The English novelist, journalist, poet, and government agent Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) 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.
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.
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 civilization—man'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."
Further Reading on Daniel Defoe
The standard bibliography of Defoe is John Robert Moore, A Checklist of the Writings of Daniel Defoe (1960). There are two major critical biographies: James R. Sutherland, Defoe (1937; 2d ed. 1950), and John Robert Moore, Daniel Defoe: Citizen of the Modern World (1958). Important critical studies of Defoe's works include Arthur W. Secord, Studies in the Narrative Method of Defoe (1924); Maximillian E. Novak, Economics and the Fiction of Daniel Defoe (1962) and Defoe and the Nature of Man (1963); and J. Paul Hunter, The Reluctant Pilgrim (1966). Recommended for general historical and social background are J. H. Plumb, England in the Eighteenth Century (1950); A. R. Humphreys, The Augustan World: Life and Letters in Eighteenth-Century England (1954); Ian P. Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (1957); and Ian P. Watt, ed., The Augustan Age (1968).