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Robinson Crusoe for Children by  James Baldwin


 

 

Back Matter

TO DANIEL DEFOE, ESQ.

[187] HONORED SIR:

If he who adds to the enjoyment of others is deserving of happiness and high rewards, surely you have won no mean place among those who are blessed. For who has done more for the harmless entertainment of mankind than you with your immortal "Robinson Crusoe?" It is now nearly two hundred years since your fertile fancy invented that story of marvelous though not impossible adventures. You wrote it not for boys, but for men of mature minds. You would doubtless have scorned the thought of composing a book for children. And yet how many millions of boys have remembered and blessed you for having written that one tale!

Your book has had a great history. I imagine that you wrote it hurriedly, at spare moments, while more important duties were pressing upon you; for it bears all the marks of hasty, not to say careless, composition. It is said that you had some trouble in finding a publisher for it, and I do not wonder. A manuscript so faulty in punctuation, in grammar, in all the externals that go to make up a work of art, would have to go begging a long time nowadays! But it was the internal quality of your work that counted. When it was published, people liked it. They talked about your "Robinson Crusoe," they read it and reread it, the boys took to it, and every year it grew in popularity. [188] Your plain, easy, everyday English made it a favorite among the common people who had no use for the higher forms of literary art. Then you had such a knack of making everything appear so real! Your readers never thought of poor Robinson as a creature merely of your imagination; they thought of him as a living personage, they felt acquainted with him as with no other hero of fiction. Your book, therefore, lived. It was reprinted and reprinted again. Thousands of editions were sold. It was translated into every language in which books are printed. In our time no library is complete without it, and no boy is considered a healthy boy who has not tried to read it.

I say tried  to read it; for who, in this busy age, has succeeded in reading the half of those six hundred pages or more that compose your original work? Who, indeed, among your millions of admirers, has perused even a small portion of the story without skipping numerous paragraphs, perhaps whole pages? You had the knack of spinning things out to their greatest length. You liked to dwell upon incidents that were trivial and unimportant. You felt impelled to preach an occasional sermon by giving up whole pages to your hero's tedious reflections on moral and religious subjects. In your day, when books were few and time was long, all this was very proper; it was no doubt just what your readers expected and relished. But you lived in the eighteenth century, and things have changed since then. Now there are thousands of books to be read, to say nothing of the newspapers; and there is so much to be done that we must make use of the moments in many various ways. We must read as we run. We prefer to waste our time upon the frivolous rather than [189] upon the tedious. We must be interested. The meditations of an imaginary hero seem to us neither instructive nor entertaining. The upshot of the whole matter is that people do not read "Robinson Crusoe" now as they did a few years ago. He who is not a judicious skipper will most likely be bored by your long-windedness and drop the book before he has finished the half of it.

Again, who cares a fig for what Robinson did before he was shipwrecked, or for what he did after his return to England? The life on the desert island, that is the pith and the kernel of the whole story. If you had been writing for twentieth-century readers, you would have said very little about those other matters; you would have gone down to the kernel promptly, and when you had finished with it you would have stopped.

Now in our schools we are doing that which would have astonished the schoolmasters of your day. We are teaching our children to read by putting into their hands books which they cannot help but want to read. Our babes are getting at the very cream of the world's literature. They are draining it off so fast that the more cautious among us begin to wonder if there will be only the skimmed milk for them when they have grown to man's estate. You would be astonished to hear our eight-year-olds discuss old Ęsop, old Homer, and many a modern poet and prose writer of whom you know nothing.

They discuss you, also, and they try to read your "Robinson Crusoe." But it is hard reading, and there is so much skipping to be done that when they have finished a portion of it they have not so fine an opinion of the story as you might suppose. It is plain, as I have already hinted, that you did not write for readers of so tender years.

[190] Now I have read in the preface to an early edition of your book all that you say about the abridging of your work. You declare that such an act is "as scandalous as it is knavish and ridiculous." This, however, was addressed to your eighteenth-century readers and not to us of this much later day. If you were living now, you would certainly think more kindly of it; for which is better, to be abridged or to be skipped? So sure am I of your approval that I have not only abridged your story, but I have written it anew for children. Should it be said that I have taken too great liberties with an immortal classic, my plea shall be that I have merely acted the part of a translator. The story remains yours. The ideas are yours; the main points of the narrative are exactly as you put them; the honor of the invention is wholly yours.

While preserving your simplicity of style, I have used only such words and expressions as are easiest understood by children in their second or third year at school. Sometimes they are yours, but oftener they are my own. I have softened the harsher parts of your story, so as not to blunt the gentler instincts of our young readers by dwelling too long among scenes of blood and deeds of villainy. I have, passed over those tiresome reflections and moralizings, which you so confidently tell us are "the greatest Beautys" of your work; for, like certain other beauties of your time, their day is past and they have no longer any charm or influence. In short, I have given your story a twentieth-century form for a twentieth-century purpose. I have written it anew in order that children may get to the kernel of it at once without the bother of tearing away the husks. Is it too much to hope that they will thus be led, not only to an easier understanding of "Robinson Crusoe," [191] but also to a deeper appreciation of its worthy and world-famous author, Daniel Defoe?

With these explanations, I trust that you will accept my apologies and will regard my well-meant efforts as neither "scandalous," "knavish," nor "ridiculous." For, whatever may be the fate of my work, the fame of yours has long been assured, and it is plainly impossible for me to diminish in the slightest degree the honor that is justly, your due as the creator of "Robinson Crusoe."

J. B.     


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