Keep Up with the Essay One Paragraph at a Time
A New Feature (Almost) Every Friday
March 24, 2023
from “A Letter to Robinson Crusoe”
in Best American Essays 2020
by Jamaica Kincaid
“Please don’t come. Stay home and work things out; your soul, a property you value very much, will be better off for it.”
If you want a short, bracing lesson in imperialism without academic jargon, try on “A Letter to Robinson Crusoe” by Jamaica Kincaid which guts the idea of Robinson Crusoe as a hero and replaces it with the soulless, privileged European marauder that the Irishman James Joyce similarly skewered in our paragraph of the week. Kincaid used Joyce’s paragraph as the epigraph to her essay, and she poses as his servant, Friday. What is missing in Daniel Defoe’s hero, Kincaid argues, is his soul because he uses his adventure to cover up his real existential crisis by “living in a climate that is called paradisiacal.” And he drags Friday into his amnesia to serve his every need. “So dear Mr. Crusoe,” Kincaid tells the adventurer, “Please don’t come. Stay home and work things out; your soul, a property you value very much, will be better off for it.”
Jamaica Kincaid is an essayist born in St. John's, Antigua. She lives in North Bennington, Vermont and is Professor of African and African American Studies in Residence at Harvard University. Kincaid's most famous work is A Small Place, an extended essay about her Caribbean home. “A Letter to Robinson Crusoe,” first published in Book Post, was selected for The Best American Essays 2020. James Joyce is the twentieth century author of the complex and experimental novels Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.
The Paragraph of the Week
The true symbol of the British conquest is Robinson Crusoe, who, cast away on a desert island, in his pocket a knife and a pipe, becomes an architect, a carpenter, a knife grinder, an astronomer, a baker, a shipwright, a potter, a saddler, a farmer, a tailor, an umbrella-maker, and a clergyman. He is the true prototype of the British colonist, as Friday (the trusty savage, who arrives on an unlucky day) is the symbol of the subject races. The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence; the unconscious cruelty; the persistence; the slow yet efficient intelligence; the sexual apathy; the practical, well-balanced religiousness; the calculating taciturnity.
Dear Mr. Crusoe,
Please stay home. There's no need for this ruse of going on a trading journey, in which more often than not the goods you are trading are people like me, Friday. There's no need at all to leave your nice bed and your nice wife and your nice children (everything with you is always nice, except you yourself are not) and hop on a ship that is going to be wrecked in a storm at night (storms like the dark) and everyone (not the cat, not the dog) gets lost at sea except lucky and not-nice-at-all you, and you are near an island that you see in the first light of day and then your life, your real life, begins. That life in Europe was nice, just nice; this life you first see at the crack of dawn is the beginning of your new birth, your new beginning, the way in which you will come to know yourself—not the conniving, delusional thief that you really are, but who you believe you really are, a virtuous man who can survive all alone in the world of a little godforsaken island. All well and good, but why did you not just live out your life in this place, why did you feel the need to introduce me, Friday, into this phony account of your virtues and your survival instincts? Keep telling yourself geography is history and that it makes history, not that geography is the nightmare that history recounts.
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Thanks to Phoebe
Thanks to Phoebe magazine for publishing my prose ode called "Rounding Out the Morning." It is in conversation with Joy Harjo's "Eagle Poem," in particular, these familiar lines
Like eagle rounding out the morning/
Inside us./ We pray that it will be done/
In beauty./ In beauty.—Joy Harjo
My piece begins this way:
I’ve never seen an eagle rounding out the morning inside me, but I have been surprised by broad-winged hawks bursting overhead at dawn from the woods behind my house, their tandem arcs inscribing half circles on the sky before dipping below the tree line, the “true circle of motion” completed
somewhere beyond my sight...
The Beloved Republic
Available at Bookstores and Online
See more at the author's website and check out our video trailers here.
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Thanks to the Brevity Blog for publishing "A Whole Life," the prologue to my new book, The Beloved Republic. It is a defense of the essay collection as miscellany. Click here to read the article. Thanks as well to Solstice magazine for publishing "Two Eternities" in its Winter 2022 print edition. It is a prose ode celebrating, in part, the work of poet Anna Swir.
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Check out Steve's newly revised author site with photos, excerpts, and videos about The Beloved Republic here.
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Announcement: The Beloved Republic
I am pleased to announce that my fourth collection of personal essays called The Beloved Republic is available now for preorder at Amazon here and Barnes & Noble here. It won the Wandering Aengus Press nonfiction award and will be published in February 2023 when it will be available in bookstores and websites. Thanks to the Press for this honor.
What is the Beloved Republic? E. M. Forster, who coined the phrase, called it “an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky” who “have the power to endure” and “can take a joke.” Pitted against authoritarianism, the Beloved Republic is the peaceful and fragile confederacy of kind, benevolent, and creative people in a world of tyrants, thugs, and loud-mouthed bullies. Taking Forster’s phrase for its title, my book can be read as dispatches from that besieged land.
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Folly Beach is a book-length personal essay about easing fears of mortality and loss through creativity. It never loses sight of the inevitable losses that life brings, but doesn't let loss have the last word. In the face of the grim, Folly Beach holds up the human capacity to create as our sufficient joy.
“In a world of loss, creativity is the best revenge.”
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You can learn more about the recent work of Steven Harvey at his author's page here.
We at The Humble Essayist are in love with the paragraph, that lowliest of literary techniques. A sentence stands out as a noble thing: a complete thought. But what is a paragraph? And what, in particular, is a good one? You know it when you read it--that is our article of faith. So on Friday of each week, beginning on Independence Day 2014, the very day 169 years earlier that Henry Thoreau moved to Walden Pond, we will select a single paragraph from an essay or a reflective memoir and print it here along with a paragraph of commentary. We will choose paragraphs that are surprising, beautifully written, and, above all, thematic--illuminating the author's comment on life. Each paragraph of the week is, in short, a concise review of the writer's work. We hope that this page will introduce you to many exciting authors and their ideas.
The Humble Essayist thanks Clipartpal for the public domain artwork of "The Old Man Reading" that is the logo for the site.