Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. 1719. Penguin Books, 2003.

Summary of Work
An Englishman from York and youngest son of a merchant, Robinson Crusoe’s father wants him to study law. But to his family’s dismay, Crusoe desires a life at sea, and he sails to London with a friend against his family’s wishes. On the way to London, there is a terrible storm that nearly kills Crusoe and his friend, but undeterred, he signs himself up to sail from London. His first trip brings him some financial success, and that encourages him to take another voyage. As to not lose the profit from the first trip, he leaves the money with a widow he trusts. His second trip lands him enslaved to pirate Moors, and he is enslaved in North Africa. He escapes slavery while on a fishing expedition, where he and another boy are able to sail down the coast and meet the Portuguese; Crusoe sells the boy back into slavery and goes to Brazil, where he becomes a successful plantation owner. His success leaves him needing more slaves, and rather than purchase them from a slave trader, he determines he will sail to Africa and gather his own slaves, but as he travels he ends up shipwrecked, the sole survivor, off the coast of Trinidad.

He salvages what he can from the ship, mainly guns, gunpowder, some food, and other useful items. Then he surveys part of the island to see what he can find to help him survive, and he finds goats and finds a good spot to build shelter. He also takes the time to build a cross on which he engraves the date of his shipwreck, and he makes a notch in it every day to keep track of time. He has paper, so he keeps a journal in which he describes his successes and failures, including his candle making trials, his lucky chance of sprouting grain, building a cellar, and falling ill. When he is ill he hallucinates an angel appearance, where the angel comes to tell him to repent. He believes, in a religious reawakening, that God has thus far delivered him from his sins. After recovery, he determines to make a full survey of the area, finding that he is, in fact, on an island, and that the space has grapes in abundance. He starts feeling like he is king of the island, and he trains a parrot, makes a goat his pet, and starts learning skills of pottery, basketry, and bread making. He also builds a canoe from a cedar tree, but unthinkingly doesn’t put it near water so he cannot lift it to shore. So he tries again with a smaller tree that he can move by himself, and he decides to row around the island. While rowing, he gets caught in a current and nearly dies, but is able to get to shore. He hears his parrot, and is once again praising God for saving him. For several years after that, he stays on the island with no attempt to leave.

One afternoon, he discovers the footprints of another person, and he decides that there must be cannibals that live nearby, so he arms himself and builds an underground space to hide his goats at night as well as an underground space to cook. He hears gunshots on another evening, and he finds a shipwreck, but no one is there. As he walks, he finds the dead all along the shore, and he convinces himself that cannibals have feasted on these corpses, so he continues his high alert status. Crusoe, on watch, sees a group of cannibals taking victims to shore, and one victim breaks free and heads towards Crusoe. He kills one of the cannibals and injures another, who the prisoner kills in the end. He then defeats almost all of the other cannibals because he is heavily armed. The prisoner gives his life to Crusoe in exchange for the gift of life, and Crusoe makes him a servant and names him Friday. Crusoe goes about teaching his new servant English and basic Christian doctrines, and Friday explains the construction of the cannibal nations on the island to Crusoe. Friday desires to go back to the Spanish people he was shipwrecked with, which saddens Crusoe, but then they determine that perhaps they will go to the cannibals’ island to find the Spaniards. However, as they go to leave, a group of cannibals arrives with more prisoners, one who is distinctly European. Friday and Crusoe, with their guns, kill most of the cannibals and save the European, who turns out to be a Spaniard, and another victim who was saved is Friday’s father. The Spaniard, Crusoe, Friday, and Friday’s father go back to Crusoe’s dwelling, and they eat and rest. The next day the Spaniard and Friday’s father hop in a boat to explore the island.

While they are away, an English ship appears on the shore, and when Crusoe goes to see what’s goin on, he sees the ship’s captain and a few other men being forced ashore by mutineers. Crusoe and Friday start a maneuver to confuse and scare the mutineers, and they end up surrendering, and with the captain, they pretend that the land is English territory and that Crusoe is the magnanimous governor who spared their lives so they can face justice in England. It has been 27 years he has spent on the island when he is able to start on his return to England. All his family but his sisters are dead, but the widow he saved his money with is still alive, and she still has his money. He also learns that in the decades he was gone, his plantations have been very prosperous, and so he arranges to sell them, determining that he will not sail again, even to get to England; he will go by land. He has struggles traveling by land because of storms and wildlife, but finally gets back and is able to get his money from the sale of his plantations and the widow. He gives the widow and his sisters portions of his profits, and then considers taking another voyage to Brazil, but changes his mind because he does not want to have to convert to Catholicism to live there. He marries, but his wife dies, and he finally determines he will sail again, this time to the East Indies as a trader. He visits the island he was shipwrecked upon, and finds that Spain has turned it into a profitable and beautiful colony.

Discussion of Work
This is a castaway and travel narrative, with the themes of human ingenuity, survival instinct, and trust in God and Christianity running throughout. The book could be said to teach moral lessons, as it is the original sin of not following his father’s advice that Crusoe seems to atone for. He initially makes good money, but upon his continual sailing, he loses everything in order to have the opportunity, apparently, to come to God and realize his grace. The story here also focuses on human ingenuity, as Crusoe consistently makes himself prosperous in each situation he is in: first trading, then plantation-running, then building civilization out of wilderness (although for wilderness, the space as described is pretty domesticated, with goats, grape vineyards, and plenty of fertile land and easy building space). Crusoe’s state on the island gets better the more he focuses on God and his deliverance and less on his sorrows as a castaway. When he is finally returned to England after his trials, he finds himself as Job, with far more than he ever had before his disaster, able to live happily wherever he chooses as a gift from God.

Race also plays a large part in this book, first with the slave boy who he escapes from slavery with and then sells to the Portuguese. When Crusoe is a slave, he finds ways to be friendly with his fellow slave, but as soon as he finds a way to free himself, he is automatically forgetful of the humanity of his companion, and instead sees him as an object, chattel for labor. This is clear not only in his quick sale of the boy, but in his later lamentation that he sold him when he could have used him as a laborer in Brazil. His understanding of slavery never changes throughout the novel, as can be seen when the native who he names Friday comes to be with him: he teaches him English and about Christianity, but still looks at him as a servant, a lesser being. He finds that kindness will work best, and yet there is always a condescension in his speech that is different from kindness: it is the speech of a person who finds himself superior to all others.

The superior attitude that Crusoe displays regarding race also applies to his mastery of the land. Whatever Crusoe comes to, he proves the superiority of the white man in his ability to survive and master not just survival, but building a civilization from the ground up. When he travels again after having been restored to England, he finds his island prosperous, and it is almost as if his being there is what caused the Spaniards to have success with the space. The colonial mind is at work with the ideas about white superiority and Christian mastery of land. That mastery also applies to the self, as Crusoe learns not only that it is important to recognize one’s identity, but to be able to master it in order to do more than survive, but thrive.

Langston Hughes, The Big Sea

Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. 1940. U of Missouri P, 2001.

Summary of Work
This autobiography of Langston Hughes’s life details some of his life experiences from his early twenties into the end of his twenties and the beginning of the Great Depression. When he was a child, his parents split, and he lived with his mother for a time. He remembers having his parents try to get back together in Mexico, but that was the year of the great earthquake in Mexico City, and so his mother got scared and they went back. He was sent to live with his grandmother in Kansas and to go to school, and she was a proud woman who would never do service jobs for white people to earn a living. When she died when he was just before his teenage years, he went to go live with his Aunt. During this time his Aunt took him to a Christian church, where they were praying over people to be saved. Everyone had gone up but him, because he believed he would get to see Jesus in the flesh, and he did not want to be dishonest about coming to Jesus. Finally, filled with guilt that he is the only one who hasn’t been saved, he comes to the front at the alter, and his Aunt is overjoyed. That night, he cries over having lied. His mother remarried, and he liked the man. Hughes was elected the poet for his school (it was integrated) because people made assumptions that all black people had rhythm and could dance, so they must be able to write poetry. He wrote his first poems there. He admits that his entire life, he rarely majorly edited poetry once it was down on the page. He also admits that most of his poetry and other work was written when he was miserable or unhappy rather than when he was happy.

In his late teenage years, his biological father wrote to him that he wanted him to come down to Mexico. His mother was upset about it, but he went anyway. There, he found out that his father was considered very American because all he cared about was money, but he was wiser than other Americans that came to Mexico because he was interested in keeping and saving his money. He hated Mexicans and many black people, and all poor people. Hughes was fairly miserable his first year there, because his father was always trying to force him to hurry places, and because he had to do bookkeeping and was no good with numbers. He got so angry at his father that it made him physically ill and he couldn’t eat for weeks, which landed him in a hospital that cost his father $20 a day to keep him there. After he was feeling better, his father sent him back to the US.  But the next time he went down to stay with his father, he spent more time to learn Spanish and became better friends with the Mexicans in town. A German woman also stayed with them (she later became his father’s wife), and she made the space more pleasant. His father expressed that he wanted to send him to college somewhere in Europe and have him come back to Mexico to be an engineer, but Hughes said he wanted to be a writer and did not want to go learn things he was no good at. His father told him that writers made no money and that if he was going to pay for college, Hughes would go where he wanted him to. He would also not be allowed to leave Mexico until he agreed to his father’s wishes.

So in order to escape, Hughes started tutoring Mexican children so they could speak English. Word spread that he was good at his job, and soon he was able to raise his rates and take on as much work as he wanted. He also got offered two jobs at colleges to teach English, and he took both jobs because scheduling worked for him. While working these jobs, he is lucky to narrowly escape death because a man who the German woman’s relation was working for thought that the German girl was sleeping with Hughes, and he, enraged, came to the house, shot the girl in the head three times, and went in search of Hughes to kill him, but couldn’t find him because he wasn’t home. The girl miraculously survived, and the man was sentenced to twenty years in prison.

Hughes had made quite a bit of money, and he started thinking that he did want to go to college, but in NYC at Columbia. He and his father fought about it, but eventually his father agreed to send him there. On the train to New York City, he was mistaken as Mexican and when he said he was black, white people in the South would not serve him. He remembered the struggles of living as a black man in the US, and contemplated why it was so difficult for white people to interact with black people in the US when it was so easy for them to do so in other countries. He spent a year at Columbia, only to find he really disliked college, and so he quit and started looking for a job. But his father at that point had cut him off, his mother was looking for work and struggling, and he could not find a job that would take him, even if it were available, because he was a black man. He finally found a job working at a shipyard, and in the meantime he was having some of his poetry published by Crisis magazine. Alain Locke wanted to meet him and he had met several major figures of the New Negro movement, but he told Locke no because he was nervous and because he knew that Locke wouldn’t be able to get his way around the docks very easily and it could kill him if he weren’t careful. Before Hughes sets off to sea on his first voyage, he tosses all his books from college into the ocean, ridding himself of their weight both literally and figuratively.

Hughes set sail to Africa eventually and landed in many ports to find that the Africans did not consider him a black man because his skin was more brown than black. This astonished him, and he also saw the terrible effects of colonialization. He recalls having to watch a prostitute and a young girl coming on board in hopes of receiving money, and receiving no money but being forced to have sex with all the men on board who were interested, which was a group of about 30 men. He tired of this type of exploitation as well as the economic exploitation. As they were about to leave, he bought a red monkey, and many of the other soldiers did as well. There were adventures on the ship with those monkeys getting loose and winding up drowned or in missionaries’ beds or in the masts, but eventually all were caught. There were also many more antics and debauchery, and all the men were fired upon returning to the US. Hughes made his way to Cleveland, where his family was staying, and found himself penniless in order to make it there with the monkey, named Jocko, who he had bought for his younger brother. His mother was very upset to have it in the home, but his stepfather and brother liked it, so the monkey stayed. Then his stepfather’s mother came to town, and his mother had an ally to protest about the monkey. Then when his stepfather had the monkey out on the town one night and it got scared and destroyed the carpeting of a pool table, it cost them 25 dollars to have it replaced, and his mother was furious. Not long after Hughes left to go back to sea, she sold the monkey.

His second voyage, he got off to stay in Paris, but found himself unable to get a job because he was not a musician, dancer, or performer. He makes friends with a Russian dancer who got sick and whose company had dissolved, and who had no money. They share a cheap room, and she finds a job before he does. He finally gets a job as a doorman and then, through someone who liked his poetry, found a job as a dishwasher and then a cook. When the club he is working at goes nearly bust, they tried to fire the head cook, and he brought out a knife and threatened everyone, and they let him stay. And when they tried to fire Hughes, he threatened them again, so he got a job as a waiter. During his time there, he saw many fights and other antics. The Russian lady got a job at La Havre, and she leaves him, very sad. He then falls in love with a girl named Mary, who is very well-to-do. But when her father finds out what she’s been doing, first she is very chaperoned, and then she is forced to leave. Soon after that, he spends some time with Alain Locke, who is in town, and then when one day he is waiting on a famous poet, he shares his work. The poet “discovers” Hughes, and then he became wildly popular and many people came to the club looking to get a photo with the poet. He has more poems published but is never paid for them.

When the club had to close down for refurbishment and because of lack of business, he goes with some Italians to see Italy. He has enough money to enjoy his time, and Locke is also there and takes him to Venice and they enjoy their time. However, while in Genoa, he has his passport and all his money stolen, and the US embassy and consulate refuse to help him, so he lives homeless and in poverty, unable to get a job that will pay him enough to either get back to France or to find safe passage to America. He finally gets passage as a workman on a ship bound for NYC, and he is nearly kicked off in Spain for being late back to the ship, but he makes it back to the US with a quarter more than he had in France when he first landed. He makes his way to Washington, where his relatives are, and they want him to work in the Library of Congress, but it has too many needed qualifications and Hughes needed work, so he started working doing wet wash laundry for twelve dollars a week. His mother and the relatives had a dispute, and so he found them different accommodations, and they struggled to make ends meet. Carl Van Vechten contacted him and helped him publish a book of poetry at this point, but the elitist community would not welcome him or his mother because they were poor.

He makes his way back to Harlem in hopes of going to college, but he can’t get a scholarship. He talks of meeting Van Vechten and Jean Toomer, who could pass as white and refused to be labeled a “Negro Artist” much to critics’ dismay. He also met Zora Neale Hurston, who he had a good relationship for years until a dispute over a co-writing project. He speaks of Vechten and his parties, the decadence of the Harlem Renaissance and how the area was a victim of its own image. Hughes finally makes a bit of money off of some poetry, works as a personal assistant for a time, gets patronage to go to college at Lincoln, and visits and explores the South and takes a short voyage to Cuba and Jamaica, which he liked very much and would have kept doing if he hadn’t had to go back to college. During his final college years, he wrote a survey of the issues of the color line at Lincoln college, where all white professors taught a nearly all black student body. The founder of the college came up to him at graduation to tell him that as time passed, he would see that there was no way for him to do what he did in founding the school unless he could have had white patronage and made concessions. Hughes disagreed with him.

Around this time, he also received patronage to write and finish his novel Not Without Laughter, which he wishes would have been better because it is about the best of his family members. He receives a major literary award for it. He tries to write other things, but the white patron dislikes his work, and finally they part ways, and it makes him sick like he was with his father. He remembers all the decadence and security he experienced and remembers seeing the other people in the street starving because of the depression, and he remembers the disgust the white chauffeur had over being forced to drive a black man places. He went to the doctor to see what was wrong and spent a lot of money doing it, was told first he had a Japanese tape worm, and then told by a white doctor that he had no such thing. Then he got tonsillitis and had to have them out, using up the last of his money from the Park Street patron. After that, he immediately got better from his illness brought on by anger over the patron. It is during this time that he had his dispute with Hurston over the play they had been working on, and while it had been in production, it had to be shut down over the dispute. After that he went to Haiti and decided that he would make money writing for a living, and at the time of writing the autobiography, that is what he had done successfully.

Discussion of Work
This book gives an adventurous story about Langston Hughes’s life during his twenties. Its major dealings in terms of themes that cut across works of African American writing are the color line, economic oppression and poverty, travel narratives, and artistry, particularly writing and music. Hughes regularly comments on the struggles of being a black man, particularly when it comes to finding housing or a job. While he knows that other races are discriminated against, he knows they also have an easier time finding work, which makes all the difference. And he struggles with the knowledge that many of the black elite are not interested in changing the situation because they feel that there can be no progress unless they tell the white people what they want to hear. He states that while the Harlem Renaissance was happening, the majority of the black communities in America felt nothing change in their situation or economic or social standings. Economics and travel go hand-in-hand for Hughes, who travels in order to get money, which he can never keep as he comes back to the US, or even as he simply travels from one country to another. Job opportunities do not change, and while he doesn’t experience the same type of color prejudice, he does experience it in that the natives of the countries he visits dislike him for being a threat to their jobs.

Artistry is the other large portion of this narrative. He shows several of his poems and discusses when he wrote them and why. Much of his work was strongly influenced by blues songs and structures, which can be seen throughout much of his poetry with the AAB writing format, just as many blues lyrics are written. He also talks about how dance and music were a rich part of many black people’s lives, specifically citing the many rent parties and house parties he went to, some of which were certainly to help pay people’s rent, but others which were just hosted to be hosted. He provides several examples of printed up tickets for these events. He states that these parties were the spaces where he liked to be because black artistry was not put on display for racist white audiences. His understanding of what it is to be a black man or a black person in general is changed and given more value in an all-black space.

However, he also discusses the problems that come with the assumptions that all black people have rhythm and can dance and sing: he could not dance or sing, and those were almost the only jobs available to him in Europe and even in the US. The stereotype led to success for some, but not for long for many: once they were injured or could no longer work or could not work the grueling schedules or create enough new material, they often died in poverty. It ultimately narrowed black people’s options and avenues for success, even as it provided a rich culture and outlet for many. In discussion of his own work, he also talks about how a narrow view of what black artists should create doomed his work Fine Clothes to the Jew because critics and general public readers alike felt that the dialect and blues structures should not be used in his art: white people saw enough of that elsewhere, and writing was supposed to highlight the best to show people that black artists were capable of high art. The strict rules placed upon what a black artist could write or create further limited what people read, and who could be successful in the field of art.

Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness'”

Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of

Darkness.” Massachusetts Review, 1977,

polonistyka.amu.edu.pl/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/259954/Chinua-Achebe,-

An-Image-of-Africa.-Racism-in-Conrads-Heart-of-Darkness.pdf.

Summary of Work
In this article, Achebe discusses the racism that the West holds, particularly in its views of Africa. He builds his argument around Joseph Conrad’s famous novel Heart of Darkness, the story of a narrator’s journey through the Congo to find one Mr. Kurtz. He states that the images, particularly in Conrad’s obsession with blackness and the darkness of not just the Natives’ skin color, but the land itself, shows Africa as the antithesis to England and the rest of the civilized world: Conrad is obsessed with the primitive nature of Africa and its people in an attempt to show that Europe was able to conquer that darkness, but that there is danger in interacting with people and places who have not yet conquered that savagery, because the savagery could engulf the civilized and lead them back to primitivism.

Conrad is unkind to the native peoples in his novel, showing them always in a frenzy, or dying, or otherwise running around. They are not given language, but grunts and sounds and physical actions. The only two times when they are given language are when they are cannibals asking for people to eat or the slave man telling the narrator that Mr. Kurtz is dead: those examples, Achebe states, are purposeful in that they are made to show how horrific these people are and how awful the state they are in as black people. Given these images, it is clear that Conrad is racist, and it is surprising to Achebe that in all the years of scholarship, no one seems to even want to admit that or deal with it. It is a blind spot in the Western world because people in the West have so long used Africa as a foil of themselves, insisting that Africa is as backward as Europe is enlightened. So when people say that they are not aware that Africa has art or history, it is part of that tradition of racism and colonialism. In order for any good or real communication between Africa and Europe and North America to happen, the West must first relinquish its long-held beliefs about the primitiveness of the African continent and the African people.

Discussion of Work
This piece discusses racism in a way that I think is very telling: it shows that what has happened is that the West has fallen prey to a single story about Africa. A single story is powerful, in that it can give people motivations or reasons to conquer or oppress people in the name of “saving” them or bringing them enlightenment of some sort. But as powerful as those stories are, they are also wrong and dangerous because they allow for people to do terrible things by dehumanizing others. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses a very similar thing in a TED Talk that she gives called “The Danger of the Single Story,” where she states that her teachers once told her that her novel was not “authentically African” because people were not poor, starving, or otherwise destitute or unenlightened: her characters looked too much like the average Western person.

The image of Africa and its people as backwards and primitive exists in many forms today, including that we group the whole African continent together as a group and remain largely ignorant to the fact that Africa is composed of many countries, just like the Americas Europe, and Asia. The issues set forth by Achebe in his essay are still very prominent today in that by and large, no one seems to question the idea of the single story of Africa as exactly what Conrad set forth, despite the fact that it was never that way, that there were diverse people, languages, art, and nations. And today, while there certainly are areas of Africa that have poor and starving people who cannot read and live what the West would consider primitive lives, there are far more people who are living in sophisticated cities with functioning governments and thriving businesses; there are people who create wonderful art and products and enjoy many different activities that Western people also enjoy.

The power dynamics inherent in the way we discuss Africa and its people says much about the Western world’s continued need for dominance: a way to prove that they are still more enlightened than the people who live on and descend from ancestors on the African continent. I agree with Achebe’s statement that we cannot just hand the West a happy pass on this issue or offer them a positive note to end the discussion on. Such a positivity cannot come until the West chooses to change its views and discussions on Africa, because the way it is currently being discussed is wrong, and there should be no cookies given out for fixing something that should never have been considered acceptable in the first place.