Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Daniel Defoe (1661?–1731)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Charles Frederick Johnson (1836–1931)
DANIEL DEFOE, one of the most vigorous and voluminous writers of the last decade of the seventeenth and the first quarter of the eighteenth centuries, was born in St. Giles parish, Cripplegate, in 1660 or 1661, and died near London in 1731. His father was a butcher named Foe, and the evolution of the son’s name through the various forms of D. Foe, De Foe, Defoe, to Daniel Defoe, the present accepted form, did not begin much before he reached the age of forty. He was educated at the “dissenting school” of a Mr. Martin in Newington Green, and was intended for the Presbyterian ministry. Although the training at this school was not inferior to that to be obtained at the universities,—and indeed superior in one respect, since all the exercises were in English,—the fact that he had never been “in residence” set Defoe a little apart from the literary society of the day. Swift, Pope, Addison, Arbuthnot, and the rest, considered him untrained and uncultured, and habitually spoke of him with the contempt which the regular feels for the volunteer. Swift referred to him as “an illiterate fellow whose name I forget,” and Pope actually inserted his name in the ‘Dunciad’:—
  “Earless on high stood unabashed De Foe.”
This line is false in two ways, for Defoe’s ears were not clipped, though he was condemned to stand in the pillory; and there can hardly be a greater incongruity conceived than there is between our idea of a dunce and the energetic, shifty, wide-awake Defoe,—though for that matter a scholar like Bentley and a wit like Colley Cibber are as much out of place in the poet’s ill-natured catalogue. Defoe angrily resented the taunts of the university men and their professional assumption of superiority, and answered Swift that “he had been in his time master of five languages and had not lost them yet,” and challenged John Tutchin to “translate with him any Latin, French, or Italian author, and then retranslate them crosswise, for twenty pounds each book.”
  Notwithstanding the great activity of Defoe’s pen (over two hundred pamphlets and books, most of them of considerable length, are known to be his; and it is more than probable that much of his work was anonymous and has perished, or could be only partly disinterred by laborious conjecture) he found time to engage twice in business, once as a factor in hosiery and once as a maker of tiles. In each venture he seems to have been unfortunate, and his business experience is alluded to here only because his practical knowledge of mercantile matters is evident in all his work. Even his pirates like Captain Bob Singleton, and adventurers like Colonel Jack, have a decided commercial flavor. They keep a weather eye on the profit-and-loss account, and retire like thrifty traders on a well-earned competency. It is worth mentioning, however, to Defoe’s credit, that in one or two instances at least he paid his debts in full, after compromising with his creditors.  2
  Defoe’s writings, though all marked by his strong but limited personality, fall naturally into three classes:—  3
  First, his political writings, in which may be included his wretched attempts at political satire, and most of his journalistic work. This is included in numberless pamphlets, broad-sheets, newspapers, and the like, and is admirable expository matter on the public questions of the day. Second, his fiction, ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ ‘Captain Singleton,’ ‘Colonel Jack,’ ‘Roxana,’ and ‘Moll Flanders.’ Third, his miscellaneous work; innumerable biographies and papers like the ‘History of the Plague,’ the ‘Account of the Great Storm,’ ‘The True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal,’ etc. Between the last two classes there is a close connection, since both were written for the market; and his fictions proper are cast in the autobiographical form and are founded on incidents in the lives of real persons, and his biographies contain a large proportion of fiction.  4
  Some knowledge of Defoe’s political work is necessary to a comprehension of the early eighteenth century. During his life the power of the people and of the House of Commons was slowly extended, and the foundations of the modern English Constitution were laid. The trading and manufacturing classes, especially in the city of London, increased in wealth and political consequence. The reading public on which a popular writer could rely, widened. With these changes—partly as cause and purely as consequence—came the establishment of “News Journals” and “Reviews.” Besides Addison’s Spectator for the more cultured classes, multitudes of periodicals were founded which aimed to reach a more general public. The old method of a broad-sheet or the pamphlet, hawked in the streets or exposed for sale and cried at the book-stalls, was still in use, but the regular issue of a news-letter was taking its place. Defoe attacked the public in both ways with unwearied assiduity. His poem ‘The True-Born Englishman’ was sold in the streets to the astonishing number of eighty thousand. In 1704 he established the Review, a bi-weekly. It ran to 1713, and Defoe wrote nearly all of each number. Afterwards he was for eight years main contributor and substantially manager of Mist’s Journal, a Tory organ; and one of the most serious and well-founded charges against this first great journalist is, that he was deficient in journalistic honor, and remained in the pay of the Whig Ministry while attached to the Opposition organ. During this period he founded and conducted several other journals.  5
  Defoe possessed in a large measure the journalistic sense. No one ever had a finer instinct in the subtle arts of “working the public” and of advertising. When the notorious Jack Sheppard was condemned, he visited him at Newgate, wrote his life, and had the highwayman, standing under the gallows, send for a copy and deliver it as his “last speech and dying confession.” There is a certain breadth and originality in this stroke, hardly to be paralleled in modern journalism. Defoe had the knack of singling out from the mass of passing events whatever would be likely to interest the public. He brought out an account in some newspaper, and if successful, made the occurrence the subject of a longer article in pamphlet or book form. He was always on the lookout for matter, which he utilized with a pen of marvelous rapidity. The gazette or embryonic newspaper was at first confined to a rehearsal of news. Defoe invented the leading article or “news-letter” of weekly comment, and the society column of Mercure Scandaleuse.  6
  The list of Defoe’s political pamphlets is a large one, but they are of more interest to the historian than to the general reader. While they are far inferior in construction and victorious good sense to Sydney Smith’s magazine articles on kindred topics, and to Swift’s ‘Drapier’s Letters’ in subtle appeals to the prejudices of the ignorant, they show a remarkable command over the method of reaching the plain people,—to use President Lincoln’s phrase, and taking it to mean that great body of quiet persons who desire on the whole to be fair in their judgments, but who must have their duty made quite evident before they see it. Defoe is never vituperative—that is, vituperative for a time when Pope and Swift and Dennis made their personal invective so much higher flavored than modern taste endures. He seems to have been tolerant by nature; and although this proceeds in his case from the fact that his moral enthusiasm was never very warm, and not from any innate refinement of nature, he is entitled to the credit of moderation in the use of abusive language. He is tolerant, too, of those who differ from him in politics and religion; and though it is absurd to suppose, as some of his biographers have done, that he was so far in advance of his century as to have advocated the political soundness of free trade, he shows in his treatment of commercial questions the marks of a broad and comprehensive mind. He speaks of foreigners in a cosmopolitan spirit, with the exception of the Portuguese, for whom he seems to feel a lively dislike, founded possibly on some of his early business experiences. The reader will remember the dignified and courteous demeanor of the Spaniards in ‘Robinson Crusoe’; and although the violent antipathy of the previous generation to Spanish Romanists had abated, Defoe’s freedom from insular prejudice is noteworthy, the more so that a “discreet and sober bearing,” such as he gives his Spaniards, seems to have been his ideal of conduct. Defoe is a great journalist, and although he is a typical hack, writing timely articles for pay, he has a touch of genius. He was always successful in gaining the ear of his public; and in the one instance where he hit upon a subject of universal interest, the life of the solitary castaway thrown absolutely on his own resources, he wrote a book, without any effort or departure from his usual style, which has been as popular with succeeding generations as it was with his own. It is a mistake to call ‘Robinson Crusoe’ a “great boy’s book,”—unless we regard the boy nature as persistent in all men, and perhaps it is in all healthy men,—for it treats the unaided conflict with nature and circumstance, which is the essence of adult life, with unequaled simplicity and force. Crusoe is not merely an adventurer; he is the human will, courage, resolution, stripped of all the adventitious support of society. He has the elements of universal humanity, though in detail he is as distinctly English as Odysseus is Greek.  7
  The characters of Defoe’s other novels—Colonel Jack, Captain Singleton, Moll Flanders, and Roxana—are so repulsive, and so entirely unaware of their repulsiveness, that we can take little interest in them. Possibly an exception might be made in favor of Colonel Jack, who evinces at times an amusing humor. All are criminals, and the conflict of the criminal with the forces of society may be the subject of the most powerful fiction. But these books are inartistic in several regards. No criminals, even allowing them to be hypocrites, ever disclose themselves in the open-hearted manner of these autobiographers. Vice always pays to virtue the homage of a certain reticence in details. Despite all his Newgate experiences and his acquaintance with noted felons, Defoe never understood either the weakness or the strength of the criminal type. So all his harlots and thieves and outcasts are decidedly amateurish. A serious transgression of the moral law is to them a very slight matter, to be soon forgotten after a temporary fit of repentance, and a long course of evil living in no wise interferes with a comfortable and respectable old age. His pirates have none of the desperation and brutal heroism of sin. Stevenson’s John Silver or Israel Hands is worth a schooner-load of them. Neither they nor their author seem to value virtue very highly, though they are acutely sensitive to the discomfort of an evil reputation. Possibly such people may be true to a certain type of humanity, but they are exceedingly uninteresting. A writer who takes so narrow a view cannot produce a great book, even though his lack of moral scope and insight is partly compensated by a vivid presentation of life on the low plane from which he views it.  8
  ‘Moll Flanders’ and ‘Roxana’ are very coarse books, but it can hardly be said that they are harmful or corrupting. They are simply vulgar. Vice has preserved all its evil by preserving all its grossness. Passion is reduced to mere animalism, and is depicted with the brutal directness of Hogarth. This may be good morals, but it is unpleasant art. It is true that Defoe’s test of a writer was that he should “please and serve his public,” and in providing amusement he was not more refined nor more coarse than those whom he addressed; but a writer should look a little deeper and aim a little higher than the average morality of his day. Otherwise he may please but will not serve his generation, in any true sense of literary service.  9
  Defoe is sometimes spoken of as the first great realist. In a limited sense this may be true. No doubt he presents the surface of a limited area of the eighteenth-century world with fidelity. With the final establishment of Protestantism, the increase of trade, and the building of physical science on the broad foundations laid down by Newton, England had become more mundane than at any other period. The intense faith and the imaginative quality of the seventeenth century were deadened. The eighteenth century kept its eyes on the earth, and though it found a great many interesting and wonderful things there, and though it laid the foundations of England’s industrial greatness, it was neither a spiritual nor an artistic age. The novel was in its infancy; and as if a “true story” was more worthy of respect than an invention, it received from Defoe an air of verisimilitude and is usually based on some real events. He is careful to embellish his fictions with little bits of realism. Thus, Moll Flanders gives an inventory of the goods she took to America, and in the ‘History of the Plague’ Defoe adds a note to his description of a burial-ground:—“N. B. The author of this Journal lies buried in that very ground, being at his own desire, his sister having been buried there a few weeks before.” This enumeration of particulars certainly gives an air of reality, but it is a trick easily caught, and it is only now and then that he hits—as in the above instance—on the characteristic circumstance which gives life and reality to the narrative. Except in ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ much of his detail is irrelevant and tiresome. But all the events on the lonely island are admirably harmonized and have a cumulative effect. The second part,—after the rescue,—written to take advantage of the popularity of the first, is vastly inferior. The artistic selective power is not exercised. This same concrete imagination which sees minute details is also evident in his contemporary Swift, but with him it works at the bidding of a far more fervid and emotional spirit.  10
  Defoe is a pioneer in novel-writing and in journalism, and in both he shows wonderful readiness in appreciating what the public would like and energy in supplying them with it. To the inventor or discoverer of a new form we cannot deny great credit. Most writers imitate, but it cannot be said that Defoe founded himself on any predecessor, while his successors are numbered by hundreds. A certain relationship could be traced between his work, and the picaresque tales of France and Spain on the one hand and the contemporary journals of actual adventure on the other; but not one close enough to detract from his claim to original power.  11
  Some of Defoe’s political work, like ‘The True-Born Englishman,’ ‘The Shortest Way with Dissenters,’ ‘Reasons against the Succession of the House of Hanover,’ are written in the ironical tone. Mr. Saintsbury seems to think that Defoe’s method is not truly ironical, because it differs from Swift’s; but if we remember that one writer differeth from another in irony, there is no reason to deny Defoe’s mastery of this penetrating weapon, especially when we find that he imposed on both parties. The judges told him that “irony of that sort would bring him to the gallows,” but the eighteenth-century law of libel was more rigid in its constructions than the canons of literary art.  12
  Defoe made several attempts at poetical satire, which are sufficient to show that he lacked either the talent or the patience to write political verse. Compared with Dryden’s or Pope’s, his work is mere doggerel, enlivened by occasional vigorous couplets like—
  “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.”
  “No panegyric needs their praise record—
An Englishman ne’er wants his own good word.”
But an examination will confirm the impression that Defoe was not a poet, as surely as the re-reading of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ will strengthen our hereditary belief that he was a great writer of prose.

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.