Curiouser & Curiouser

Review: Robinson Crusoe and Children’s Literature

Andrew O’Malley. Children’s Literature, Popular Culture, and “Robinson Crusoe.” New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan Press, 2012.
ISBN: 9781137027313 (ebook), 9780230272705 (hbk), 9781349323463 (pbk)

Reviewer: Jason J. Gulya

There are so many gems in this book! It includes images of an advertisement for Robinson Crusoe on Ice from the 1970s, of a depiction of Crusoe’s shipwreck in an early pop-up book from 1866, a dish portraying “Robinson Crusoe & Family Dining” from the 1840s—just to name a few! Professor Andrew O’Malley also includes fascinating appropriations of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe into nursery rhymes, theatrical performances, and toys.

“Gems” can be problems in academic writing, because scholars are often tempted to let them stand on their own. There are many books that include images and other kinds of examples that are fascinating in and of themselves, but which do not explicitly incorporate those examples into their overall trajectory. Children’s Literature, Popular Culture, and “Robinson Crusoe” is no such book. It transitions seamlessly from interesting example to interesting example, gradually building up momentum by not only comparing those examples to one another but by bringing each of them to bear on the projects of the individual chapters and of the book as a whole. O’Malley’s gems shine more brightly because they are never superfluous.

I will cite a passage that encapsulates the book’s texture as well as one of its central arguments. Here, O’Malley writes about how the “othering” of both childhood and pre-modern popular culture are characterized by nostalgia:

One effect of the grafting together of childhood and a disappearing popular culture through the temporal displacement of nostalgia was to ensure the two remained at a remove from the present moment. The child and the rural peasant became figures locked together in the past: the former coming by the Victorian period especially to signify “the adult’s past, her ‘antiquity,’ as Alice Meynell wrote in one of her regular columns on children in the 1890s” (Austin 86), the latter representing a connection to ‘a primordial time…replete with potentiality…the time of the ‘beginnings’” (Hart 411), and both serving as “foils to civilization in its modern form (Kapur 48). While both came to represent a longed-for state, it was a state, necessarily, “from which all mature minds feel estranged” (Austin 83). Childhood and the pre-modern “Golden Age” society are unrecoverable and can only be appropriated into the adult’s present moment by nostalgia; a condition of their ideal status is their separation and distance from maturity and modernity. (12-13)

Let’s focus on those second and third sentences. On the level of language, O’Malley moves tactfully from Alice Meynell’s 1890s column to James Hart’s 1973 article on nostalgia to Jyotsna Kapur’s 2005 book on how marketing and adaptation have changed the cultural conceptualization of childhood and, finally, to Linda Austin’s 2003 article discussing the relationship between childhood and nostalgia in the Romantic period. He uses the language of these writers without losing a sense of his own project. The sentences show a scholar who is not afraid to use a wealth of secondary material, but who is also confident enough to follow up that language with a sentence (“Childhood and the pre-modern…”) that both summarizes those scholars’ points and brings them into accordance with his own understanding of the subject. This must have been a very difficult paragraph to write.

On the level of content, the above passage contains an argument—that, historically, writers have coupled the enjoyment of pre-modern culture and pre-adult culture through a shared sense of nostalgia—that O’Malley comes back to in almost every chapter. And with each iteration, the argument becomes increasingly complex and convincing. Not only does the coupling between popular culture and children’s literature work in general, but it also works well with adaptations of Robinson Crusoe in particular.

The book itself is separated into 5 chapters, each of which investigates a certain aspect of Robinson Crusoe’s afterlife. The first covers domestic performances; the second, robinsonades; the third, chapbooks; the fourth, pantomimes; and the fifth, consumer goods. I think the most successful of these chapters is the third, followed closely by the fifth. The third works neatly and compelling with a range of chapbook adaptations of the original novel, understanding these adaptations as “poaching” or selecting certain elements of Robinson Crusoe for their own pedagogical aims. The fifth contains a wealth of information about how Robinson Crusoe has been appropriated by a consumer culture, resulting in products ranging from figures to games to puzzles that both appeal to adult consumers buying toys for their children and allow the children themselves materials with which to engage with, and even question, how the world works.

O’Malley’s book is not about Defoe’s Robinson’s Crusoe but about the literary, dramatic, and commercial uses of the text that gradually align it with children’s literature. As a project about a text’s afterlife, the book is exemplary. However, it also has strikingly little to say about the source material. This is understandable, given the stated goals of the book. But it is also shackling. At various points in the book, O’Malley claims to turn to Defoe’s novel in order to clarify his points and project and then relies too heavily on how others have already read Robinson Crusoe. The book would have benefited from lengthier discussions of the language of the original novel.

In his section on dramatic versions of Robinson Crusoe, for instance, he writes “A closer look at Locke’s concept of supervisory education and how it operates in Robinson Crusoe might shed some light on this dilemma” (30). I remember reading this topic sentence and getting excited: spending some time thinking about the specific language Defoe uses to work with emerging educational models would certainly help unpack and complicate the earlier assertion that Robinson Crusoe is about pedagogy. Then, the book turns to Richard Barney’s observation that Defoe simply implements Locke’s understanding with no use of particular moments in Robinson Crusoe. I found myself wondering about the relationship between Defoe’s educational model and Locke’s, because it seems to me that the relationship is much more complicated than this book suggests. How can we read those moments in Robinson Crusoe in which Crusoe teaches—or attempts to teach—Friday about the Bible and Christianity? How do those scenes at the end of the novel which discuss Crusoe’s return to English civilization reflect on Defoe’s educational model? In other words, what exactly does the novel demonstrate about what Crusoe learned? I do not wish that Children’s Literature, Popular Culture, and “Robinson Crusoe” contained lengthy discussions of these particular question, because I recognize that they are not the book’s central focus. But I do think that incorporating a more detailed understanding of how Defoe depicts pedagogy in its various forms into its discussions of adaptations of that novel would have helped clarify O’Malley’s points and arguments about how later writers change and even reduce the content of the source text.

Then again, I specialize in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature. So it is understandable that I want to see more about the language of Robinson Crusoe incorporated into the book. But this point does not detract from what O’Malley has done here. Children’s Literature, Popular Culture, and “Robinson Crusoe is a consistently intelligent, compelling, and thought-provoking discussion of the novel’s afterlife as a major example of children’s literature. It offers us not only a strong discussion of the place of an eighteenth-century novel in children’s literature, but an invaluable model of how to manage a scholarly project that traces the trajectory of a single text in order to approach a range of difficult and important questions about literature, education, childhood, and commodification.


Jason J. Gulya

Volume 19, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, July, 2016

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