"Lost": The Pilot Episode


Frontispiece from the 1719 First Edition of Robinson Crusoe
Evan Davis, Associate Professor of English

OVER CHRISTMAS DINNER LAST YEAR, I showed my father-in-law the proposed cover for the edition of Robinson Crusoe that I had recently finished editing. He liked it, but, he wondered, Does the world really need another edition of Robinson Crusoe?

His question was more resonant than he knew, for in the almost 300 years since Daniel Defoe’s novel was first published, there have been no fewer than 1,200 editions, which doesn’t even begin to count the hundreds of translations into languages as far afield as Sudanese, Turkish, Hindi, Russian, Welsh, Czech, Ukrainian, Inuit, and Telugu, nor the novel’s abridgements, sequels, imitations, and transformation into films, TV shows, and pop-up books.

As I tried to answer his question, I kept thinking of another one that echoed behind his: How does Hampden-Sydney benefit from a professor’s devoting his time to edition number 1,201? What’s in it for the students?

Unlike other editions that you might pick up at Barnes and Noble—the Penguin or Oxford editions, for instance—this one is created specifically for college students. It includes not only the text of Robinson Crusoe but also a hundred pages of cultural appendices, and my first line of response to Tom was to explain their purpose.

Suppose you’re a Hampden-Sydney sophomore taking Western Culture 102. You’ve been studying New World exploration, the Atlantic slave trade, and the expansion of the British Empire. Then, maybe in another class or maybe on your own, you encounter this novel set in the Caribbean, in which an Englishman leaves his Brazilian plantation on an expedition to buy slaves. He gets shipwrecked on an island, which he discovers to his horror doubles as a cannibal picnic spot. He rescues a native who becomes his sole companion, and with the help of Spaniards, finally returns to England twenty-eight years later. You would be right to wonder how these things fit together: Is Friday a friend, a servant, or a slave? Were there really cannibals? Why is Crusoe so afraid of Spaniards? Was there a real Robinson Crusoe?

If you have only the text of Defoe’s novel, you will find yourself stumped. The novel is fiction, after all. Or is it? Defoe himself wrote that “there is a Man alive, and well known too, the Actions of whose Life are the just Subject of these Volumes.” How much then is historically accurate? How much is implausible? Does Defoe’s novel simply reflect his culture’s understanding of the New World, or is there some way in which it also shapes that understanding? What is the relationship between fiction and history?

A professor might give students a lecture or an article that proposes answers to those questions. What I have done instead is to provide students with other eighteenth-century writings that will let them work out those connections for themselves. So, for instance, alongside Defoe’s descriptions of cannibal feasts, students can read excerpts from Montaigne and from Defoe’s contemporaries who were trying to make sense of the stories they heard of reported man-eaters. (Writes one, “We are now going to dip our Pen in Blood, and to draw a Picture which must raise horrour in the beholder; in this there must appear nothing but Inhumanity, Barbarism, and Rage.”)

In order to understand how interpretations of the novel have changed over time, they can examine a dozen illustrations, spanning 1720 to 1923, of Crusoe rescuing Friday. To see how Crusoe fits in with other stories of shipwrecked sailors, they can read a handful of eighteenth-century castaway narratives, including a rare journal kept by a Dutchman who was stranded on Ascension Island for six months until his death in 1725. (There are no signs that this unfortunate mariner had read the Dutch translation of Robinson Crusoe, though I’m sure that whoever published the journal knew Defoe’s novel well.) Other appendices address economics, the history of solitude, and the slave trade. No other edition includes this kind of cultural and historical material.

“So the rest of the book was just a matter of copy and paste?” my father-in-law asks. Not exactly. Robinson Crusoe will soon celebrate its tercentennial, and though the story remains as compelling as ever, over time, words have changed their meanings, familiar terms have become unfamiliar, and a novel that presented no problems to its first audience now needs explanations. Crusoe was already a half-century old when Hampden-Sydney was founded. In that year, Jane Austen was born, William Wordsworth was five, and Thomas and Martha Jefferson were spending their evenings reading passages from Lawrence Sterne’s comic masterpiece Tristram Shandy. But Crusoe was not in the Hampden-Sydney curriculum, for the simple reason that the only literature taught here was in Greek and Latin. The knowledge and assumptions of the time, whether of classical literature or nautical terminology, differed significantly from our own.

From the time that I first contemplated the edition, I’ve been asking my students what questions they have and what they need to know. How much is twenty ducats worth? What are pipkins and squabs? What was happening on the Barbary Coast? Usually I am the one putting comments on my students’ work; this time, it was their turn to comment on mine. “Did you spell cabbin correctly?” (Yes.) “What about course?” (No.) “Do we really need a long footnote about an Atlantic sea-bird?” “I don’t see the connection between Crusoe and the Arabic fable about the feral child.” “Crusoe says he’s growing corn, but I think you need to explain that he means barley, not corn-on-the-cob.”

Evan Davis

Dr. Evan Davis (right) with Marshall McClung ’11.
Some of the most useful help I received from students involved parts of the novel that have gone unexplained by previous editors. Soon after Crusoe lands on the island, for instance, he finds a barrel of gunpowder that has washed up on shore. The outside has hardened into a thick shell, but Crusoe is able to crack it open and use the dry powder against the cannibals. “Is that possible?” several students wanted to know. I checked other editions, but no one had addressed it. “Go find out,” I encouraged them. Within a few days, a senior history major, Matt Huff ’09, had met with a chemistry professor and e-mailed his findings: “Gunpowder is composed primarily of potassium nitrate, which will dissolve in water. If the barrel spent only a small amount of time in the sea, then it is possible that the gunpowder in the center of the barrel is still usable, as we see later in the book.” Matt also clarified several passages about musket bores and whether or not Crusoe’s guns were powerful enough to kill lions (or several cannibals at a shot).

As my students came to appreciate, annotating a novel is something like driving with a three-year-old: You think you know the road well, but suddenly there’s a voice from the back seat asking you the why’s, what’s, and how come’s about everything that passes by the window. The book has about five hundred explanatory footnotes, many of which drew on the knowledge not only of my students but also of my Hampden-Sydney colleagues, who graciously allowed me to flood their e-mail in-boxes. To Ken Lehman: How much of Crusoe’s depiction of Spaniards was accurate, and how much was part of Protestant propaganda? To Earl Fleck: Do masts in a storm really create such resistance that you’d have to cut them down? To Jerry Carney: Why does Crusoe force a Muslim to swear by Mohammed and his beard? To Janice Siegel: What do you think of these translations of Latin phrases?

By this point in our conversation, my father-in-law was ready to concede that there is more to an edition than he had realized. “So you’ve made an edition that helps students understand the history and culture behind the book. And I can imagine how your introduction sets up that material. But the words of the novel, you didn’t have to do anything to them, did you?”

When we read, we don’t often think about how these particular words got to the page. What other words could there be? But no book, from a first edition to a 1,201st, sprouts fully grown like Athena from the head of Zeus. Their origins are much messier, and it’s a rare book that duplicates exactly the author’s initial (or final) words. In the case of Robinson Crusoe, there is no surviving manuscript, and the first six editions, all published in 1719, contain literally thousands of variations. Sometimes the variations are small—capitalization, spelling, punctuation—and sometimes they are more noticeable, including changes in words, numbers, and names of places. Depending on the questions they ask, editors almost always have choices.

To explain why I spent four months poring over the commas, capitals, and italics on print-outs, computer screens, and musty 300-year old books, not to mention why students would find such work important, I needed to explain something about textual editing. It’s tempting to think that, like laws and sausages, no one should see how books are made. We like the illusion that great literature passes from the author’s mind to the reader’s understanding without being tainted by the ink of print (or by the pixels of a computer screen). Take Hamlet, for instance: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” What could be more transcendent, more inevitable? But as soon as we look at books themselves, we realize how little about them is preordained. The earliest edition we have of Hamlet, a 1603 quarto, contains not the lines we know but something rather different:

To be, or not to be, I [ = Aye] there’s the point,
To Die, to sleepe, is that all? I all:
No, to sleepe, to dreame, I mary there it goes.

It takes an editor to sort out textual differences, a process that involves knowing how texts were composed, printed, distributed, and read. Sometimes textual oddities seem to be straight­forward printers’ errors, such as the so-called “Wicked Bible” of 1631 which includes the commandment “Thou shalt commit adultery.” (The printers were hauled before the Star Chamber and fined.) But just as often, variations come not from mistakes but from deliberate editorial decisions, ones that made sense to the editors in the past but that later seem misguided. Editions of Dickinson with the dashes removed. Editions of Shakespeare’s sonnets in which “he” and “him” are replaced systematically with “she” and “her.” Editions of Gulliver’s Travels with politically inflammatory passages excised. An edition of Paradise Lost by the great philologist Richard Bentley, who changed the final couplet—“Hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,/ Through Eden took their solitary way”—to one he thought was more appropriately social: “Then hand in hand with social steps their way/ Through Eden took, with Heavenly Comfort Cheer’d.”

These variations, both small and large, affect our reading in significant ways. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was as great a reader as he was a poet, likely assumed he was reading a good edition of Crusoe. It was, he thought, one of the best books ever written. In particular, he singled out the passage in which Crusoe salvages the wreck and discovers a bag of gold coins. Here is the text as Coleridge read it:

I smiled to myself at the sight of this money: “O drug!” said I aloud, “what art thou good for? … I have no manner of use for thee; e’en remain where thou art, and go to the bottom, as a creature whose life is not worth saving.” However, upon second thoughts, I took it away; and wrapping all this in a piece of canvass, I began to think of making another raft;…

Coleridge was in awe, pronouncing the passage “Worthy of Shakespeare.” Especially brilliant, he argued, was the semicolon after the clause “I took it away”:

the simple semi-colon after it, the instant passing on without the least pause of reflex consciousness, is more exquisite and masterlike than the touch itself. A meaner writer… would have put a “!” after “away,” and have commenced a new paragraph.

The first edition of 1719, however, doesn’t have a semicolon at all:


The semicolon he praises, in other words, belongs not to Defoe but to the editor of the 1812 edition that Coleridge happened to read.

Thankfully, books are not like sausages; they are more like wine, and they become all the more interestingly complex when you know how they came into being.

For the most part, though I shared the appendices, introduction, and annotations with my students, I kept the more tedious work of textual editing to myself. But I invited students to draw back the curtain often enough that they began to understand the complicated process all texts go through on their way to becoming books. To my delight, and perhaps to their surprise, students got into heated discussions about the editorial choices I had to make. A simple choice of punctuation can reveal the practical importance of theoretical questions, such as whether a text should reflect an author’s intention, an eighteenth-century reader’s experience, or the ease of twenty-first century book buyers. Students who know something about a book’s history, like lovers of Shakespeare whose imaginations contain not just one but many performances of King Lear, or like classical music lovers who hear behind every symphony the myriad other ways it has been played in the past, understand that the words before them shimmer with historical choices.

At this point in our conversation, I wasn’t sure whether or not I had convinced my father-in-law, but he promised to read the book. From my first meeting with a publisher to the appearance of the book in print, the edition took about three years. Now, as the book gets used in college courses around the world, it pleases me to know that it has been a genuine collaboration with my students at Hampden-Sydney, who have helped to guide it from start to finish, from the moment I realized in class that we needed a new edition to the moment it appeared on Amazon.