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What Does a Catholic Robinson Crusoe Look Like?

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Joseph Bottum - published on 06/01/15 - updated on 06/07/17


she notes that one key difference is that Crusoe is alone for much of his novel, while Evans is part of a group.

More than plot variance is at stake here. It derives from—and expresses—Anderdon’s Catholic sense of God’s work not only in the individual but in community. And in more than a random community, for a key figure in the group is a priest named Don Manuel. “This figurative church,” as Burstein observes, “soon becomes a literal one thanks to Don Manuel’s evangelism.” There’s a necessary sharing of goods (with Acts 4:32 referenced), and gradually, through a series of adventures and deeds more improbable than even Crusoe’s, they establish a life on their island much like Crusoe’s after his finding of Friday.

But where Crusoe takes charge of the island as his English colonial property (which is why Karl Marx read Defoe’s book as a foundational text in the rise of imperialism), The Catholic Crusoeinsists on the transnationalism of the community the marooned people have formed, in parallel to the transnationalism of the Catholic Church. Where Protestantism, in Anderdon’s view, claims the earth’s land as potential colonies and its people as potential slaves, Catholicism understands the weakness of claims to property and wants to raise the native populations to the equality all share at Mass.

This is Victorian anti-Protestant controversialism of a surprisingly high order. Anderdon grasps the Puritan center of Robinson Crusoe and inverts it into a claim of Catholic superiority. The colonial ownership of the island ends with the island’s destruction in a volcanic explosion—for property is temporary, and only the conversion to Catholicism is gained by the people who lived there. Rescued at last by a Spanish ship, Evans settles back in Protestant England (where “being a Catholic stood in my way at every turn”), while Don Manuel continues his proselytizing far off on another pagan island (where there are hints he will be martyred).

So what can we draw from this? If Anderdon is right in The Catholic Crusoe, then a genuinely Catholic fiction would have to insist on community, rather than the individual’s state of mind, and that insistence would usually require the presence of a priest so the sacraments can perform their communal function. It would allow the direct action of the supernatural in miracles and wonders—even while, in its endings, it would tend to find the physical world an unsatisfactory, if not a downright deceptive, expression of either justification or sanctification. It would not typically see marriage as definitively completing the plot-arc of fiction. And it would be prone to a violence, in its endings, that perhaps presages the Apocalypse but certainly destroys the settled conclusions toward which novels often lean.

It’s an old line that if you want to understand an age, you need to read to its second-rate thinkers even more than its first-rate thinkers. And similarly, it may be that the deep problems and deep successes of the novel as an art form are more visible in mediocre work than in the classics of the genre. Fr. W.H. Anderdon’s Catholic Crusoeisn’t good enough to answer the question of Catholic fiction, but it’s good enough to pose for us that question—forcing Catholic artists to ask how much of Defoe’s Protestant art form is left, when we try to write novels as Catholics. 

Joseph Bottum is a bestselling essayist in the Black Hills of South Dakota and author of An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

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