Daniel Defoe

(Original surname Foe, Defoe altered it in 1703)
   

Born: 1660

Died: April 24, 1731


English novelist, pamphleteer, and journalist, author of ROBINSON CRUSOE (1719), a story of a man shipwrecked alone on an island. Along with Samuel Richardson, Defoe is considered the founder of the English novel. Before his time stories were usually written as long poems or dramas. He produced some 200 works of nonfiction prose in addition to close 2 000 short essays in periodical publications, several of which he also edited.

 

"One day, about noon, going towards my boat,
I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man's naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen on the sand."
(from Robinson Crusoe)

Daniel Defoe was born as the son of Alice and James Foe. His father was a City tradesman and member of the Butchers’ Company. James Foe's stubborn puritanism - the The Foes were Dissenters, Protestants who did not belong to the Anglican Church - come occasionally comes through Defoe's writing. He studied at Charles Morton's Academy, London. Although his Nonconformist father intended him for the ministry, Defoe plunged into politics and trade, travelling extensively in Europe. Throughout his life, Defoe also wrote about mercantile projects, but his business ventures failed and left him with large debts, amounting over seventeen thousand pounds. This burden shadowed the remainder of his life, which he once summoned:

"In the School of Affliction I have learnt more Philosophy than at the Academy, and more Divinity than from the Pulpit: In Prison I have learnt to know that Liberty does not consist in open Doors, and the free Egress and Regress of Locomotion. I have seen the rough side of the World as well as the smooth, and have in less than half a Year tasted the difference between the Closet of a King, and the Dungeon of Newgate."

In the early 1680s Defoe was a commission merchant in Cornhill but went bankrupt in 1691. In 1684 he married Mary Tuffley; they had two sons and five daughters. Defoe was involved in Monmouth rebellion in 1685 against James II. While hiding as a fugitive in a churchyard after the rebellion was put down, he noticed the name Robinson Crusoe carved on a stone, and later gave it to his famous hero. Defoe became a supporter of William, joining his army in 1688, and gaining a mercenary reputation because change of allegiance. From 1695 to 1699 he was an accountant to the commissioners of the glass duty and then associated with a brick and tile works in Tilbury. The business failed in 1703.

In 1702 Defoe wrote his famous pamphlet THE SHORTEST-WAY WITH THE DISSENTERS. Himself a Dissenter he mimicked the bloodthirsty rhetoric of High Anglican Tories and pretended to argue for the extermination of all Dissenters. Nobody was amused, Defoe was arrested in May 1703, but released in return for services as a pamphleteer and intelligence agent to Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford, and the Tories. While in prison Defoe wrote a mock ode, HYMN TO THE PILLORY (1703). The poem was sold in the streets, the audience drank to his health while he stood in the pillory and read aloud his verses.

"Actions receive their tincture from the times,
And as they change are virtues made of crimes."
(from 'A Hymn to the Pillory')

When the Tories fell from power, Defoe continued to carry out intelligence work for the Whig government. In his own days Defoe was regarded as an unscrupulous, diabolical journalist. Defoe used a number of pen names, including Eye Witness, T.Taylor, and Andrew Morton, Merchant. His most unusual pen name was 'Heliostrapolis, secretary to the Emperor of the Moon,' used on his political satire The Consolidator, or Memoirs of Sundry Transactions from the World in the Moon (1705). His political writings were widely read and made him powerful enemies. His most remarkable achievement during Queen Anne's reign was the periodical A Review of the Affairs of France, and of All Europe (1704-1713). It was published weekly, later three times a week and resembled a modern newspapers. From 1716 to 1720 Defoe edited Mercurius Politicus, then the Manufacturer (1720), and the Director (1720-21). He was contributor from 1715 to periodicals published by Nathaniel Mist.

Defoe was one of the first to write stories about believable characters in realistic situations using simple prose. He achieved literary immortality when in April 1719 he published Robinson Crusoe, which was based partly on the memoirs of voyagers and castaways, such as Alexander Selkirk, who spent on his island four years and four months. The first edition was printed in London by a publisher of a popular books, W. Taylor. No author's name was given.

William Selkirk was the son of a Scottish tanner, who became the master of the Cinque Ports Galley, a privateering ship. Selkirk went to sea in 1704 under William Dampier and was put ashore at his own request, or according to some sources as a punishment of insubordination, on the island of Juan Fernandez in the Pacific, hundreds of miles off the coast of Chile. The island was uninhabited, and he survived there until his rescue in 1709 by Captain Woodes Rogers. Selkirk claimed that he had become a "better Christian" and it was a positive experience. As a journalist Defoe must have heard his story and possibly interviewed him. Selkirk never did go back to the Pacific island, as Defoe had Crusoe do in two sequels. Selkirk became known as a eccentric. It is said the taught alley cats how to do strange dances. - Robinson Crusoe is a mariner - actually an arrogant slave trader - who runs away to the sea at the age of 19 despite parental warnings. He suffers a number of misfortunes at the hands of Barbary pirates and the elements. Finally Crusoe is shipwrecked off South America. With salvaging needful things from the ship, including the Bible, Crusoe manages to survive in the island. "The Country appear'd so fresh," he writes in his journal, "so green, so flourishing, every thing being in a constant Verdure, or Flourish of Spring, that it looked like a planted garden." He stays in the island 28 years, two months and nineteen days. - Aided with his enterprising behavior, Crusoe adapts into his alien environment. After several lone years he sees a strange footprint in the sand. Savages arrive for a cannibal feast. One of their prisoners manages to escape. Crusoe meets later the frightened native and christens him Man Friday and teaches him English. Later an English ship arrives. Crusoe rescues the captain and crew from the hands of mutineers and returns to England. Robinson marries and promises before end of the novel to describe his adventures in Africa and China. - Sequels to the story, THE FARTHER ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE (1719), in which Crusoe revisits the island and loses Friday in an attack by savages, and THE SERIOUS REFLECTIONS... OF ROBINSON CRUSOE (1729), did not gain wide recognition. - In Luis Bunuel's film version from 1952 the director sees Crusoe as a tortured soul, "haunted by the ghost of his overbearing father (the hallucinatory sequences are pure Bunuel), anguished at the failure of his religion to console him (his despair is mocked when his recitation out loud of the 23rd Psalm returns in a hollow echo), and frustrated in his sexual repressions (cleverly conveyed by a scene where his drying garments are blown by the wind into a suggestive female form." (from Novels into Film by John C. Tibbets and James M. Welsh, 1999)

At first Defoe had troubles in finding a publisher for the book and eventually received £10 for the manuscript. Employing a first-person narrator and apparently genuine journal entries, Defoe created a realistic frame for the novel, which distinguished it from its predecessors. The account of a shipwrecked sailor was a comment both on the human need for society and the equally powerful impulse for solitude. But it also offered a dream of building a private kingdom, a self-made Utopia, and being completely self-sufficient. By giving a vivid reality to a theme with large mythic implications, the story have since fascinated generations of readers as well as authors like Joachim Heinrich Campen, Jules Verne, R.L. Stevenson, Johann Wyss (Der schweizerische Robinson), Michael Tournier (Vendredi ou les limbes du Pacifique), J.M. Coetzee (Foe), and other creators of Robinsonade stories.

During the remaining years, Defoe concentrated on books rather than pamphlets. At the age of 62 he published MOLL FLANDERS, A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR and COLONEL JACK. His last great work of fiction, ROXANA, appeared in 1724. Defoe's choice of a female protagonist in Moll Flanders reflected his interest in the female experience. Moll is born in Newgate, where her mother is under sentence of death for theft. Her sentence is commuted to transportation to Virginia. The abandoned child is educated by a gentlewoman. Moll suffers romantic disillusionment, when she is ruined at the hands of a cynical male seducer. She becomes a whore and a thief, but finally she gains the status of a gentlewoman through the spoils of a successful colonial plantation.

Wherever God erects a house of prayer,
The Devil always builds a chapel there;
And 'twill be found, upon examination,
The latter has the largest congregation.
(from The True-Born Englishman, 1701)

After being close to the Whigs, Defoe moved back to the Tories. In the 1720s Defoe had ceased to be politically controversial in his writings, and he produced several historical works, a guide book A TOUR THROUGH THE WHOLE ISLAND OF GREAT BRITAIN (1724-27, 3 vols.), THE GREAT LAW OF SUBORDINATION CONSIDERED (1724), an examination of the treatment of servants, and THE COMPLETE ENGLISH TRADESMAN (1726). Defoe's father had stayed with his older brother Henry in London during the Plague Year of 1665, and their experiences possibly provided material for A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR (1722). Defoe himself was about five years old at the time. The narrator has the same initials, H.F., than Henry Foe. For his account, Defoe also used printed records. Phenomenally industrious, Defoe produced in his last years also works involving the supernatural, THE POLITICAL HISTORY OF THE DEVIL (1726) and AN ESSAY ON THE HISTORY AND REALITY OF APPARITIONS (1727). He died on 26 April, 1731, at his lodgings in Ropemaker's Alley, Moorfields. One of the most complete bibliographies of Defoe's works lists almost 400 titles, ranging from pamphlets to books on the occult and novels.

For further reading:
  • Selkirk's Island: The True and Strange Adventures of the Real Robinson Crusoe by Diana Souhami (2002)

  • Daniel Defoe-Master of Fictions: His Life and Ideas by Maximillian E. Novak (2001)

  • Daniel Defoe: The Life and Strange, Surprising Adventures by Richard West (1998)

  • Defoe: Writer as Agent by Katherine Armstrong (1996); Defoe's Politics: Parliament, Power, Kingship. and Robinson Crusoe by Manuel Schonhorn (1991)

  • "Robinson Crusoe:" Island Myths and the Novel by Michael Seidel (1991); Daniel Defoe: His Life by Paula R. Backscheider(1989)

  • Daniel Defoe by John J, Richetti (1987)

  • The Canoniation of Defoe by P.N. Furbank and WR. Owens (1988)

  • Daniel Defoe: Ambition and Innovation by Paula R. Backscheider (1986); Realism, Myth, and History in Defoe's Fiction by E. Maximillian Novak (1983); Robinson Crusoe by Pat Rogers (1979)

  • A Checklist of the Writings of Daniel Defoe by J.R. Moore (1971)

  • The Rise of Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding by Ian Watt (1957)

  • Defoe by David Sutherland (1937); Memoirs of the Life and Times of Daniel De Foe by Walter Wilson (1830)

Selected works:
  • AN ESSAY UPON PROJECTS, 1697

  • THE TRUE-BORN ENGLISHMAN, 1701

  • THE SHORTEST-WAY WITH THE DISSENTERS, 1702

  • THE CONSOLIDATOR, 1705

  • THE FAMILY INSTRUCTOR, 1715

  • ROBINSON CRUSOE, 1719 - suom. -
    Several screen adaptations: Mr. Robinson Crusoe (1932), dir. by Edward Sutherland; Robinson Crusoeland (1950), dir. by Leo Joannon (with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy - their last fim, a dispiriting mess); The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, dir. by Luis Buñuel in 1953; Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), dir. by Byron Haskin; Robinson Crusoe and the Tiger (1969); Man Friday (1975), dir. by Jack Gold; Crusoe (1989), dir. by Caleb Deschanel; Robinson Crusoe (1996), dir. by George Miller and Rod Hardy, starring Pierce Brosnan, William Takaku, Ian Hart (Brosnan later played James Bond)

  • THE FARTHER ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE, 1719

  • MEMOIRS OF A CAVALIER, 1720

  • THE LIFE, ADVENTURES, AND PIRACIES OF THE FAMOUS CAPTAIN SINGLETON, 1720 - Kapteeni Singleton

  • THE FORTUNES AND MISFORTUNES OF THE FAMOUS MOLL FLANDERS, 1722 - suom. -
    Three part television drama in 1996, script by Andrew Daniel

  • A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR, 1722 - Ruttovuosi / Ruttovuoden päiväkirja

  • COLONEL JACK, 1722

  • ROXANA, 1724 - suom.

  • TOUR THROUGH THE WHOLE ISLAND OF GREAT BRITAIN, 1724-26

  • THE COMPLETE ENGLISH TRADESMAN, 1725-27

  • THE POLITICAL HISTORY OF THE DEVIL, 1726

  • AN ESSAY ON THE HISTORY AND REALITY OF APPARITIONS, 1727

  • THE SHORTEST WAY WITH THE DISSENTERS AND OTHER PAMPHLETS, 1927

  • A REVIEW OF THE AFFAIRS OF FRANCE, AND ALL EUROPE, 1938 (22 vols.)

  • SELECTED POETRY AND PROSE, 1968

  • SELECTED WRITINGS, 1975

  • 'THE MANUFACTURER' (1719-1721); TOGETHER WITH RELATED ISSUES OF 'THE BRITISH MERCHANT' AND 'THE WEAVER', 1978

  • THE VERSATILE DEFOE, 1979


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