A fitting follow up to our class reading of Robinson Crusoe, The Female American; Or, the Adventures of Unca Eliza Winkfield published in 1767 is an anonymous work of fiction published under the guise of being a memoir. It is a Robinsonade, and can I just say how much I love the word Robinsonade? It rolls off the tongue … Robinsonade. Above is a contemporary edition (published in 2000), but that’s not hard core enough for me, so I read the 1800 version, published by Angier March, complete with elongated f’s. Boom! If you’re wondering why I’m so proud of myself for powering through this early printing I have a
hilarious educational photo I took of one of the scanned pages (below).
“I funk in a fwoon on the ground” &c. The page below is my absolute favorite as far as it really becomes funny to have the long f instead of an s. At first I figured that this novel was going to be impossible to read quickly because of the long f’s, but I read aloud for about ten minutes, and was fine aside from the two times she used the word “suck,” which … was still jarring … especially the second time when she was talking about a goat. No! I’m a literary scholar, nothing amuses me! Moving on!
I didn’t have super high hopes for the text itself, probably because I had never heard of it, but that’s incredibly unenlightened of me and I ended up not wanting to put it down. Indeed, I was quite happy to read it in two sittings (unlike Robinson Crusoe which I was quite unhappy to read in one sitting).
It’s clearly a response to Robinson Crusoe with a mixed race woman standing in for Robinson and tricking people in place of all the killing. Unca-as-trickster starts flirting with Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court territory, but quickly backs away from it. Unca, the ‘author’ and narrator of the text, is the daughter of an Englishman and an Amerindian princess. Unca is named after her mother (aka Unca Sr.) who is the younger daughter of a Amerindian king.
Throughout the book they are simply referred to as “Americans,” but I use “Amerindians” for clarity. Unca Sr. saves William Winkfield from execution and he becomes her property. They fall in love, get engaged, and (after Unca’s old sister Alluca tries to kill Winkfield because she loves him, which makes … sense) they get married and move away. Like, a mile away, so even though they’re outside the tribe Alluca immediately orders their execution upon taking the throne. Winkfield dodges the assassin’s blade ninja-style, but another attacker stabs Unca Sr. right in the heart. In a moment of awesome one of her slaves (who loves her because she’s super nice) rips the knife out of her chest and plunges it into the heart of her attacker, killing him instantly. Winkfield orders that the other assassin be taken prisoner and returns him to Alluca, who is so ashamed that she dies, and sends Winkfield her heart, asking him to accept it in death, as her love for him made her become evil. It’s all your fault Winkfield!
This is just the first part of the first Volume and the novel is already super interesting. I was going to completely lambast the Wikipedia page for being terrible when I realized that it’s not bad, it’s just unfinished. The last half of Volume II is completely missing from the summary, which means the last 100+ pages (depending on the edition you read) just aren’t there. Of course being a completely crazy person I was obliged to spend a good part of my Sunday morning updating it. I started with Volume II and Chapter VI and finished the volume … you’re welcome world! I really hope that someone from my class was the one who started the detailed summary because that would be awesome. Note: I continued the use of the word “Indian” in the Wikipedia entry for continuity, though I think the term is inadequate, as Unca is almost certain on an island in South America or the Caribbean. I actually think that making the Wikipedia entry accurate is a public service that will contribute to the distribution of knowledge about the novel, but maybe I’m just off my rocker; I know it makes me a ‘bad scholar’, but that’s another essay for another time.
Regardless, Unca then leaves America with her father and is raised by an uncle in England alongside his children. He father goes back to America (Virginia specifically), and when she is eighteen she rejoins him, but he dies shortly thereafter. She assembles a crew, loads it with her fortune, which is considerable, and tells the captain that he is allowed to keep the boat if she is given safe passage back to England. Of course, Treacherous Captain decides to be a rogue and tries to force her into marrying his son. When she refuses he kills her male servants and wounds her two female attendants, then asks again. Unca refuses again and is left, with a single trunk of possessions, on an island.
Then, because providence, she happens upon a fully furnished dwelling that has food and water and detailed directions for living on the island. Long story short she lives there, gets sick, kills a few goats (with hesitation), kills some birds (without hesitation), runs into the guy who built the house, walls him in the living room when he dies that same night, discovers burial chambers full of gold vestments, survives a tempest, and here’s where it gets a little Lost. No, like Lost, the TV show. Unca finds an iron door on the ground that leads to an underground chamber, inside it is a large (hermaphroditic) idol that she climbs inside. Once inside, her voice is amplified and projected over the island and she realizes that it’s the oracle that the native islanders (mentioned in the directions for living on the island) come to speak to every year. Why there is an iron door on the island is never explained. At all. Was the oracle created to control the islanders? To convince them to worship the sun? Was it created by Europeans? Internally constructed by the priest caste? Who is deceiving whom before Unca arrives? I would honestly love to know because this is a huge, unanswered question in the text.
There is an earthquake which momentarily traps Unca underground and when she gets out she realizes that her dwelling has been destroyed. Unca then decides to use the oracle to convert the natives to Christianity, and secure safe lodging for herself for the remainder of her stay. This is Unca the trickster, but she doesn’t get greedy as we see in Connecticut Yankee. Instead, Unca introduces Christian teachings, but is careful not to disrupt the native islander’s social order by keeping the priestly caste intact. Because Unca is Amerindian she already knows their language, more providence, obviously. She (as the oracle) then tells the natives that she will send someone to them to instruct them in Christianity, and that they have to provide for her and never ask her any questions. They consent and she dresses in the robes of the sun priests and reveals herself to them. The natives accept Unca completely and she lives among them peacefully for years.
Eventually, her cousin arrives while she is visiting her original island. Instead of instantly revealing herself to him she decides to mess with him and his party by speaking through the oracle and then appearing in the gold-and-jewel-encrusted vestments. Everyone but her cousin is terrified, of course, and say she just married Satan, which was clear to them for reasons. Then, of course, they won’t allow her on the ship, and, even though the captain is a friend of her cousin’s, Cousin Winkfield gets left there too. Captain Shore has a fairly large role in the novel, he is a reformed pirate whose last piratical act was capturing the vessel that Unca was on right after it dropped her off on the island. Having resolved to change his ways he finds Unca’s family, brings Captain Treacherous and his crew to justice (they are hanged in England), and takes Unca’s cousin to try and find her.
Captain Shore promises to come back for cousin Winkfield when he can and, in the meantime, Unca’s cousin joins her village and they are married. In another major twist on Robinson Crusoe (who killed about six people and abandoned his original castaway crew to make damn sure he got off his island) when the ship returns Unca, and her new husband decided that they want to stay. Turns out that Captain Shore wants to join their village, and he and cousin Winkfield take the gold from Unca’s original island to buy such things in England as they will need for their life in the village (books mostly). They then, in another parallel to Yankee, explode the oracle and the tunnel so that no one can ever worship or use it again. The manuscript is then sent back to England and it is made clear that none of them intend to have any further contact with Europe.
The novel is fascinating and has a lot of interesting critiques of Robinson Crusoe within it. For example, Unca’s difficulty killing animals, rather than taking joy in it. Shelter is discovered by Unca instead of being laboriously constructed, and Unca decides to live in harmony with the island instead of taking pains to impose Western agriculture upon it (Crusoe’s “castle,” farms, and animal husbandry). Unca is opposed to slavery, even offering to free her attendants if they would rather stay in American than accompany her, and slaves are portrayed as valiant throughout, avenging her mother’s death and protecting her against the Captain Treacherous at the expense of their lives. Crusoe, on the other hand, is a slave owner who is shipwrecked because of a mission to illegally capture slaves for his plantation. Unca is Christian throughout while Crusoe struggles with and eventually embraces Christianity. While Crusoe puts the impetus of conversion on Friday (ie: I’ll convert you and you can go back home and convert everyone else), Unca takes responsibility for instructing all the native islanders. Crusoe designs to impose his social order on the natives (who are cannibals), but Unca desires only to impose Christianity (cannibalism is not mentioned). Crusoe calculates how many “cannibals” he can kill by himself (he amusingly thinks 30 is his top range), while Unca is terrified that Europeans might enslave her village, and takes pains to keep it from being discovered. Unca already knows the language and insists that her husband learn it as well, while Crusoe forces Friday to learn English and tells him that his name is Master (eye roll). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Crusoe spills no small amount of blood to escape the island, while Unca stays and convinces several others to do the same. The “female Robinson Crusoe” is superior to the original in character, and the plot is more satisfying for me because of Unca’s rejection of Europe and embrace of this adopted culture (ironically implied to be her original culture). Not to mention that she’s a mulatto woman being written in 1767 and she is the empowered and independent heroine of the story.
I actually liked the novel so much that I tried to find some scholarship on it and was sorely disappointed since there’s very little out there; perhaps I can contribute somehow. Believe it or not there’s so much more I could add to this discussion, but it’s been three days of writing now and none of it for class so I need to move on to the next project (for now). Next week, Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia,” groan.