Last reviewed: June 2018
English novelist and journalist
April 24, 1731
Daniel Defoe (dih-FOH) is best known as the author of Robinson Crusoe. Daniel Defoe
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.