The University Record, February 1, 1999

Even Robinson Crusoe has his day

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

The title page of the first edition of Defoe's work reads: "The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner; Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oronoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pirates. Written by Himself." Photo by Bob Kalmbach

February 1 is probably best known as the day before the shadow-seeking mammal emerges to predict how long winter will last. But it also is the day that has been designated "Robinson Crusoe Day," to commemorate the anniversary of the rescue in 1709 of Alexander Selkirk.

Selkirk was a Scottish sailor who had been put ashore in September 1704 on the uninhabited island of Juan Fernandez after a quarrel with his captain. His adventures there are said to have formed the basis for Daniel Defoe's book Robinson Crusoe.

"Chase's 1999 Calendar of Events" suggests that the first day of February is a "day to be adventurous and self-reliant."

The title-page of the first edition of Defoe's work reads: "The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner; Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oronoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pirates. Written by Himself."

The Special Collections Library has more than 1,700 editions, translations and immitations of Defoe's book, says Peggy Daub, head of rare books.

Robinson Crusoe is not merely a piece of children's literature. On a scholarly level it is often regarded as a prototype of the novel, and has, over the years, attracted the attention of literary historians, economists, political scientists and philosophers. Crusoe's plight instigated discussions on basic human needs, social organizations, religious opinions and the consequences of "civilized" man meeting "primitive' cultures."

Although the modern reader may be appalled by Crusoe's opinions about slavery and his attitude toward his man Friday, the impact of this work is undeniable and it stands as a monument to an earlier stage of Western culture and attitudes, says Ton Broos, a lecturer at in Germanic languages and literature.

Images like the footprint in the sand and Crusoe's goatskin outfit with umbrella made a lasting impression. The idea of being left alone on an island and forced to be self-sufficient provided many adventurous themes for film and TV, such as "Gilligan's Island."

The University's collection of various editions and forms of the Robinson Crusoe story and other imaginary travel stories is based on an extensive gift in the 1920s from Lucius Hubbard, a former Regent.

Over the years travelers have tried to prove the existence of a real island on which the story of Robinson Crusoe was based, including Hubbard who traveled to Tobago in 1927 to study its relationship to Robinson Crusoe's island. He found the island far from deserted (the Dutch had settlements there since 1658), but was told by several people in Tobago that their grandfathers had known Robinson Crusoe in the flesh.

Juan Fernandez, an island off the coast of Chile, is a more likely candidate and its resident Selkirk the prototype for Crusoe. Explorers there claimed to have found Crusoe's cave and even Friday's footsteps on the beach.

Images of Robinson Crusoe have been found in advertising, comics and cartoons. Film versions of Crusoe began in 1925 with Jackie Coogan starring in "Little Robinson Crusoe," and have continued through a 1992 full-length cartoon version.