Posted on

David Wyss’s “The Swiss Family Robinson”





April 5, 2017

Book woodcut by Louis Rhead

Had it not been for the survival narrative of Alexander Selkirk, chances are Robinson Crusoe would never have been written and published.

Johann David Wyss was born in 1748 in Berne, Switzerland. In 1766, he became a military chaplain. Since Robinson Crusoe was the rage during that era, Wyss invented a somewhat similar tale of a Swiss family to amuse his four children. It wasn’t all fiction for it was based on a Russian sea-captain’s report of the discovery of a Swiss pastor and his family that had been shipwrecked on an island near New Guinea. After hearing the story told, Wyss wrote it down in narrative form, but shared it only with members of his own family.

Wyss’s son, Johann Rudolph Wyss, many years later, delivered the manuscript (slightly revised) to a publisher; the first part was published in 1812. For many years, most readers mistakenly assumed that Johann Rudolph Wyss was the writer, but in recent years the correct authorship has been attributed.

Cover illustration of Harper & Brothers Edition of 1909

But that was not the end of it. As the story was originally written, the Swiss family were discovered by a European sailing ship after ten years of being marooned on the island, and were then taken home to Switzerland. But after the first publication, the tale attracted the attention of the Baroness de Montolieu (1751-1832), a French woman of literary inclinations, who translated it into French. After reading the story, she suggested to Johann Rudolph that since the story ended too abruptly, it ought to be developed further. Since he was unable (or unwilling) to tackle that revision himself, he gave the Baroness permission to do so; it was then published in 1824 in French, and in 1826, in German.

Book woodcut by Louis Rhead

And from that point on, the revised edition has been taken to the hearts of millions of readers all over the world. William Dean Howells pointed out that part of the charm of the book for young readers is that the author tells something “fresh on every page. No day passes without its difficulty overcome, its danger escaped, its adventure happily ended. . . . Almost every animal that can be tamed, or that ought to be killed, is found in it; that every beautiful or eatable or companionable bird nests there; that every strange or familiar fruit and vegetable grows on the trees or under the ground.”

I’d read the book when I was young—it was just as much a delight to revisit it. Here are some of my random thoughts:

A powerful book. Very religious. Swiss castaway parents of four boys, somewhere in area of New Guinea several hundred years ago. Builds on the persona of Robinson Crusoe., In every chapter, family shows its inventiveness, versatility, ability to make do. Of course it helps mightily that they can keep returning to the wrecked ship and retrieve more of all the stuff on board (that was originally intended to help a new colony of settlers survive somewhere). Another castaway, Jenny, comes into the story at the very end of the book. To youth who are fascinated by inventiveness and creativity, this book ought to prove an excellent and unforgettable read.A great combination for any bookworm would be to read the trilogy in sequence: Robinson Crusoe, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, and The Swiss Family Robinson. By all means pick up an unabridged copy. My hardback copy of this 1909 Harper edition is lavishly illustrated by Louis Rhead. Besides the original (almost impossible to find) dust-jacket, this edition sports the same wonderful cover illustration tipped-in (hand-glued) on the front of the book. Pages: 602.