“So I sold a really beautiful copy of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ today to a nice lady for a Christmas present for her son,” I recounted to Jock. It was dinner and we were having the time-honored discussion of, “How was your day?”
“When chatting with her, I mentioned I had revisited the book this year—and that it was a very different book than I remembered. You know, you hope you change and grow in 25 years, right?”
Jock nodded and chewed thoughtfully. He had endured my frustration with “Robinson Crusoe” when Hilda and I were listening to it as a book on tape while renovating a bathroom at the bed and breakfast.
“When I was little, I loved the adventure story of it, the castaway, and how he did it was a lot like my idea of running away.”
“But as an adult, I am like, ‘You brought all this on yourself, you are such an idiot and a waste of skin.’ Furthermore, as I mentioned to this nice lady, he was alone on that island for over 27 years before he sees Friday. At this point, with a mischievous smile, she interjected, ‘Where was Friday all that time?’”
Jock laughed. “You didn’t point out he was living a perfectly fine life on another island?”
“No, it didn’t seem the time. She did, unfortunately, get the full brunt of my explosion about their first meeting. After 27 years alone on that island, the first other human person he talks to is Friday. And he begins their relationship with instructing Friday to call him, ‘master.’ What a terrible, awful excuse for human life! He deserves to die on that damn island.”
Jock nodded agreement and chuckled. “What did she say?”
“Her eyebrows shot up and she nodded in a surprised way.”
I tend to elicit that response in people. After almost four decades, you would think I would have learned how to temper myself, but I haven’t, sadly.
“I mean I understand this is a 17th-century mindset and 17th-century man, but the complete and total lack of humanity is pretty tough to swallow.”
It is also truly a compliment to the author how he manages to provoke such a strong response in his audience. In the whole of their interactions he never treats Friday as an equal. Almost immediately, he sets out to proselytize to Friday about the Christian faith he developed in his time as a castaway.
Similarly, I reread the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and I find myself marveling at how clearly they are all there of the 1700s. Much like our friend Mr. DeFoe, the writing, especially of the Declaration of Independence, is sweeping, lyrical and captivating. I cannot help but be moved by it. Also like our friend Mr. DeFoe, the lens the authors looked through was woefully small. In both cases, only property-owning, Christian white males were of consequence or importance.
Considering this accounted for a small fraction of the population, I can’t help but wonder just how lonely a club it must have been. But here’s the thing: the Declaration of Independence, United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights and even the work of Mr. DeFoe were all considered forward-thinking and ahead of their time.
DeFoe was a religious dissenter in England and spent time in jail as a result of his religious writings. That was a real thing in England during the colonization of America (just a reminder religious dissent was a big motivator for people to move here). These pieces of writing might be ahead of their time but time also has overtaken all of them. We no longer live in a world where only white, protestant, property-owning men are considered people or citizens with a voice in government.
DeFoe’s work—by virtue of being a novel, a story, a finished, fictionalized piece of writing, not intended to decide the fate of governments and the lives of people as result—is set in stone. It is a glimpse into the past and mindsets of the day: how messages were sent, what investing in shipping was like, how travel occurred, what schooling looked like and other aspects of daily life, all of which have changed drastically for us. The world advanced, and with it, our experiences have broadened and deepened. When I read it now, it’s for insight but not as a guide for how to live life or try to form a better world. It remains relevant as a moral fable—or better yet a cautionary tale. It’s a recounting of what the process of self-sufficient survival on the island looked like for DeFoe.
But the documents of founding America are something different entirely; though, they reflect a similar mindset. We accept they are not set in stone or perfect; hence the ability to amend the Constitution. The acceptance of the phrase “all men are created equal” has a different connotation now than it did in 1776, for sure. We tell ourselves now the connotation includes women, non-binary people, and perhaps most tellingly African Americans, who were considered property (not people) as recently as 1865.
If I am honest, as a reader these documents always have been an ideal and inspiration, something to attempt but not something we have ever achieved as a nation in all actuality. Even when we have grudgingly limped toward enforcing the most basic promises of the American dream through the courts and legislation, we, somehow, still manage to find ways to deny their realities in daily life. That is the power of systemic racism, sexism, classism and xenophobia. Women’s bodies are viewed as a battleground to be controlled and legislated, not inhabited. African Americans, Native Americans, and recent immigrants all face barriers to education, ballot access, fair and just judicial process, and at the most basic level, a sense of safety and security in their own homes.
We are living through one of the strangest times in American history, in the midst of a pandemic that has sent many people home from work with time to read. In one of his later essays, Gore Vidal recounts chatting with JFK about the disappointment of meeting many of the world leaders. The two men discuss how, by the early 1960s, people no longer had long winters that kept them at home reading, studying and reflecting anymore—unlike the thinkers that put together documents that inspired our nation. I don’t know how true that apocryphal story is or isn’t, but part of me wonders if some of the conversations and results we have seen in our own community in the last few months might not be partly a result of more people having time to actually read and reflect upon experiences different from their own.
One of the byproducts of reading, especially fiction, is the ability to empathize with people whose lives are different from our own. I wonder if now might not be the time to reread our country’s documents with an eye toward asking the question: How do I make these promises, these hopes, a reality for all Americans? Because at the heart, at the core of each is the belief that the power of individuals banding together creates change and remakes the world anew.
If you doubt that, let me share one more quick story from the front desk of the bookstore. About two weeks ago, a gentleman walked in to purchase a copy of “Wilmington’s Lie,” the most recent nonfiction book released about the events of 1898 in Wilmington, where the only successful government coup took place on American soil, thanks to white supremacists murdering African Americans (it, basically, looked like a dress rehearsal for Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany). I asked him if this was his first read on the topic because I tend to try to warn people not to look for hope, humanity or redemption in this story. We want that as humans: books and stories to show us glimmers of hope and humanity that shine through toward living a better day.
“At every turn, when someone has the option to do the right thing, they disappoint you.” I indicated the book. “There is no redemption or hope in this. Just brace yourself.”
“No,” he said picking up the book. “The hope and redemption is happening right now on the steps of Thalian Hall.”