Sunday, October 17, 2010

Robinson Crusoe: Master of the Run-On Sentence

Daniel Defoe portrayed Robinson Crusoe as a modestly educated man of middle class entrepreneurial stock, in part by saying so explicitly and in part through the language and grammar of Crusoe's journal.

After Crusoe was shipwrecked on his island and began to establish himself there, he discovered some stalks of rice and barley growing near his home. At first he was touched by God's goodness, but:
At last it occurred to my thoughts that I had shaken a bag of chickens' meat [sic] out in that place, and then the wonder began to cease; and I must confess my religious thankfulness to God's providence began to abate too upon discovering that all this was nothing but what was common; though I ought to have been as thankful for so strange and unforeseen providence as if it had been miraculous: for it was really the work of Providence as to me that should order or appoint that ten or twelve grains of corn [sic] should remain unspoiled (when the rats had destroyed all the rest), as if it had been dropped from heaven; as also that I would throw it out in that particular place, where, it being in the shade of a high rock, it sprang up immediately; whereas, if I had thrown it anywhere else at the time, it had been burned up and destroyed. [pp. 80-81]
What a great sentence!

Another, on his struggle to make ceramics:
It would make the reader pity me, or rather laugh at me, to tell how many awkward ways I took to raise this paste; what odd, misshapen, ugly things I made; how many of them fell in, and how many fell out, the clay not being stiff enough to bear its own weight; how many cracked by the overviolent heat of the sun, being set out too hastily; and how many fell in pieces with only removing as well before as after they were dried; and, in a word, how, after having laboured hard to find the clay, to dig it, to temper it, to bring it home and work it, I could not make above two large earthen ugly things- I cannot call them jars- in about two months' labour. [p.119]
It has been a number of years since I last read Robinson Crusoe, but a few days ago I picked up a 1976 Easton Press edition which claims that the "text faithfully follows that of the first edition" of 1719 and I have been going though that. It was a great favorite of mine in grade school and high school: I read it far too many times to have any recollection just how many. It was at least as often read as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Mysterious Island, more often than other favorites like Penrod, Tarzan of the Apes, A Warlord of Mars, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. I don't remember noticing Crusoe's run-on sentences as a kid, but today they jump out a bit more. Perhaps their crafted flow obscured them earlier. In any case, I think they are wonderful.

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