The son of a London butcher, and educated at a Dissenters' academy, he was typical of the new kind of man reaching prominence in England in the 18th cent.—self-reliant, industrious, possessing a strong notion of personal and moral responsibility. Although intended for the Presbyterian ministry, he had by 1683 set himself up as a merchant dealing in many different commodities. In spite of his own considerable savings and his wife's dowry, Defoe went bankrupt in 1692. Although he paid his creditors, he was never entirely free from debt again.
Defoe's first important publication was An Essay upon Projects (1698), but it was not until the poem The True-born Englishman (1701), a defense of William III from his attackers, that he received any real fame. An ill-timed satire early in Queen Anne's reign, The Shortest Way with Dissenters (1702), an ironic defense of High Church animosity against nonconformists, resulted in Defoe's being imprisoned. He was rescued by Robert Harley and subsequently served the statesman as a political agent.
Defoe has been called the father of modern journalism; during his lifetime he was associated with 26 periodicals. From 1704 to 1713 he published and wrote a Review, a miscellaneous journal concerned with the affairs of Europe; this was an incredibly ambitious undertaking for one man.
He was nearly sixty when he turned to writing novels. In 1719 he published his famous Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, followed by two less engrossing sequels. Based in part on the experiences of Alexander Selkirk, Robinson Crusoe describes the daily life of a man marooned on a desert island. Although there are exciting episodes in the novel—Crusoe rescuing his man Friday from cannibals—its main interest derives from the way in which Crusoe overcomes the extraordinary difficulties of life on the island while preserving his human integrity. Robinson Crusoe is considered by some critics to be the first true novel in English.
Defoe's great novels were not published under his name but as authentic memoirs, with the intention of gulling his readers into thinking his fictions true. Two excellent examples of his semihistorical recreations are the picaresque adventure Moll Flanders (1722), the story of a London prostitute and thief, and an account of the 1665 great plague in London entitled A Journal of the Plague Year (1722).
Defoe's writing is always straightforward and vivid, with an astonishing concern for circumstantial detail. His other major works include Captain Singleton (1720), Colonel Jack (1722), Roxana (1724), and A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-27). In 1724 A General History of the Pyrates by a Captain Charles Johnson was published; it was not until 200 years later that Defoe was discovered to be the true author of the work (see edition by Manuel Schonhorn, 1972).
See Defoe's letters, ed. by G. H. Healey (1955); biographies by J. R. Sutherland (2d ed. 1950), J. R. Moore (1958), and J. Richetti (1987); studies by G. H. Starr (1965 and 1971), J. R. Sutherland (1971), P. Rogers, ed. (1972), L. A. Curtis (1984), and P. R. Backscheider (1986).
Daniel Defoe, engraving by M. Van der Gucht, after a portrait by J. Taverner, first half of the elipsis
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Daniel Defoe (1659/1661 [?] — April 24 [?], 1731) was an English writer, journalist, and pamphleteer, who gained enduring fame for his novel Robinson Crusoe. Defoe is notable for being one of the earliest practitioners of the novel, as he helped to popularise the form in Britain, and is even referred to by some as one of the founders of the English novel. A prolific and versatile writer, he wrote more than five hundred books, pamphlets, and journals on various topics (including politics, crime, religion, marriage, psychology and the supernatural). He was also a pioneer of economic journalism.
Although Defoe was a Christian himself, he decided not to become a dissenting minister, and entered the world of business as a general merchant, dealing at different times in hosiery, general woolen goods, and wine. Though his ambitions were great and he bought both a country estate and a ship (as well as civet cats to make perfume), he was rarely free of debt. In 1684, Defoe married a woman by the name of Mary Tuffley, receiving a dowry of £3,700. With his recurring debts, their marriage was most likely a difficult one. They had eight children, six of whom survived. In 1685, he joined the ill-fated Monmouth Rebellion, but gained a pardon by which he escaped the assizes of Judge George Jeffreys. In 1692, Defoe was arrested for payments of £700 (and his civets were seized), though his total debts may have amounted to £17,000. His laments were loud, and he always defended unfortunate debtors, but there is evidence that his financial dealings were not always honest.
Following his release, he probably traveled in Europe and Scotland, and it may have been at this time that he traded in wine to Cadiz, Porto, and Lisbon. By 1695 he was back in England, using the name "Defoe", and serving as a "commissioner of the glass duty", responsible for collecting the tax on bottles. In 1696, he was operating a tile and brick factory in what is now Tilbury, Essex and living in the parish of Chadwell St Mary.
| "Wherever God erects a house of prayer|
the Devil always builds a chapel there;
And 'twill be found, upon examination,
the latter has the largest congregation."
|— Defoe's The True-Born Englishman, 1701|
Defoe's first notable publication was An Essay upon Projects, a series of proposals for social and economic improvement, published in 1697. From 1697 to 1698, he defended the right of King William III to a standing army during disarmament after the Treaty of Ryswick (1697) had ended the War of the Grand Alliance (1689–97). His most successful poem, The True-Born Englishman (1697), defended the king against the perceived xenophobia of his enemies, satirising the English claim to racial purity. In 1701, Defoe, flanked by a guard of sixteen gentlemen of quality, presented the Legion's Memorial to the Speaker of the House of Commons, later his employer, Robert Harley. It demanded the release of the Kentish petitioners, who had asked Parliament to support the king in an imminent war against France.
Defoe's pamphleteering and political activities resulted in his arrest and placement in a pillory on July 31, 1703, principally on account of a pamphlet entitled "The Shortest Way with the Dissenters", in which he ruthlessly satirised the High church Tories, purporting to argue for the extermination of dissenters. However, according to legend, the publication of his poem Hymn to the Pillory caused his audience at the pillory to throw flowers instead of the customary harmful and noxious objects, and to drink to his health. The historicity of this story, however, is questioned by most scholars, although the scholar J. R. Moore later said that “no man in England but Defoe ever stood in the pillory and later rose to eminence among his fellow men.” Thomas Cochrane, the real-life model for Patrick O'Brian's Captain Jack Aubrey, was sentenced to the pillory, but was excused for fear his popularity would cause a riot.
After his three days in the pillory, Defoe went into Newgate Prison. Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, brokered his release in exchange for Defoe's co-operation as an intelligence agent. Within a week of his release from prison, Defoe witnessed the Great Storm of 1703, which raged from 26 to 27 November, the only true hurricane ever to have made it over the Atlantic Ocean to the British Isles at full strength. It caused severe damage to London and Bristol, uprooted millions of trees, and over 8,000 people lost their lives, mostly at sea. The event became the subject of Defoe's The Storm (1704), a collection of eyewitness accounts of the tempest. In the same year he set up his periodical A Review of the Affairs of France, which supported the Harley ministry, chronicling the events of the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–14). The Review ran tri-weekly without interruption until 1713. When Harley was ousted from the ministry in 1708 Defoe continued writing it to support Godolphin, then again to support Harley and the Tories in the Tory ministry of 1710 to 1714. After the Tories fell from power with the death of Queen Anne, it is widely thought Defoe continued doing intelligence work for the Whig government.
The extent and particulars of Defoe's writing in the period from the Tory fall in 1714 to the publication of Robinson Crusoe in 1719 is widely contested. Defoe comments on the tendency to attribute author-less tracts to him in his self-vindicatory Appeal to Honour and Justice (1715), a defence of his part in Harley's Tory ministry (1710 – 14). Other works that are thought to anticipate his novelistic career include: The Family Instructor (1715), an immensely successful conduct manual on religious duty; Minutes of the Negotiations of Monsr. Mesnager (1717), in which he impersonates Nicolas Mesnager, the French plenipotentiary who negotiated the Treaty of Utrecht (1713); and A Continuation of the Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy (1718), a satire on European politics and religion, professedly written by a Muslim in Paris.
From 1719 to 1724, Defoe published the novels for which he is now famous (see below). In the final decade of his life, he also wrote conduct manuals, including Religious Courtship (1722), The Complete English Tradesman (1726), and The New Family Instructor (1727). He published a number of books decrying the breakdown of the social order, such as The Great Law of Subordination Considered (1724) and Everybody's Business is Nobody's Business (1725), and works on the supernatural, like The Political History of the Devil (1726), A System of Magick (1726), and An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions (1727). His works on foreign travel and trade include A General History of Discoveries and Improvements (1727) and Atlas Maritimus and Commercialis (1728). Perhaps his greatest achievement alongside the novels is the magisterial A tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724 – 27), which provided a panoramic survey of British trade on the eve of the Industrial Revolution.
Defoe's famous novel Robinson Crusoe (1719) tells of a man's shipwreck on a deserted island and his subsequent adventures.
The author may have based part of his narrative on the true story of the Scottish castaway Alexander Selkirk. He may have also been inspired by the Latin or English translation of Abubacer's Philosophus Autodidactas, an earlier novel also set on a desert island.
Tim Severin's book Seeking Robinson Crusoe (2002) unravels a much wider range of potential sources of inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. Severin concludes his thorough investigations by stating that the real Robinson Crusoe figure was a castaway surgeon to the Duke of Monmouth named Henry Pitman. Pitman's short book about his real-life desperate escape from a Caribbean penal colony for his part in the Monmouth Rebellion, his shipwrecking and subsequent desert island misadventures, was published by J.Taylor of Paternoster Street, London, whose son William Taylor later published Defoe's novel. Severin argues that since Pitman appears to have lived in the lodgings above the father's publishing house and that Defoe himself was a mercer in the area at the time, Defoe may have met Pitman in person and learnt of his real-life experiences as a castaway first-hand. If he didn't meet Pitman directly, Severin points out, Defoe, upon submitting even a mere draft of a novel about a castaway to his publisher, would undoubtedly have learnt about Pitman's book published by his father, especially since the interesting castaway had previously lodged with them at their former premises.
Severin also provides sufficient evidence in his book that another publicised case of a real-life marooned Miskito Central American man named only as Will may have caught Defoe's attention, which led to the depiction of Man Friday, in his novel.
|"One day, about noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man's naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen on the sand."|
|— Robinson Crusoe|
The novel has been variously read as an allegory for the development of civilisation, as a manifesto of economic individualism, and as an expression of European colonial desires. But it also shows the importance of repentance and illustrates the strength of Defoe's religious convictions. Early critics, such as Robert Louis Stevenson, admired it, saying that the footprint scene in Crusoe was one of the four greatest in English literature, and most unforgettable. It has inspired a new genre, the Robinsonade, as works like Johann Wyss's The Swiss Family Robinson (1812) adapt its basic premise, and has provoked modern postcolonial responses, including J. M. Coetzee's Foe (1986). Two sequels followed, Defoe's Farther Adventures (1719) and his Serious Reflections (1720). Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) in part parodies Defoe's adventure novel.
Defoe's next novel was Captain Singleton (1720), a bipartite adventure story whose first half covers a traversal of Africa, and whose second half taps into the contemporary fascination with piracy. It has been commended for its depiction of the homosocial relationship between the eponymous hero and his religious mentor, the Quaker, William Walters.
Colonel Jack (1722) follows an orphaned boy from a life of poverty and crime to colonial prosperity, military and marital imbroglios, and religious conversion, always guided by a quaint and misguided notion of becoming a gentleman.
Also in 1722, Defoe wrote Moll Flanders, another first-person picaresque novel of the fall and eventual redemption of a lone woman in seventeenth century England. The titular heroine appears as a whore, bigamist and thief, lives in The Mint, commits adultery and incest, yet manages to keep the reader's sympathy.
Moll Flanders and Defoe's final novel Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress (1724) are examples of the remarkable way in which Defoe seems to inhabit his fictional (yet "drawn from life") characters, not least in that they are women. The latter narrates the moral and spiritual decline of a high society courtesan.
A work that is often read as if it were non-fiction is his account of the Great Plague of London in 1665: A Journal of the Plague Year, a complex historical novel published in 1722. In November 1703, a hurricane-like storm hit London, now known as The Great Storm. (It remains one of the greatest storms in British history.) Yet another of the remarkable events in Defoe's life, the storm was the subject of his book The Storm. Defoe describes the aftermath of the incident this way: “The streets lay so covered with tiles and slates from the tops of the houses [. . .] that all the tiles in fifty miles round would be able to repair but a small part of it." Later, Defoe also wrote Memoirs of a Cavalier (1720), set during the Thirty Years War and the English Civil Wars.
No fewer than 545 titles, ranging from satirical poems, political and religious pamphlets and volumes have been ascribed to Defoe (Note: in their Critical Bibliography (1998), Furbank and Owens argue for the much smaller number of 276 published items). His ambitious business ventures saw him bankrupt by 1692, with a wife and seven children to support. In 1703, he published a satirical pamphlet against the High Tories and in favour of religious tolerance entitled A short way with Dissenters. As has happened with ironical writings before and since, this pamphlet was widely misunderstood, but eventually its author was prosecuted for seditious libel, sentenced to be pilloried, fined 200 marks, and be detained at the Queen's pleasure.
In despair, he wrote to William Paterson, the London Scot, and founder of the Bank of England and part instigator of the Darien scheme, who was in the confidence of Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, leading Minister and spymaster in the English Government. Harley accepted Defoe's services and released him in 1703. He immediately published The Review, which appeared weekly, then three times a week, written mostly by himself. This was the main mouthpiece of the English Government promoting the Act of Union 1707.
Defoe began his campaign in The Review and other pamphlets aimed at English opinion, claiming that it would end the threat from the north, gaining for the Treasury an "inexhaustible treasury of men", a valuable new market increasing the power of England. By September 1706 Harley ordered Defoe to Edinburgh as a secret agent, to do everything possible to help secure acquiescence of the Treaty. He was very conscious of the risk to himself. Thanks to books such The Letters of Daniel Defoe, (edited by GH Healey, Oxford 1955) which are readily available far more is known about his activities than is usual with such agents.
His first reports were of vivid descriptions of violent demonstrations against the Union. "A Scots rabble is the worst of its kind," he reported. Years later John Clerk of Penicuik, a leading Unionist, wrote in his memoirs that,
Defoe being a Presbyterian, who suffered in England for his convictions, was accepted as an adviser to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and committees of the Parliament of Scotland. He told Harley that he was "privy to all their folly", but "Perfectly unsuspected as with corresponding with anybody in England". He was then able to influence the proposals that were put to Parliament and reported back:
For Scotland he used different arguments, even the opposite of those he used in England, for example, usually ignoring the English doctrine of the Sovereignty of Parliament, telling the Scots that they could have complete confidence in the guarantees in the Treaty. Some of his pamphlets were purported to be written by Scots, misleading even reputable historians into quoting them as evidence of Scottish opinion of the time. The same is true of a massive history of the Union which Defoe published in 1709 and which some historians still treat as a valuable contemporary source for their own works. Defoe took pains to give his history an air of objectivity by giving some space to arguments against the Union, but always having the last word for himself.
He disposed of the main Union opponent, Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, by just ignoring him. Nor does he account for the deviousness of the Duke of Hamilton, the official leader of the various factions opposed to the Union, who seemingly betrayed his former colleagues when he switched to the Unionist/Government side in the decisive final stages of the debate.
Defoe made no attempt to explain why the same Parliament of Scotland which was so vehement for its independence from 1703 to 1705 became so supine in 1706. He received very little reward from his paymasters and, of course, no recognition for his services by the government. He made use of his Scottish experience to write his Tour thro' the whole Island of Great Britain, published in 1726, where he actually admitted that the increase of trade and population in Scotland, which he had predicted as a consequence of the Union, was "not the case, but rather the contrary".
Defoe's description of Glasgow (Glaschu) as a "Dear Green Place" has often been misquoted as a Gaelic translation for the town. The Gaelic Glas could mean grey or green, chu means dog or hollow. Glaschu probably actually means 'Green Hollow'. The "Dear Green Place", like much of Scotland, was a hotbed of unrest against the Union. The local Tron minister urged his congregation "to up and anent for the City of God". The 'Dear Green Place' and "City of God" required government troops to put down the rioters tearing up copies of the Treaty, as at almost every mercat cross in Scotland.
When Defoe revisited in the mid 1720s, he claimed that the hostility towards his party was, "because they were English and because of the Union, which they were almost universally exclaimed against".