Defoe, Daniel (1660-1731): English Writer.
Although best known for his Robinson Crusoe, one of the eighteenth century’s major works of fiction, Daniel Defoe actively engaged in the moral and political debates of his time as a poet, essayist, and political pamphleteer.
He was born into a merchant-class family in London and raised as a Protestant dissenter from the Church of England. As a dissenter, Defoe could not pursue a University education but entered into study with the renowned and learned Charles Morton at Newington Green Academy. Defoe studied traditional Oxford and Cambridge subjects at Morton’s Academy, though Morton taught his students in English rather than Latin and expanded his curriculum beyond the general list of university courses to include a much broader range of scientific and philosophical readings. Defoe’s education prepared him to be a pious, knowledgeable, and courageous dissenter, even a minister, yet he chose the life of a tradesman and entered the hosiery trade, where he could claim voting rights as a freeman despite his dissenting status.
Defoe’s life as a political activist began with his occupational choice. While he saw himself as a businessman, he remained a passionate Whig and dissenter and became embroiled in political and religious conflicts that peaked when in 1685 he joined the Duke of Monmouth in rebellion against King James II. Defoe barely escaped execution, and though King James pardoned him, he continued his efforts to remove the Catholic monarch from power until the Protestant King William was crowned in 1688. His Monmouth experience and resistance to King James provoked one of Defoe’s earliest polemical essays: “A Letter to a Dissenter from His Friend at the Hague, concerning the Penal Laws and the Test” (1688). With this four page pamphlet aimed at undermining the authority of King James, Defoe began his lifelong career as a political propagandist.
Defoe mixed poetry and politics in poems like his first one, “A New Discovery of an Old Intreague (1691),” which read as a plea for election reform, and his later “The Pacificator” (1700), in which he poetically explained the state of affairs under William III. As a poet he was to go relatively unnoticed until he published the most popular poem of his day: “A True-Born Englishman” (1701). In this work, which went through ten editions in its first year, Defoe mixed fact and fiction as he reviewed English history and defended William’s right to rule. He rose above his usual political propaganda, however, by satirically denouncing the myth of racial purity used to undermine the reign of the foreign-born William. Yet Defoe’s political satire could misfire, as happened in his immensely popular 1702 pamphlet, The Shortest Way with Dissenters. In this piece, Defoe meant to expose the harsh treatment of dissenters by Anglican and government authorities by ironically calling for even harsher laws. Dissenter friends missed Defoe’s point and turned against him, never fully trusting him again; the government labeled his document as seditious and for several months kept him imprisoned.
Defoe could just as easily serve the English government as resist it. In The Review, a periodical he published for nine years (1704-1713), he often praised English morals and manners as he offered suggestions for political reform. He worked as an agent of the English government in Scotland and was intricately involved in bringing Scotland into union with England. He wrote several tracts and brief histories favoring English and Scottish unity. His History of the Union, hastily written in 1707, provided a highly reliable account of the unifying process and was especially useful in exposing conspiracies aimed at undermining the union movement. Later in A View of the Scots Rebellion (1715), Defoe detailed ways in which the English could defeat Highland rebels. Having served his country well as a persuasive writer and as an expert on Scottish affairs, Defoe continued to write about Scotland well into his later years in Memoirs of the Church of Scotland (1717), Memoirs of a Cavalier (1720), and in one of his clearest accounts, A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1726).
While Defoe wrote dozens of memoirs and political tracts, he became best known as the author of The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719). With Robinson Crusoe, written when its author was fifty nine, Defoe captured all levels of readers with his mix of romance and realism, as well as with his vivid descriptions of Crusoe constructing his house, taming wild animals, encountering cannibals, and discovering, then converting, the “savage” Friday. Defoe used his tale, in addition, as a fictional forum for his political, economic, and religious views. Crusoe as dissenter, for instance, survives his isolation on a desert island and finds material and spiritual salvation through his patience, persistence, and hard work. Defoe continued the story of his great Puritan adventurer, with less success, in The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719).
Defoe’s major social novels followed a few years after Robinson Crusoe. Moll Flanders and Colonel Jack were both published in 1722 and, again, reflected Defoe’s preoccupation with politics and religion. In both novels, Defoe explored the roots of criminal and immoral behavior as the protagonists pursue their careers as thieves. Always politically aware, Defoe argued the state’s case for the Transportation Act of 1718 as well. Flanders and Colonel Jack find salvation after being transported to the colonies as punishment for their crimes. The heroine in his Roxanna (1724), however, receives no second chance, and she dies in prison while repenting her life of calculated wickedness.
Of all his major histories, Defoe is best remembered for A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). He was only a child when the Great Plague struck in 1664-65, the deadly event that eventually killed nearly 100,000 people. But working from official documents and various records, Defoe provided a detailed account of London life before and after the plague in what Sir Walter Scott ranked as a masterpiece in historical writing. History was Defoe’s forte, and his writings addressed the more central concerns of his day, though some accounted for some of the more marginal interests as well, such as A System of Magick (1726), The Political History of the Devil (1726), and An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions (1727).
Richard West, Daniel Defoe: The Life and Strange, Surprising Adventures, 1998.
Paula R. Backscheider, Daniel Defoe: His Life, 1989.
John Robert Moore, Daniel Defoe: Citizen of the Modern World, 1958.