Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe

Journalist, novelist
(1660 – 1731)

Daniel DefoeIn 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, Daniel 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.

Daniel Defoe – 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.

Literary achievements

Robinson Crusoe DefoeDespite his checkered career as a journalist, Daniel 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 Daniel 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 Daniel 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.”

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