One of the greatest books ever written about homemaking – in the physical and metaphysical sense of the word – is The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. This is the strange and surprising story of making a home in a hostile world.
Most everyone knows the story of Daniel Defoe’s immortal novel, first published in 1719. DeFoe himself is a character of great interest: novelist, journalist, politician, secret agent and failed businessmen. He wrote other novels and popular nonfiction, including Conjugal Lewdness (A Treatise concerning the Use and Abuse of the Marriage Bed) and The Political History of the Devil.
These others never achieved the fame of Crusoe. The story is simple, although there are many plot twists. Crusoe is a young man from York, England on the threshold of adulthood when, against the sage advice of his father, he takes up the life of a sailor. The book opens:
I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good Family, tho’ not of that Country, my father being a Foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull: He got a good Estate of Merchandise, and leaving off his trade, lived afterward at York, from whence he had married my Mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that Country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer, but by the usual corruptions of words in England, we are now called, nay, we call ourselves, and write our name Crusoe, and so my companions always call’d me.
Crusoe immediately encounters difficulties. He is soon kidnapped by Muslim pirates and made a slave. He manages to escape and is picked up by a Portuguese trading vessel which transports him to Brazil. After several years as a successful plantation owner, he decides to head for Africa to pick up a ship load of slaves. Crusoe was a man of his time and, more importantly, he was the last to claim he was perfect.
The ship encounters a storm not far from Trinidad and is lost. Crusoe manages to escape and swim to an island. Here he spends 28 years as a shipwreck, most of that time alone.
Crusoe had a way of becoming subsumed in the task of survival. Craftsmanship is more than skill. It is a disposition, a state of mind, and a stance toward the world. The crafted object is idea and spirit made manifest. Robinson Crusoe was the craftsman par excellence. No one has more vividly described the inner world of the craftsman than Daniel DeFoe in his tale of the shipwrecked man on his island. Crusoe cured his solitude. He cured it with manual effort and small acts of creation. The most radically isolated of men, he thus came to live in peace.
Here is DeFoe on Crusoe’s work to make an umbrella:
After this I spent a great deal of Time and Pains to make me an Umbrella. I was indeed in great want of one; I had seen them made in the Brasils, where they are very useful in the great Heats which are there. And I felt the Heats every jot as great here, and greater too, being nearer the Equinox; besides, as I was oblig’d to be much abroad, it was a most useful thing to me, as well for the Rain as for the Heats. I took a world of Pains at it and was a great while before I could make anything likely to hold; nay, after I thought I had hit the Way, I spoil’d two or three before I made one to my Mind; but at last I made one that answered indifferently well: The main difficulty I found was to make it to let down. I could make it spread, but if it did not let down too, and draw in, it was not portable for me any Way but just over my Head, which wou’d not do. However, at last, as I said, I made one to answer, and covered it with Skins, the Hair Upwards, so that it cast of the Rains like a Penthouse, and kept off the Sun so effectually, that I could walk out in the Hottest of the Weather with greater Advantage than I could before in the coolest, and when I had no need of it, cou’d close it and carry it on my Arm.
Thus I liv’d mighty Comfortably, my Mind being entirely composed by resigning to the Will of God, and throwing my self wholly upon the Disposal of his Providence. This made my life better than sociable, for when I began to regret the want of Conversation, I would ask myself whether thus conversing mutually with my own Thoughts, and, as I hope I may say, with even God himself by Ejaculations, was not better than the utmost Enjoyment of humane Society in the World.
And on making Bread:
It might be truly said, that now I work’d for my Bread; ’tis a little wonderful, and what I believe few People have thought much upon, (viz.) the strange multitude of little Things necessary in the Providing, Producing, Curing, Dressing, Making and Finishing this one Article of Bread.
I that was reduced to a meer State of Nature, found this to my daily Discouragement, and was made more and more sensible of it every Hour, even after I had got the first Handful of Seed-Corn, which, as I have said, came up unexpectedly, and indeed to a surprize.
Crusoe’s resourcefulness and zeal for competently feeding, clothing and sheltering himself are chief among these. He never considers poor supplies an excuse for sloth or resignation, making him the frugal homemaker par excellence. It is not drudgery to make his own bread and tend goats. These are works of demanding and vital creativity. Crusoe discovers the hidden ingenuity that lies behind ordinary subsistence.
To be a homemaker, even in a world of ample supplies and technological wonders, requires similar acts of discovery. From every side one is told that the ordinary tasks of survival are insignificant and unworthy of our full attention. These tasks are considered so insignificant that a woman receives very little training in them until one day she finds herself on a domestic island with no choice but to figure it all out on her own and no time to do it.
But it is not in this practical sense alone that Crusoe must create a home for himself. He must create the spiritual conditions of home as well. And, for this, like many a contemporary homemaker, he finds himself ill-equipped. It takes Crusoe long years to discover his own metaphysical needs and to recreate the spiritual conditions of civilization on his island. He has no help from the world at large and, in a decadent and materialistic age, the homemaker does not either.
It’s not quite true that Crusoe has no help from the world at large. Among the supplies he retrieves from the ship before it sinks is a Bible. He begins to read it and slowly but painfully realizes just how shallow and ungrateful he is. Many things transpire in this regard.
It’s also not true that the homemaker has no help. The riches of her culture and past ages are there for the taking. The home may seem an island, but it is not. The universe comes knocking at the front door. It is only for the householder to let it in.
Defoe prophesied an age of radical individualism. And the people of the the eighteenth century understood. They sensed the great changes that were upon them and that before long every man would be his own island.
Defoe penetrated the psychological conditions of modern life with his repentant loner weaving his baskets and growing his barley on a beach. Crusoe, c’est toi.