University of Florida's Digital Collections has a whole section on the Robinsonade genre.

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