Authors: Daniel Defoe

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English novelist and journalist


London, England

April 24, 1731

London, England


Daniel Defoe (dih-FOH) is best known as the author of Robinson Crusoe.

Daniel Defoe

(Library of Congress)

Few writers have written more voluminously and continuously than Defoe. Though there is uncertainty about the authorship of some works attributed to him, he has been credited with 570 separate works—newspapers, pamphlets, treatises, biographies, poems, guidebooks, and novels. It was in the midst of such abundant and ceaseless journalism that Defoe produced his works that are remembered. Like the works that are now forgotten, his novels were designed to be “newsworthy”—to stimulate or satisfy public curiosity and, in some cases, to purify it.

His most famous work, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, was founded on William Dampier’s A New Voyage Round the World (1697) and on Alexander Selkirk’s adventures as actually told by Selkirk to Defoe. Thus, a work that commenced as “news” took form as the classic story of a civilized man alone with nature. Crusoe’s shipwreck, his solitude, and his man Friday open wide vistas of adventure to every reader. Defoe had amazing capacities for creating realistic detail. His A Journal of the Plague Year strikes the reader as an eyewitness account of hideous disaster; actually, Defoe was writing at a distance of several decades. The same verisimilitude is apparent in Moll Flanders and other works; whatever sort of adventure Defoe treats has the ring of truth. The events may be startling, but the tone in which they are told is sober, moralistic, even plodding.

Defoe’s life was like much of his work, a mixture of the utterly commonplace and the exciting. He was born Daniel Foe in 1660 in the parish of St. Giles, London, to a Nonconformist family and was educated at Morton’s Academy at Stoke Newington. He participated in Monmouth’s rebellion in 1685 but escaped punishment. He took up the business of hosier factor and married Mary Tuffley, by whom he had seven children. Later, he became a merchant, dealing in Spanish and Portuguese goods; he even visited Spain. In 1692, his business failed, but he honorably paid off his creditors, a fact attested by witnesses; he then became secretary and finally owner of a tile works at Tilbury. From this wealth of practical experience came, in 1697, his early and remarkable An Essay upon Projects, which contained farsighted practical suggestions on road systems, insane asylums, schools for women, military colleges, and other subjects. Benjamin Franklin acknowledged his indebtedness to this study. However, it was the vital question of religious conformity that produced the first of a long series of pamphlets in which Defoe argued the position of the Nonconformists; the most famous of these was The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, published anonymously in 1702. When the authorship was discovered, a price was put on his head in an advertisement describing Defoe as “a middle-sized spare man about forty years old, of a brown complexion and dark brown-colored hair, but wears a wig; a hooked nose, a sharp chin, grey eyes, and a large mole near his mouth”—a description, it may be remarked, in Defoe’s own sober and factual vein. Finally apprehended, fined, and put in the pillory three times, he was forced to find sureties for his behavior. Defoe spent only one year in prison, thanks to the aid of the influential Robert Harley.

After his release from prison, Defoe began The Review in February 1704. Published three times a week, this newspaper extends to more than eight volumes, containing news as well as essays on subjects of trade and national policy. There also were discussions of minor problems of morals and manners in the Scandal Club columns; these probably influenced the form soon taken by the Tatler and Spectator papers.

Defoe, like some of his heroes, united adventure and business. Involved in secret political missions in Scotland for Harley, Defoe wrote The History of the Union of Great Britain, which appeared in 1709. His secret reports are credited with helping unite Scotland with England and Wales in 1707. In 1715, he was indicted for libel of Lord Annesley, whom he accused of using the army in Ireland to join a Jacobite rebellion. Before his trial, he published An Appeal to Honour and Justice, an apologia that gives one some insight into Defoe’s busy life. He was imprisoned and gained his freedom only by consenting to become a government agent. He was also a subeditor of Mist’s Journal, a Jacobite publication which he agreed to chasten and tame.

In 1719, Robinson Crusoe had instant success. In 1724 came A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, followed soon after by A New Voyage Round the World by a Course Never Sailed, a work apparently drawn only from the author’s wide reading and colored by his creative imagination.

All this journalistic activity must have built up a substantial income. However, Defoe did not die in his own home at Stoke Newington but in Moorfields, on April 26, 1731. Toward the end of his life, his journalistic employment had come to an end, perhaps because Nathaniel Mist discovered that Defoe was a government agent and let it be known to other editors. Mist himself was imprisoned for attacking Defoe physically; perhaps he even planned further revenge. At any rate, in his last years Defoe wrote anonymously or under the name Andrew Moreton; in the summer previous to his death, he was in hiding. For these reasons, there is uncertainty about his final years.

Defoe is considered the founder of the novel because he was the first to merge the various elements of realism, a hallmark of the form, in his fiction. These elements include featuring common people as heroes, casting the story in their own voices, and employing particular detail, straightforward narration, and contemporary settings. The basic conflict in his characters is between God and gold, between the religious and economic impulses in human beings.

Author Works Long Fiction: The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner, Written by Himself, 1719 The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe: Being the Second and Last Part of His Life, 1719 The History of the Life and Adventures of Mr. Duncan Campbell, a Gentleman Who, Tho’ Deaf and Dumb, Writes Down Any Stranger’s Name at First Sight, with Their Future Contingencies of Fortune, 1720 The Life, Adventures and Pyracies of the Famous Captain Singleton, 1720 Memoirs of a Cavalier: Or, A Military Journal of the Wars in Germany, and the Wars in England, from the Year 1632 to the Year 1648, 1720 The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, Written from Her Own Memorandums, 1722 The History and Remarkable Life of the Truly Honourable Col Jacque, Commonly Call’d Col Jack, 1722 A Journal of the Plague Year: Being Observations or Memorials of the Most Remarkable Occurrences, as Well Publick as Private, Which Happened in London, During the Last Great Visitation in 1665, 1722 (also known as The History of the Great Plague in London) The Fortunate Mistress: Or, A History of the Life and Vast Variety of Fortunes of Mademoiselle de Beleau, Afterwards Call’d the Countess de Wintselsheim, in Germany, Being the Person Known by the Name of the Lady Roxana, in the Time of King Charles II, 1724 (also known as Roxana) The Memoirs of an English Officer Who Serv’d in the Dutch War in 1672, to the Peace of Utrecht in 1713, by Capt George Carleton, 1728 (also known as A True and Genuine History of the Last Two Wars and The Memoirs of Cap George Carleton) Short Fiction: A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal, 1706 Poetry: The True-Born Englishman: A Satyr, 1701 Nonfiction: An Essay upon Projects, 1697 The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, 1702 The History of the Union of Great Britain, 1709 An Appeal to Honour and Justice, 1715 The Family Instructor, in Three Parts, 1715 A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, 1724–28 (2 volumes) A New Voyage Round the World by a Course Never Sailed, 1724 A Tour Thro’the Whole Island of Great Britain, 1724–27 (3 volumes) The Complete English Tradesman, 1725–27 (2 volumes) The Four Years Voyages of Capt George Roberts, 1726 A New Family Instructor, 1727 Augusta Triumphans: Or, The Way to Make London the Most Flourishing City in the Universe, 1728 A Plan of the English Commerce, 1728 Miscellaneous: The Novels and Miscellaneous Works of Daniel Defoe, 1840–41 (20 volumes; Walter Scott, editor) Romances and Narratives by Daniel Defoe, 1895 (16 volumes; George Aitken, editor) The Shakespeare Head Edition of the Novels and Selected Writings of Daniel Defoe, 1927–28 (14 volumes) Bibliography Backscheider, Paula R. Daniel Defoe, His Life. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. A comprehensive biography on Defoe. Bastian, F. Defoe’s Early Life. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1981. A detailed discussion of Defoe’s family background, his youth, and his involvement in politics. Ends in 1703, with Defoe imprisoned in Newgate. Includes a good index, notes, and appendices. Illustrated.

Blewett, David. Defoe’s Art of Fiction: “Robinson Crusoe,” “Moll Flanders,” “Colonel Jack,” and “Roxana.” Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979. In Defoe’s letters and nonfiction, Blewett finds a worldview that sees the individual as isolated in an indifferent or hostile universe. Shows how four of Defoe’s novels artfully voice this outlook. An epilogue considers Defoe’s contribution to the development of prose fiction. Bloom, Harold, ed. Daniel Defoe. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. A volume in the Modern Critical Views series. Thirteen essays represent three decades of criticism. Subjects include point of view, theme, style, and characterization. Bloom’s introduction, Leo Braudy’s “Daniel Defoe and the Anxieties of Autobiography,” and John J. Burke, Jr.’s “Observing the Observer in Historical Fictions by Defoe” are of particular interest. Chronology, brief bibliography, and index. Curtis, Laura A. The Elusive Daniel Defoe. London: Vision, 1984. Prompted by Defoe’s habit of writing in the first person, Curtis hopes to discover the true identity of the author by looking for repeated patterns in his novels. Voluminous notes point out similarities between Defoe and other writers and possible influences. Index. A highly original study. Earle, Peter. The World of Defoe. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976. Though not new, this work is still valuable for its comments about the author’s society and his relationship to it. Helpful notes and good index. Hammond, J. R. A Defoe Companion. Lanham, Md.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1993. A useful overview. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Hunter, J. Paul. The Reluctant Pilgrim: Defoe’s Emblematic Method and Quest for Form in “Robinson Crusoe.” Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966. Examines Robinson Crusoe to understand not only that work but also the nature of the early English novel. Looks at the way Defoe used Puritan ideas, especially as they were expressed in seventeenth and early eighteenth century tracts. Lund, Roger D., ed. Critical Essays on Daniel Defoe. New York: G. K. Hall, 1997. Essays on Defoe’s domestic conduct manuals, his travel books, his treatment of slavery, his novels, and his treatment of the city. Includes an introduction and index, but no bibliography. Novak, Maximillian E. Daniel Defoe, Master of Fictions: His Life and Ideas. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. A biographical study by a leading Defoe scholar. Novak, Maximillian E. Realism, Myth, and History in Defoe’s Fiction. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983. A collection of previously published essays. Treats various aspects of Defoe’s artistry: the psychological realism of Roxana, the use of history in A Journal of the Plague Year and Memoirs of a Cavalier, and myth-making in Robinson Crusoe. Richetti, John J. Daniel Defoe. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Argues that examination of Defoe’s fiction should be balanced by careful study of his nonfiction. This book looks at both, noting both similarities and inconsistencies. Includes chronology, biographical overview, notes, and bibliography with secondary sources briefly annotated. Valuable. Richetti, John J. Life of Daniel Defoe: A Critical Biography. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2005. A thorough look at Defoe’s writing in the context of his life and opinions. Rogers, Pat, ed. Daniel Defoe: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1972, 1995. This comprehensive collection of comments about Defoe is essential for the understanding of such a complex figure. The editor’s introduction provides an excellent overview. Contains two appendices, brief bibliography, and index. Schonhorn, Manuel. Defoe’s Politics: Parliament, Power, Kingship, and “Robinson Crusoe.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Examines Defoe’s political and social views. Spaas, Lieve, and Brian Stimpson, eds. “Robinson Crusoe”: Myths and Metamorphoses. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. Explores many aspects of the seminal novel. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Sutherland, James. Daniel Defoe: A Critical Study. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971. An excellent overview of all of Defoe’s work. Offers commonsensical readings of the works and provides helpful historical and biographical background as well as a useful bibliography for further study. Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. 2d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Discusses Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and Defoe’s contribution to the realistic novel. Relates Defoe’s fiction to the social and economic conditions of the age. West, Richard. Daniel Defoe: The Life and Strange, Surprising Adventures. New York: Carroll and Graf, 1998. West covers all aspects of Defoe: the journalist, novelist, satirist, newsman, and pamphleteer as well as the tradesman, soldier, and spy. Written with considerable flair by a journalist and historian of wide-ranging experience.

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