Two Robinson Crusoes, Two Realities
A common idea lies behind the ritziest Hawaiian coastal resort, the most marginal Mexican beach shack, the script for “Cast Away” and the last island “Survivor” episode: What if this beach were mine alone?
The name we usually attach to that daydream is Robinson Crusoe, hero of the 18th century story by Daniel Defoe that some people consider the first English novel. But most historians agree that the true and harrowing story behind that novel is the travail of one Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish seaman cast ashore on an island off the coast of Valparaiso, Chile, between 1704 and 1709. Defoe, already a vastly prolific English journalist and author, tore Selkirk’s story from the headlines, merged it with other seafarers’ castaway tales, moved the island to tropical latitudes and concocted a moralistic and vastly popular tale about ingenuity and the pleasures of the simple life.
Now come two authors looking to give us the grittier true story, and in both versions it stinks of goat pelts (which Selkirk wore) and often involves human beings behaving badly. Both books paint Selkirk’s island (current population: about 500) as a place for subsistence, not seaside idylls.
Drawing on old legal records and journals kept by sailors and other contemporaries, the authors agree on much: Unlike Defoe’s Crusoe, who landed on his island because of a shipwreck and spent 28 years there, Selkirk was left behind, about 400 miles off Chile’s coast, after butting heads with a commanding officer on a faltering mission of piracy. Selkirk’s tenure alone lasted four years and four months, after which he was rescued and his career as a seaman resumed. Selkirk died in his 40s, leaving a widow in Scotland and another in England. For years they fought over the inheritance.
But beyond the skeleton of the story, the differences multiply between Diana Souhami’s slender, pungent book and Tim Severin’s more rambling, first-person literary detective account.
I like Souhami’s better: Resolutely narrow of focus, it implies much by saying little. She clearly admires the island and writes with authority about its plants, animals and seasons. (Part of the Juan Fernandez archipelago, the isle’s Spanish name was changed to Robinson Crusoe Island in 1966 by the Chilean government.) She sometimes seems eager to draw broad conclusions from scant data but gets your attention when she makes the circumstantial case that Selkirk not only ate goat meat and wore goat pelts but used the animals for sexual release.
Severin, author of more than a dozen previous books tracing historical or fictional routes of such travelers as Ulysses, Sinbad and Marco Polo, sees Selkirk’s as just one of several true castaway tales that fed Defoe’s imagination, and his narrative turns to the likely model for Man Friday, a Miskito Indian known as Will (who spent three years alone on Selkirk’s island in the early 1680s, 20 years before the Scotsman), and later to another likely model for Crusoe, Henry Pitman, whose marooning took place on Salt Tortuga Island in the Caribbean and was described in an English book predating Defoe’s.
This gives Severin a chance to become a character in his own book, as we follow him to Miskito territory in Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama and several Caribbean islands, and to argue intriguingly against conventional wisdom.
THOMAS JEFFERSON’S MONTICELLO, Preface by Wendell Garrett, essays by Lucia Stanton, William L. Beiswanger, Susan R. Stein and Peter Hatch, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, $45
This is a rare coffee-table book, not only handsome but full of worthwhile text and insights into the life and thinking of Jefferson as president, architect and Renaissance man. Along with excellent photographs of Monticello’s interiors and gardens, the book explains the contemporaneous influences that shaped Jefferson’s design and use of the house. It also faces head-on the uncomfortable facts about Jefferson as slave master.
MOON METRO GUIDES, Avalon Travel Publishing, $14.95 each
Keep an eye out for the blue-hued covers of the Moon Metro guidebooks, a new series that is map-based, stylish and minimalist. Moon Handbooks are known for cannily combining logistical information with cultural background of a country or state. This urban variation--the first cities covered are San Francisco, New York, Paris and Washington, D.C. --is all about location, selectivity and service information. For instance, among the scores of hotels in San Francisco, the Moon editors include 43, mostly disdaining the chains.
Each about 100 pages, they’re built around fold-out neighborhood maps and designed to slip into a pocket. They require some thumbing through to connect addresses with information: For the full scoop on La Chope restaurant on the Left Bank in Paris, for instance, you need to dash between page 37 (where the address and phone are listed) and Map 1 (which shows the neighborhood), with a stop at the front of the book to remind yourself that the $ designation means entrees under $10. On the whole, however, they’re handsome and sensible books.
Calendar writer Christopher Reynolds’ new Travel books column will appear twice a month.