CRUSOE by Katherine Frank


Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox, and the Creation of a Myth
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Alexander Selkirk’s ordeal as a castaway may have seeded the plot for Robinson Crusoe, but Daniel Defoe’s tale is a clear reflection of his own life’s struggles.

At the end of his life, Defoe labeled Crusoe more of an allegory than a novel, implying a good degree of autobiography at the same time. Biographer Frank (Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi, 2002) introduces Robert Knox, once a true captive, who survived on his wits and the English practice of making your environment adapt to your needs rather than adjusting to it. Defoe mined information from a vast library, including The Odyssey, The Tempest, Pilgrim’s Progress and an extensive number of published accounts of castaways. As Defoe cherry-picked incidents from different lives, he adapted them to reflect disasters he had suffered. He also had no compunction about fitting other stories neatly into his own. His Captain Singleton contained blatantly lifted passages from Knox’s published story of his 19-year captivity in Ceylon. Frank parallels the lives and adventures of Defoe, Knox and Crusoe, illustrating a deep relationship between author and models. This side-by-side biography of the two men shows similarities between their lives and their attitudes toward disaster, although their personalities and moralities were markedly different. Many have said that Crusoe is much more a self-help book than a novel, while Knox’s story is a treatise rather than a travel book. They both exhibit a similarly distinct philosophy of life. Defoe proselytizes on morals, lessons and their meanings while encouraging his readers to turn the challenges of adversity into advantage. Knox teaches by example.

Frank wisely leaves the minutia of spotting duplication in their works to Defoe scholars while she focuses on the values and beliefs of the two men. Knox came out to be the better of the two, and his little-known story deserves reading.

Pub Date: April 15th, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-60598-334-9
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Pegasus
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2012


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