Daniel Carleton Gajdusek
Defoe, Daniel (1660–1731)
DEFOE, DANIEL (1660–1731)
DEFOE, DANIEL (1660–1731), English journalist, economist, and travel writer, often considered to be the first English novelist. Daniel Defoe wrote approximately 560 books, pamphlets, and journal articles, many of which were anonymously or pseudonymously published. Little is known about his early life other than that he was the first son of James Foe, a tallow chandler in the City of London (the family changed its name to Defoe c. 1695). The Foes were Puritans, and, because they were Dissenters (or Nonconformists), the 1662 Act of Uniformity forbade them to practice their religion or educate their children. Nevertheless, Daniel was schooled at Morton's Academy for Dissenters in Newington Green, North London, and considered becoming a Nonconformist minister himself before eventually deciding to follow his father into the City of London. He started his career as a hosiery merchant in 1681. He married Mary Tuffley c. 1683/1684, and in 1685 left London to join the Duke of Monmouth's rebellion, probably fighting in the Battle of Sedgemoor. Defoe produced his first piece of published writing in 1688, a pamphlet denouncing the reigning monarch, James II (ruled 1685–1688).
With the accession of William of Orange in 1688 (William III; ruled 1688–1702), Defoe began a career as a political pamphleteer, but he also independently traded wine, spirits, tobacco, and textiles. His enterprises being unsuccessful, however, he was declared bankrupt in 1692, and was subsequently imprisoned in the Fleet and King's Bench Prisons for insolvency. Turning to pamphleteering for a living, in 1700 Defoe published "The True-Born Englishman," a satiric verse defending the Dutch King William III, and detailing England's multicultural past. Defoe was again imprisoned for six months in 1703 for another controversial pamphlet, "The Shortest Way with Dissenters," which ironically demanded the savage suppression of Nonconformists. In 1707 he began publishing the triweekly A Review of the State of the British Nation, which ran until 1713. Enjoying a busy career as a journalist, in 1704 he was employed by the secretary of state, Robert Harley, on a secret mission to tour England and Wales, ostensibly to report on the development of trade, but covertly to monitor and report back on any cells of Jacobite rebellion. During this period of traveling, Defoe gathered material for his extraordinary travel book, A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (3 vols., 1724), which describes the people, places, and trades of the nation in great detail (though sections of the text were plagiarized from earlier travel books). The Tour was supplemented in 1746 with a Tour thro' that Part of Great-Britain called Scotland.
Defoe's first foray into fiction came in 1719 when, at the age of sixty, he anonymously published Robinson Crusoe, which describes the life of a shipwrecked mariner, to some extent based on the real-life experiences of the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk. Robinson Crusoe was an immediate success for Defoe, and its publication initiated a prolific period of fiction writing including Captain Singleton (1720), an adventure story, and, in 1722, Defoe's second success, Moll Flanders, which purported to be an autobiography of a resourceful pick-pocket who lived in London and on the plantations of Virginia. Also in 1722 Defoe published The History of Peter the Great, Colonel Jack, and the historical fiction, A Journal of the Plague Year, which claimed to be an eyewitness account of events during the 1664–1665 Great Plague in London. In 1724 Defoe published his last, and possibly his darkest, fiction, Roxana, whose eponymous, tragic heroine dies in a debtors' prison after living a life of deception, which Defoe suggests was the result of her marrying a profligate man who abandoned her and their children. Defoe's fiction, which often drew on his own experiences of speculative enterprise, being in debt, and struggling to reconcile real life with a spiritual life, blended spiritual autobiography, journalism, and travel writing, and was original for its realistic subject matter and powerful, plain prose. Often regarded as the first novelist, Defoe certainly set a pattern for similar fiction writing, especially the novels of mid-century writers Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and Laurence Sterne.
In his final years, Defoe published two economic texts, The Complete English Tradesman (1725) and Augusta Triumphans: A Plan of the English Commerce (1728). Ironically, despite his personal interest in trade, and his successes as a bestselling pamphleteer and writer of fiction, Defoe died in poverty in his lodgings in Ropemaker's Alley, in Moorfields, London.
See also Dissenters, English ; English Literature and Language ; Fielding, Henry ; Jacobitism ; James II (England) ; Richardson, Samuel ; Smollett, Tobias ; Sterne, Laurence ; William and Mary .
Defoe, Daniel. The Complete English Tradesman (1725). 2 vols. 2nd ed. New York, 1969.
——. The Englishman's Choice, and True Interest. 1694. Ann Arbor, Mich. [On-line.] Available: http://www.lib.umich.edu/eebo/projdes/pddefoe.html.
——. The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders. Edited by G. A. Starr. London, 1981.
——. The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Edited by C. H. Irwin. London, 1925.
——. The History and Remarkable Life of the Truly Honourable Colonel Jack. Edited by Samuel Holt Monk. London, 1965.
——. History of the Union of Great Britain. 1709. In Writings on Travel, Discovery, and History. 2 sets of 4 vols., edited by W. R. Owens and P. N. Furbank. London, 2001–2002.
——. A Journal of the Plague Year: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Contexts, Criticism. Edited by Paula R. Backscheider. New York, 1992.
——. The Letters of Daniel Defoe. Edited by George Harris Healy. Oxford, 1955.
——. The Life, Adventures, and Pyracies of the Famous Captain Singleton. Edited by Shiv K. Kumar. Oxford, 1969.
——. The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Edited by Donald J. Crowley. Oxford, 1972; repr. 1999.
——. Romances and Narratives by Daniel Defoe. Edited by George Atherton Aitken. 16 vols. London, 1895.
——. Roxana, the Fortunate Mistress. Edited by John Mullan. Oxford, 1996.
——. Selected Poetry and Prose of Daniel Defoe. Edited by M. F. Shugrue. New York, 1968.
——. The Shortest-Way with Dissenters; Or, Proposals for the Establishment of the Church. 1702. Harvard Classics. English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay. [On-line.] Available: http://www.bartleby.com/27/12.html.
Backscheider, Paula R. Daniel Defoe: Ambition and Innovation. Lexington, Ky., 1986.
——. Daniel Defoe: His Life. Baltimore, 1989.
Novak, Maximillian E. Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions: His Life and Ideas. Oxford and New York, 2001.
——. Defoe and the Nature of Man. Oxford, 1963.
Rogers, Pat, ed. Daniel Defoe: The Critical Heritage. London, 1972; repr. 1995.
Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. London, 1957.
BORN: 1660, London, England
DIED: 1731, London, England
GENRE: Novels, essays, poetry
The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719)
The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders (1721)
A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)
A Fortunate Mistress (1724)
Daniel Defoe has been called the father of both the novel and modern journalism. In his novels, Defoe combined elements of spiritual autobiography, allegory, and so-called “rogue biography” with stylistic techniques including dialogue, setting, symbolism, characterization, and, most importantly, irony to fashion some of the first realistic narratives in English fiction. With this combination, Defoe popularized the novel among a growing middleclass readership. In journalism, he pioneered the lead article, investigative reporting, advice and gossip columns, letters to the editor, human interest features, background articles, and foreign-news analysis.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Persecution, Plague, and Fire Defoe was born sometime in 1660, the youngest of three children, to James and Alice Foe in the parish of St. Giles Cripplegate, just north of the old center of London. The year 1660 also marked the restoration of the monarchy in England. King Charles I had been executed in 1649, and the British monarchy was abolished. The English king was considered head of the Anglican Church, so the execution of Charles I had religious meaning as well. England was ruled by a representative, and Puritan, government for the first time, headed by Oliver Cromwell. Defoe's parents were Presbyterians and Cromwell supporters. Thus the return of the Royalists (supporters of Charles II) was something of a tragedy for them and others of their faith, for they were Nonconformists or Dissenters to the established Church of England. The Royalists established a series of punitive laws against Dissenters, much as the Puritans had done to Anglicans during Cromwellian times. Thus young Daniel Defoe was plagued from his earliest years by a sense of ostracism and discrimination on account of his beliefs.
Little is known of Defoe's youth, but it is highly likely that he was on some level influenced by the Great Plague of 1665, which at its peak killed one thousand people a week in London, and the Great Fire of London in 1666, which halted the plague but devastated the city. Defoe would later write of the plague, although it is doubtful whether he actually experienced it on a personal level. The Great Fire, however, certainly touched Defoe more closely, for it transformed London from a city of wood to a modern metropolis rebuilt in brick and stone.
A Scholar and Businessman When he was sixteen, Defoe attended an academy in Newington Green, north of London, operated by the Reverend Charles Morton. As Dissenters, members of the Foe family were barred from attending the elite universities at Oxford or Cambridge, but at Morton's academy Defoe gained an enduring love of science. He also developed an ability to write with not only clarity but also “Energy,” as he termed it.
After three years there, he set out into the world of business. Off and on for the rest of his life, Defoe would work as a businessman in England and Scotland. In his career, he sold stockings, speculated in land, expeditions, and inventions, imported goods from Continental Europe and the New World, and operated brick and tile works. He was at times successful, at others careless, and often unfortunate. By 1703, his business dealings had forced him to suffer several lawsuits, two terms in prison, and two bankruptcies.
In 1684 he married Mary Tuffley, the daughter of a successful merchant. They would have seven children together (though by some accounts Mary is believed to have given birth to at least eight), yet little is known about Mary and the relationship the couple shared.
Politics and Intrigue During the 1680s and 1690s, Defoe's activities centered on two fronts: commerce and political involvement. His far-flung business and investment ventures culminated in bankruptcy in 1692, and he was left owing his creditors the monumental sum of seventeen thousand pounds. Before this point he had already spent two terms in debtors' prison; with bankruptcy he sought refuge in London's Whitefriars, the site of a former monastery that remained a sanctuary where warrants could not be served. There he came into contact with thieves and prostitutes, characters who would later fill the pages of his fiction.
In 1697 he published his first important work, Essay upon Projects, and four years later made his name known with his long poem The True-Born Englishman, his effort to counter a growing English xenophobia, or hatred of foreigners. This poem, which satirized the prejudices of his fellow countrymen and called the English a race of mongrels, sold more copies in a single day than any other poem in English history. It was about this time that Daniel Foe began calling himself Defoe.
In 1702's The Shortest Way with Dissenters, Defoe wrote anonymously in the voice of those who would further limit the rights of Dissenters, exaggerating their positions in an attempt to make them appear absurd. Unfortunately, Defoe's satire was grossly misunderstood. He won scorn from both sides of the issue and was accused of seditious libel, lying to stir up rebellion against the government. Once arrested, he was forced to spend three consecutive days in the stocks, each day in a different part of London. The authorities thought that such a punishment might lead to death for the headstrong writer, as did Defoe, who attempted to mellow public sentiment against him by writing another poem, A Hymn to the Pillory. It was published on the very day he was put into the stocks; instead of stones, those who came to see his punishment threw flowers.
Defoe's time in hiding and his prison term sent his business into chaos, forcing him to declare bankruptcy for a second time. Thus, when a proposal to work for the Tories was put to him, Defoe readily agreed. His prison term was cut short on condition that he work for the Catholic monarchy, turning his considerable propaganda powers to the service of the state rather than the criticism of it. Among other duties, he spied on fellow Dissenters and others who were against the ruling government.
Working for Secretary of State Robert Harley for a fee of two hundred pounds a year, Defoe founded the Review of the Affairs of France, with Observations on Transactions at Home in 1704 and continued writing it for over nine years. That the paper promoted Harley's views—pro-Anglican, anti-Dissenter, against foreign entanglements—did not seem to bother Defoe, who had the ability to write from different perspectives. He produced the journal two to three times per week for almost a decade, laying it to rest in June of 1713. During that period he sowed the seeds for modern journalism, exploring the issues of the day through reporting and commentary while including poetry, letters to the editor, advice columns, and schedules for local events.
Robinson Crusoe Defoe's lasting fame for most readers lies with the book that he published in 1719, The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner, better known to modern readers simply as Robinson Crusoe. Defoe had long been developing the tools of his trade: point of view, dialogue, characterization, and a sense of scene. With Robinson Crusoe he put these together for the first time in a continuous creative product. Employing the form of a travel biography, the work tells the story of a man marooned on a Caribbean island. He quickly followed it with The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1720).
Like all great creative works, Robinson Crusoe lends itself to myriad interpretations: as an allegorical representation of the British Empire, an attack on economic individualism and capitalism, a further installment in the author's spiritual biography, and as a lightly veiled allegory of Defoe's own life. Most importantly, however, is the fact that the novel was read widely by Defoe's contemporaries in England. It was the first work to become popular among the middle and even lower classes, who could identify with Crusoe's adventures.
With the success of Robinson Crusoe, Defoe saw that he might turn even a better profit than he had with his poetry and pamphlets. As a result, the period 1719–1724 saw an enormous output of work.
1722–1724 In 1722, Defoe published Moll Flanders as well as Journal of the Plague Year and Colonel Jack. He was not content, however, with this achievement, but interspersed the fiction with several nonfiction books of history and social and religious manners. Another fictional biography, Moll Flanders is told by Moll herself to a rather embarrassed editor who cleans up her language. In its pages, Defoe was able to use the criminals and prostitutes he had rubbed shoulders with during his time in hiding and in jail.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Defoe's famous contemporaries include:
William Kidd (c. 1645–1701): Scottish sailor and pirate who allegedly left buried treasure in either Japan or the Caribbean.
Louis XIV (1638–1715): French king known as the Sun King; he centralized state authority and was a patron of the arts.
Catherine I (1684–1727): the first woman to rule Russia; wife and widow of Peter the Great.
Jonathan Swift (1667–1745): Anglo-Irish poet, political writer, and satirist; best known for Gulliver's Travels (1726) and A Modest Proposal (1729).
A Journal of the Plague Year is a historical novel set during the London Plague of 1665 and 1666. The novel is narrated by one “H. F.,” a man likely modeled on
Defoe's own uncle, Henry Foe. Colonel Jack, another biographical novel, is set in the underworld of thieves and pickpockets, and traces Jack's fortunes as he tries to succeed through honest work. A Fortunate Mistress (1724), better known as Roxana, the last of Defoe's novels, introduces Defoe's first introspective narrator, foreshadowing the psychological novels that would someday follow. Many critics claim Roxana to be Defoe's most complex and artistic work, though it has not retained the same popularity as has Robinson Crusoe or Moll Flanders.
Later Years After Roxana, Defoe concentrated almost exclusively on longer nonfiction works. By the mid-1720s, his journalistic career came to an end when it was discovered that Defoe had been working as a government agent all the while, spying on other publishers. Over the years, he founded several journals, but these also had ceased publication by 1725. In 1729 legal proceedings were initiated against Defoe; with creditors on his track again, the writer once more went into hiding to avoid jail. Leaving his family behind in the suburbs, Defoe took lodgings in a section of London near where he was born, but he suffered from gout and kidney stones. Defoe died in hiding on April 26, 1731. Obituaries of the day spoke of Defoe's varied writing abilities and his promotion of civic and religious freedom, but none mentioned that he was the author of either Robinson Crusoe or Moll Flanders.
Works in Literary Context
An English Breed of Novel Robinson Crusoe is considered by some to be the first true English novel and by others to be the immediate precursor to the novels of Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding. John Robert Moore notes that before Robinson Crusoe “there was no English novel worth the name, and no book (except the Bible) widely accepted among all classes of English and Scottish readers.” Irish author James Joyce also recognized Crusoe as a model of the Englishman, commenting that “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.”
Rogue Biography Not considered quite decent in its day, Moll Flanders was nonetheless popular with the reading public. As with Charles Dickens in his novel Oliver Twist, Defoe brings the criminal element vibrantly to life within its pages. Its form is an extension of what was known as rogue biography. Naturalistic novels such as É mile Zola's Nana (1880) and Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900) opened up the possibilities of a critical evaluation of Moll Flanders, just as the relaxed moral standards of the 1960s made possible the republication of John Cleland's Fanny Hill (1749), which was influenced by Defoe's work.
Precursor to the Gothic Novel Journal of the Plague Year developed new fictional ground that would later be taken over by the gothic novel. Defoe's prose style conveys a sense of gripping immediacy; he frequently works with loose sentences that tend to accumulate in the manner of breathless street gossip and unpremeditated outcome, thus making his Journal a compelling work of art that possesses, as Anthony Burgess has noted, “the truth of the conscientious and scrupulous historian, but its deeper truth belongs to the creative imagination.” Along with Robinson Crusoe, Journal of the Plague Year formed a model for the exploitation of dramatic and sublime scenes in the novel, effects that the gothic novel would later borrow to good effect.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Robinson Crusoe is a meditation on the human condition and an argument for challenging traditional notions about that condition. With this work, Defoe applied and thereby popularized modern realism. Modern realism holds that truth should be discovered at the individual level by verification of the senses. The following titles represent other modern realist works.
Candide (1759), a novel by Voltaire. This novel parodies German philosopher Gottfried Leibnitz's philosophy of optimism, which states that since God created the world and God is perfect, everything in the world is ultimately perfect.
Don Quixote (1605), a novel by Miguel de Cervantes. One of the great comic figures of world literature, drawn with realist and humanist techniques, Don Quixote is an idealistic but delusionary knight-errant with an illiterate but loyal squire, Sancho Panza.
Peer Gynt (1867), a play by Henrik Ibsen. This play, originally a long poem, pokes fun at then-emerging trends about getting back to nature and simplicity and asks questions about the nature of identity; the main character longs for freedom in a world that demands commitment.
Gulliver's Travels (1726), a novel by Jonathan Swift. A political satire in the form of an adventure, this novel examines the question of rationality being the greatest human quality, versus humankind's inborn urge to sin.
Works in Critical Context
“Defoe's literary reputation is probably higher today than it has ever been,” Maximillian Novak has stated. “Many modern critics look to Robinson Crusoe, along with Cervantes's Don Quixote, as a key work in the formation of
the novel; and Moll Flanders, Journal of the Plague Year, and Roxana have been praised as masterpieces.”
Robinson Crusoe Despite its popular acceptance, Robinson Crusoe received a mixed reception from scholars of Defoe's time, who found the novel to be un-Christian in tone. Academics also attacked it for being wildly improbable. Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of the first to applaud Robinson Crusoe as a highly instructive book, in 1762. Novelist Sir Walter Scott in 1827 praised Robinson Crusoe for its realism. Defoe's stature continued to grow during the nineteenth century. His eighteenth-century reputation as a literary hack who was willing to write for any cause was replaced by a close study of his work that showed he was the equal of his contemporary Jonathan Swift and one of the fathers of the English novel. Virginia Woolf, in her Collected Essays, called Robinson Crusoe “a masterpiece,” and went on to note that “it is a masterpiece because Defoe has throughout kept consistently to his own sense of perspective.” Crusoe has been seen as a representative of mankind at struggle with nature, or religion, or himself. Karl Marx and others have found much to do with the economic nature of man in Crusoe's experience on the island. Although James Joyce explored the colonialist theme of Robinson Crusoe as early as 1911, his comments were not published until 1964. Since then, writers such as Toni Morrison, Derek Walcott, and Edward Said have viewed the novel as an allegory of colonialism.
Moll Flanders Most modern criticism of Moll Flanders focuses on the sense of sin and repentance in the novel. On the surface, Moll repents the sinful ways of her past, yet Defoe's realistic tone in describing these past events seems to contradict this high moral purpose. Some critics attribute conscious irony to Defoe and maintain that Defoe was satirizing the puritanical rules of his day. On the other side of the argument are critics such as Ian Watt, who believes that if there is irony in Defoe, it is unintended.
Responses to Literature
- Much of Defoe's success as a journalist—and as a spy—came from being able to argue in favor of issues he did not support. How important is it to be able to argue the other side of an argument? Does it lead to a better understanding of the issues, or is it simply a sign of someone who cannot make up his or her mind?
- Defoe worked undercover as a spy and lived in hiding or in jail for long periods of time. Do you think that changed how he saw the world? If you had to be separated from your family for a long time, how would that change you?
- The popular TV show Survivor implies that the only way to survive is by “playing a game” and deceiving other people. Research Karl Marx's ideas about capitalism. Keeping in mind that the point of Survivor is to win money, write an essay examining how Marx and Defoe would view the show.
- Robinson Crusoe sparked interest in adventure stories set on desert islands. Research two or three adventure stories from different periods, such as Swiss Family Robinson, Treasure Island, and Lord of the Flies. Are they just exciting stories, or do they have a serious point? Write an essay discussing the point of these stories, and how that point changes over time.
Backscheider, Paula R. Daniel Defoe: Ambition and Innovation. Lexington.: University Press of Kentucky, 1986.
Ellis, Frank H., ed. Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Robinson Crusoe. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1969.
Defoe, Daniel (1660–1731)
Defoe, Daniel (1660–1731)
Defoe, Daniel (1660–1731), English novelist, journalist, poet, and government agent. Daniel Defoe wrote more than 500 books, pamphlets, articles, and poems. Among the most productive authors of the Augustan Age, he was the first of the great 18th-century English novelists.
Daniel Defoe was the son of a dissenting London tallow chandler or butcher. He early thought of becoming a Presbyterian minister, and in the 1670s he attended the Reverend Charles Morton's famous academy near London. In 1684 he married Mary Tuffley, who brought him the handsome dowry of £3,700. They had seven children. Defoe participated briefly in the abortive Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 but escaped capture and punishment. From 1685 through 1692 he engaged in trade in London as a wholesale hosier, importer of wine and tobacco, and part owner and insurer of ships. In later life he also dealt in real estate and manufactured bricks.
Defoe evidently knew King William III; indeed, his bankruptcy in 1692 for the enormous sum of £17,000 was primarily because of losses suffered from underwriting marine insurance for the King. Although he settled with his creditors in 1693, he was plagued by the threat of bankruptcy throughout his life and faced imprisonment for debt and libel seven times.
Arrested in 1703 for having published The Shortest Way with the Dissenters in 1702, Defoe was tried and sentenced to stand in the pillory for 3 days in July. He languished in Newgate Prison, however, until Robert Walpole released him in November and offered him a post as a government agent. Defoe continued to serve the government as journalist, pamphleteer, and secret agent for the remainder of his life. The most long-lived of his 27 periodicals, the Review (1704–1713), was especially influential in promoting the union between England and Scotland in 1706–1707 and in supporting the controversial Peace of Utrecht (1713).
Defoe published hundreds of political and social tracts between 1704 and 1719. During the 1720s he contributed to such weekly journals as Mist's and Applebee's, wrote criminal biographies, and studied economics and geography as well as producing his major works of fiction. He died in a comatose lethargy in Ropemaker's Alley on April 24, 1731, while hiding from a creditor who had commenced proceedings against him.
Defoe's interests and activities reflect the major social, political, economic, and literary trends of his age. He supported the policies of William III and Mary after the Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689, and analyzed England's emergence as the major sea and mercantile power in the Western world. He pleaded for leniency for debtors and bankrupts and defended the rights of Protestant dissenters. Effectively utilizing newspapers and journals to make his points, he also experimented with the novel form, which was still in its infancy.
His Nonfiction. No brief account of Defoe's works can do more than hint at the range, variety, and scope of his hundreds of publications. His first major work, An Essay upon Projects (1697), which introduced many topics that would reappear in his later works, proposed ways of providing better roads, insurance, and education, and even planned a house for fools to be supported by "a Tax upon Learning, to be paid by the Authors of Books."
In 1701 Defoe published The True-Born Englishman, the most widely sold poem in English up to that time. He estimated that more than 80,000 copies of this defense of William III against the attacks of John Tutchin were sold. Although Defoe's prose satire against the tyranny of the Church of England, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702), led to his arrest, the popularity of his Hymn to the Pillory (1703) indicated the favor that he had found with the London public. From 1704 to 1713 in his monumental Review, Defoe discussed almost every aspect of the political, economic, and social life of Augustan England.
Defoe's allegorical moon voyage, The Consolidator: Or Memoirs of Sundry Transactions from the World in the Moon (1705), reviews the political history of the previous century, defends his political activities, and describes the ingenious machine which lifts the narrator to Terra Luna: a chariot powered by 513 feathers, one for each member of the British Parliament. His Appeal to Honour and Justice (1715) is perhaps his most moving and personal account of his services to the English crown.
Robinson Crusoe . At the age of 59, after a full career as businessman, government servant, political pamphleteer, and journalist, Defoe embarked upon a career as novelist and within 6 years produced the half-dozen novels which have given him his greatest fame.
In April 1719 Defoe published his most enduring work, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. The immediate success of the story of the shipwrecked Crusoe's solitary existence on a desert island for more than 20 years, of his encounter with the native Friday, and of his eventual rescue inspired Defoe to write The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe later in 1719 and Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprizing Adventures in 1720. That year he published another travel novel, The Life, Adventures, and Pyracies of the Famous Captain Singleton.
The greatness of Robinson Crusoe lies not only in Defoe's marvelously realistic descriptive passages but in the fact that the novel recounts one of the great myths of Western civilizationman's ability to endure, survive, and conquer a hostile environment. As a fictional adaptation of the story of Alexander Selkirk, who had been stranded on an island near Chile early in the century, the novel shows Augustan England's interest in travel literature, religious allegory, and mercantilist economics.
Other Major Fiction. Defoe published comparatively little in 1721 because he was hard at work on the three major books that were to appear the following year. In January 1722 he published The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, probably the most successful of his novels. Its irony, vivid details, and psychologically valid individual scenes more than compensate for its structural weaknesses. The elderly Moll writes of her early life, of her five husbands, of her life as a prostitute, and of her adventures as a thief.
A Journal of the Plague Year, issued in March 1722, presents a stunning picture of life in London during the Great Plague of 1665, and it was thought to be history rather than fiction for more than a hundred years. The third important novel to appear in 1722, The History and Remarkable Life of the Truly Honourable Col. Jacque, was published in December. In this study of a young man's rise to gentility, Defoe characteristically combined a brilliant command of detail and individual scene with an interesting but awkwardly plotted story.
Defoe published The Fortunate Mistress; or, . . . Roxana early in 1724. Though Roxana moves in a more fashionable world than did Moll Flanders, she shares with Moll native cunning and an instinct for self-preservation. Like Moll Flanders, Roxana juxtaposes moral homilies with titillating narrative passages. In 1724 Defoe also published A Tour Thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain, one of the most thorough and fascinating guide-books of the period.
The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard (1724), one of Defoe's finest criminal biographies, was followed in 1725 by The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild. Defoe's intimate knowledge of London's underworld and of its prisons explains the vitality and accuracy of these hastily written criminal lives. These works also display his characteristically clear, strong, idiomatic English prose.
Although he continued to write until his death in 1731, only a few of Defoe's later works are worthy of note: The Complete English Tradesman (1725), The Political History of the Devil (1726), A New Family Instructor (1727), and Augusta Triumphans (1728), which was Defoe's plan to make "London the most flourishing City in the Universe."
Died: April 24, 1731
English writer, journalist, and poet
Daniel Defoe was the first of the great eighteenth-century English novelists. He wrote more than five hundred books, pamphlets, articles, and poems.
Education, marriage, and early career
Little is known about the birth and early childhood of Daniel Defoe, as no baptism record exists for him. It is likely that he was born in London, England, in 1660. James Foe, his father, was a butcher by trade and also a Protestant Presbyterian (considered to be a person who thought differently and did not believe in or belong to the Church of England). (Daniel Defoe added the De to his original last name Foe when he was forty.) He had a sister, Elizabeth, who was born a year earlier. When he was ten, his mother died. He had early thoughts of becoming a Presbyterian minister, and in the 1670s he attended the Reverend Charles Morton's famous academy near London.
In 1684 Defoe married Mary Tuffley, who brought him the handsome dowry of 3,700 pounds. They had seven children. Defoe participated briefly in the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, a Protestant uprising, but escaped capture and punishment. From 1685 through 1692 he engaged in trade in London as a wholesale hosiery agent, an importer of wine and tobacco, and part owner and insurer of ships.
Defoe evidently did business with King William III (1650–1702). He suffered losses from underwriting marine insurance for the king and was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1692. Although he settled with the people to whom he owed money in 1693, he faced the threat of bankruptcy throughout his life and faced imprisonment for debt and libel (the crime of writing or publishing untrue statements that harm other people) seven times.
Journalist and secret agent
Arrested in 1703 for having published The Shortest Way with the Dissenters in 1702, Defoe was tried and sentenced, put before public abuse, and taken to prison. Robert Walpole (1676–1745) released him five months later and offered him a post as a government agent. Defoe continued to serve the government as journalist, pamphleteer, and secret agent for the remainder of his life. The most long-lived of his twenty-seven periodicals, the Review (1704–1713), was especially influential in promoting the union between England and Scotland in 1706 and 1707 and in supporting the controversial Peace of Utrecht of 1713 (one of the greatest peace settlements in history that balanced power in Europe).
His nonfiction—essays, poems
Defoe published hundreds of political and social documents between 1704 and 1719. His interests and activities reflect the major social, political, economic, and literary trends of his age. He supported the policies of William III and Mary after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and 1689, and analyzed England's growth as the major sea and mercantile (having to do with merchandise and trade) power in the Western world. He pleaded for sympathy for debtors and defended the rights of Protestant dissenters (people who opposed the beliefs of the Church of England). He used newspapers and journals to make his points.
His first major work, An Essay upon Projects (1697), proposed ways of providing better roads, insurance, and education to be supported by "a Tax upon Learning, to be paid by the Authors of Books." Many of these topics reappeared in his later works.
In 1701 Defoe published The True-Born Englishman, the most widely sold poem in English up to that time. He estimated that more than eighty thousand copies of this defense of William III against the attacks of John Tutchin were sold. Although Defoe's The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702), which ridiculed the harshness of the Church of England, led to his arrest, the popularity of his Hymn to the Pillory (1703) indicated the favor that he had found with the London public.
At the age of fifty-nine, after a full career as businessman, government servant, political pamphleteer, and journalist, Defoe began a career as novelist. Within six years he produced six novels, all of which gave him his greatest fame.
In 1719 Defoe published his most lasting work, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. The success of the story inspired Defoe to write The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe later in 1719 and Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprizing Adventures in 1720. That year he published another travel novel, The Life, Adventures, and Pyracies of the Famous Captain Singleton.
Other major fiction
Defoe published comparatively little in 1721, because he was hard at work on the three major books that were to appear the following year. In January 1722 he published The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, probably the most successful of his novels. A Journal of the Plague Year, issued in March 1722, presented a picture of life in London during the Great Plague of 1665; it was thought to be history rather than fiction for more than a hundred years. His third novel, The History and Remarkable Life of the Truly Honourable Col. Jacque, was published in December 1722.
In 1724 and 1725 Defoe published four successful books, each displaying his characteristically clear, strong English words. The Fortunate Mistress; or, … Roxana was the first of three in 1724. The second, A Tour Thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain was one of the most thorough guidebooks of the period, and the third, The History of the Remarkable Life of John, was one of his finest criminal biographies. The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild was the fourth book, published in 1725.
Last Works and death
Although he continued to write, only a few of Defoe's later works are worthy of note: The Complete English Tradesman (1725), The Political History of the Devil (1726), A New Family Instructor (1727), and Augusta Triumphans (1728), which was Defoe's plan to make "London the most flourishing City in the Universe."
Daniel Defoe died at age seventy-one on April 24, 1731, outside of London, England.
For More Information
Moore, John Robert. A Checklist of the Writings of Daniel Defoe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1960.
Secord, Arthur W. Studies in the Narrative Method of Defoe. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1924.
From a Dissenting Family.
In his relatively long life, Daniel Defoe had an enormous influence on journalism and the early English novel. He had been born Daniel Foe in rather humble circles. His father was a London butcher, and although he was fairly prosperous, his status as a dissenter prevented his son from attending university. He was sent instead to a school for nonconformists, those who refused to conform to the rites of the Anglican Church. He seems to have intended to follow a career as a minister, but by 23 he was married and working as a hosier. By this time, he had already traveled extensively in Continental Europe. In the constitutional controversies that developed in England in the 1680s, Defoe supported the Glorious Revolution settlement, and eventually he joined William III's army as it approached London. His career as a writer, though, did not begin until his late thirties when he published An Essay upon Projects (1697). It was followed by The True-Born Englishman in 1701, a satire that poked fun at those who argued that the English monarch had necessarily to be born an Englishman. In this same year Defoe courageously stood up to Parliament on the day after it had imprisoned five English gentlemen for presenting a petition demanding greater defense preparations for the impending likelihood of a European war. Angered by Parliament's high-handedness, Defoe wrote his Legion's Memorial and marched into the House of Commons where he presented it to the leadership. It reminded them that Parliament had no more right to imprison Englishmen for speaking their minds than a king did. Defoe's document produced its desired effect when the petitioners were soon released.
Career as a Journalist.
Such political engagements emboldened Defoe, and in 1702 he published a tract, The Shortest Way with Dissenters, that mocked the Tory position against Nonconformists. In it, he humorously poked fun at "High Churchmen," those who argued that the best path to take with Dissenters was to uphold laws that limited their freedom. The text of Defoe's tract alleged to have been written by one such High Churchman, and argued that all dissenters should be put to death. For a time, some believed that the tract was genuine, but when it was discovered to be a forgery Defoe's printer was imprisoned and Defoe himself was forced into hiding. Eventually caught, his punishment included a heavy fine, imprisonment, and three sessions in the pillory. During his imprisonment, however, Defoe wrote his Hymn to the Pillory, which was sold to those who identified with his plight. In the years that followed, Defoe became more cautious in attacking the government, although he fell afoul of the law again in 1712 for several pamphlets he published, and again in 1715 when he was convicted of libelling an English aristocrat.
Despite his checkered career as a journalist, Defoe was an extremely gifted writer. Throughout his lifetime he produced at least 250 books, tracts, pamphlets, and journals. Many were written anonymously or under pseudonyms, such as his publication of The Prophecies of Isaac Bickerstaff, a series of works that began to appear in 1619. During the reign of Queen Anne (1702–1714), he alone wrote and edited his Review, a popular political journal of the day. It appeared at first as a weekly, but by the end of the queen's reign, it was being published three times each week. Despite his legal troubles, Defoe continued to produce the work, even while imprisoned. For these efforts, Defoe earned enormous sums of money, although his poor business sense resulted in much of his fortune being squandered on misconceived projects. Although his work as a journalist brought him fame, he is today best remembered for the series of three early English novels he published between 1719 and 1724: Robinson Crusoe (1719), Moll Flanders (1722), and Roxana (1724). This kind of fiction was a significant departure for Defoe, who had spent much of his life penning political journalism. Yet Defoe had often published under pseudonyms and crafted fake narratives in his attempts to damn the political programs of his opponents. In his later fictional works, he relied on these skills, but also on his knowledge of the seventeenth-century spiritual autobiography and confessional narrative, works like John Bunyan's Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Defoe argued that his fictions had highly moral purposes, but at the same time they seemed to satisfy the salacious and prurient interests of their audience. Although the content of Robinson Crusoe is rather tame, Moll Flanders takes its readers on a tour through London's seamiest sections, and along the way records a number of sexual crimes, including incest. Roxana, by contrast, is set in high society, but the lazy and indolent high society of England's Restoration period, and it reveals Defoe's distaste for the lascivious excesses of the later Stuart years. In all three works Defoe combined his enormous skills as a storyteller with his ability to catalogue and describe realities in ways that were fascinating to his readers. His fictions, in other words, benefited from the same curiosity that his journalistic career had. For these reasons, he is often called the "Father of the English Novel."
P. R. Backscheider, Daniel Defoe: His Life (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).
I. A. Bell, Defoe's Fiction (Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1985).
J. J. Richetti, Daniel Defoe (Boston, Mass.: Twayne, 1987).
J. Sutherland, Defoe (London: Longmans, Green, 1956).
J. A. Downie