Copyright 1894 by American Book Company
[What follows is a verbatim copy of the 1894 book by Daniel Defoe. There are many apparent typos, such as staid instead of stayed; however, everything has been input according to the book as written. We know that spelling was not standardized as it is today, so just look on it as another aspect of the era's creativity. I have broken up the longer paragraphs into something more readable on the computer screen, sparing our readers the agony of long tracts of unbroken lines of type. I could wish that the current software for original articles allowed one to put an extra return in between paragraphs.
I find refreshing the lack of reverence for Defoe as a writer. Candor has become a rare commodity in our modern, politically-correct world, and so I wonder who the writer of this Introduction is. He is not identified in this section.]
The father of Daniel Defoe was a butcher in the parish of St. Giles's, Cripplegate, London. In this parish, probably, Daniel Defoe was born in 1661, the year after the restoration of Charles II. The boy's parents wished him to become a dissenting minister, and so intrusted his education to a Mr. Morton who kept an academy for the training of nonconformist divines. How long Defoe staid at this school is not known.
He seems to think himself that he staid there long enough to become a good scholar; for he declares that the pupils were “made masters of the English tongue, and more of them excelled in that particular than of any school at that time.” If this statement be true, we can only say that the other schools must have been very bad indeed. Defoe never acquired a really good style, and can in no true sense be called a “master of the English tongue.”
Nature had gifted Defoe with untiring energy, a keen taste for public affairs, and a special aptitude for chicanery and intrigue. These were not qualities likely to advance him in the ministry, and he wisely refused to adopt that profession. With a young man's love for adventure and a dissenter's hatred for Roman Catholicism, he took part in the Duke of Monmouth's rebellion (1685) against James II. More fortunate than three of his fellow students, who were executed for their share in this affair, Defoe escaped the hue and cry that followed the battle of Sedgemoor, and after some months' concealment set up as a wholesale merchant in Cornhill.
When James II was deposed in 1688, and the Protestant William of Orange elected to the English throne, Defoe hastened to give in his allegiance to the new dynasty. In 1691 he published his first pamphlet, “A New Discovery of an Old Intrigue, a Satire leveled at Treachery and Ambition.” This is written in miserable doggerel verse. That Defoe should have mistaken it for poetry, and should have prided himself upon it accordingly, is only a proof of how incompetent an author is to pass judgment upon what is good and what is bad in his own work.
In 1692 Defoe failed in business, probably from too much attention to politics, which were now beginning to engross more and more of his time and thoughts. His political attitude is clearly defined in the title of his next pamphlet, “The Englishman's Choice and True Interest: in the Vigorous Prosecution of the War against France, and serving K. William and Q. Mary, and acknowledging their right.” “K. William” was too astute a manager to neglect a writer who showed the capacity to become a dangerous opponent. Defoe was accordingly given the place of accountant to the commissioners of the glass duty (1694). From this time until William's death (1702), he had no more loyal and active servant than Defoe.
Innumerable pamphlets bear tribute to his devotion to the King and his policy -- pamphlets written in an easy, swinging, good-natured style, with little imagination and less passion; pamphlets whose principal arguments are based upon a reasonable self-interest, and for the comprehension of which no more intellectual power is called for than Providence has doled out to the average citizen. Had Defoe lived in the nineteenth century, instead of the seventeenth, he would have commanded a princely salary as writer the Sunday newspaper, and as composer of campaign documents and of speeches for members of the House of Representatives.
In 1701 Defoe published his “True-born Englishman,” a satire upon the English people for their stupid opposition to the continental policy of the King. This is the only metrical composition of prolific Daniel that has any pretensions to be called a poem. It contains some lines not unworthy to rank with those of Dryden at his second-best. For instance, the opening:
“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.”
Or again, this keen and spirited description of the origin of the English race:
“These are the heroes that despise the Dutch,
And rail at newcome foreigners so much,
Forgetting that themselves are all derived
From te most scoundrel race that ever lived;
A horrid crowd of rambling thieves and drones,
Who ransacked kingdoms and dispeopled towns;
The Pict and painted Britons, treach'rous Scott
By hunger, theft, and rapine hither brought;
Norwegian pirates, buccaneering Danes,
Whose red-haired offspring everywhere remains;
Who, joined with Norman French, compound the breed
From whence your true-born Englishmen proceed.”
Strange to say, the English people were so pleased with this humorous sketch of themselves, that they bought eighty thousand copies of the work. Not often is a truth teller so rewarded.
Not unnaturally elated by the success of this experiment, the next year Defoe came out with his famous “Shortest Way with the Dissenters,” a satire upon those furious High Churchmen and Tories, who would devour the dissenters tooth and nail. Unfortunately, the author had overestimated the capacity of the average Tory to see through a stone wall. The irony was mistaken for sincerity, and quoted approvingly by those whom it was intended to satirize. When the truth dawned through the obscuration of the Tories' intellect, they were naturally enraged. They had influence enough to have Defoe arrested, and confined in Newgate for some eighteen months. He was also compelled to stand in the pillory for three days; but it is not true that his ears were cropped, as Pope intimates in his “Earless on high stood unabashed Defoe.”
What are the exact terms Defoe made with the ministry, and on exactly what conditions he was released from Newgate, have not been ascertained. It is certain he never ceased to write, even while in prison, both anonymously and under his own name. For some years, in addition to pamphlet after pamphlet, he published a newspaper which he called the Review, in which he generally sided with the moderate Whigs, advocated earnestly the union with Scotland, and gave the English people a vast deal of good advice upon foreign policy and domestic trade. There is no doubt that during this time he was in the secret service of the government.
When the Tories displaced the Whigs in 1710, he managed to keep his post, and took his Review over to the support of the new masters, justifying his turncoating by a disingenuous plea of preferring country to party. His pamphleteering pen was now as active in the service of the Tory prime minister Harley as it had been in that of the Whig Godolphin. The party of the latter rightly regarded him as a traitor to their cause, and secured an order from the Court of of Queen's Bench, directing the attorney general to prosecute Defoe for certain pamphlets, which they declared were directed against the Hanoverian succession. Before the trial took place, Harley, at whose instigation the pamphlets had been written, secured his henchman a royal pardon.
When the Tories fell from power at the death of Queen Anne (1714), and the Whigs again obtained possession of the government, only one of two courses was open to Defoe: he must either retire permanently from politics, or again change sides. He unhesitatingly chose the latter. But his political reputation had now sunk so low, that no party could afford the disgrace of his open support.
He was accordingly employed as a literary and political spy, ostensibly opposing the government, worming himself into the confidence of Tory editors and politicians, using his influence as an editorial writer to suppress items obnoxious to the government, and suggesting the timely prosecution of such critics as he could not control. He was able to play this double part for eight years, until his treachery was discovered by one Mist, whose Journal Defoe had, in his own words, “disabled and enervated, so as to do no mischief, or give any offense to the government.”
Mist hastened to disclose Defoe's real character to his fellow newspaper proprietors, and in 1726 we find the good Daniel sorrowfully complaining, “I had not published my project in this pamphlet, could I have got it inserted in any of the journals without feeing the journalists or publishers ... I have not only had the mortification to find what I sent rejected, but to lose my originals, not having taken copies of what I wrote.”
Of the two hundred and fifty odd books and pamphlets written by Defoe, it may be fairly be said only two, Robinson Crusoe and the History of the Plague in London, are read by any but the special students of eighteenth-century literature. The latter will be discussed in another part of this Introduction. Of the former it may be asserted, that it arose naturally out of the circumstances of Defoe's trade as a journalist. So long as the papers would take his articles, nobody of distinction could die without Defoe's rushing out with a biography of him.
In these biographies, when facts were scanty, Defoe supplied them from his imagination, attributing to his hero such sentiments as he thought the average Londoner could understand, and describing his appearance with that minute fidelity of which only an eyewitness is supposed to be capable. Long practice in this kind of composition made Defoe an adept in the art of “lying like truth.”
When, therefore, the actual and extraordinary adventures of Alexander Selkirk came under his notice, nothing was more natural and more profitable for Defoe than to seize upon this material, and work it up, just as he worked up the lives of Jack Sheppard the highwayman, and of Avery the king of the pirates.
It is interesting to notice also that the date of publication of Robinson Crusoe (1719) corresponds with a time in which Defoe was playing the desperate and dangerous game of a political spy. A single false move might bring him a stab in the dark, or might land him in the hulks for transportation to some tropical island, where he might have abundance need for the exercise of those mental resources that interest us so much in Crusoe. The secret of Defoe's life at this time was known only to himself and to the minister that paid him. He was almost as much alone in London as was Crusoe on his desert island.
The success which Defoe scored in Robinson Crusoe he never repeated. His entire lack of artistic conscience is shown by his adding a dull second part to Robinson Crusoe, and a duller series of serious reflections such as might have passed through Crusoe's mind during his island captivity. Of even the vest of Defoe's other novels -- Moll Flanders, Roxana, Captain Singleton -- the writer must confess that his judgment coincides with that of Mr. Leslie Stephen, who finds two thirds of them “deadly dull,” and the treatment such as “cannot raise the story above a very moderate level.”
The closing scenes of Defoe's life were not cheerful. He appears to have lost most of the fortune he acquired from his numerous writings and scarcely less numerous speculations. For the two years immediately preceding his death, he lived in concealment away from his home, though why he fled, and from what danger, is not definitely known. He died in a lodging in Ropemaker's Alley, Moorfields, on April 26, 1731.
The only description we have of Defoe's personal appearance is an advertisement published in 1703, when he was in hiding to avoid arrest for his “Shortest Way with the Dissenters:”
“He is a middle-aged, 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, gray eyes, and a large mole near his mouth.”
In the years 1720-21 the plague, which had not visited Western Europe for fifty-five years, broke out with great violence in Marseilles. About fifty thousand people died of the disease in that city, and great alarm was felt in London lest the infection should reach England. Here was a journalistic chance that so experienced a newspaper man as Defoe could not let slip. Accordingly, on the 17th of March, 1722, appeared his “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. Written by a Citizen who continued all the while in London. Never made public before.”
The story is told with such an air of veracity, the little circumstantial details are introduced with such apparent artlessness, the grotesque incidents are described with such animation, (and relish!) the horror borne in upon the mind of the narrator is so apparently genuine, that we can easily understand how almost everybody not in the secret of the authorship believed he had here an authentic Journal written by one who had actually beheld the scenes he describes. Indeed, we know that twenty-three years after the Journal was published, this impression still prevailed; for Defoe is gravely quoted as an authority in “A Discourse on the Plague: by Richard Mead, Fellow of the College of Physicians and of the Royal Society, and Physician to his Majesty. 9th Edition. London 1744.” Though Defoe, like his admiring critic Mr. Saintsbury, had but small sense of humor, even he must have felt tickled in his grave at this ponderous scientific tribute to his skill in the art of realistic description.
If we inquire further into the secret of Defoe's success in the History of the Plague, we shall find that it consists largely in his vision, or power of seeing clearly and accurately what he describes, before he attempts to put this description on paper. As Defoe was but four years old at the time of the Great Plague, his personal recollection of its effects must have been of the dimmest; but during the years of childhood (the most imaginative of life) he must often have conversed with persons who had been through the plague, possibly with those who had recovered from it themselves. He must often have visited localities ravaged by the plague, and spared by the great Fire of 1666; he must often have gazed in childish horror at those awful mounds beneath which hundreds of human bodies lay huddled together -- rich and poor, high and low, scoundrel and saint -- sharing one common bed at last. His retentive memory must have stored away at least the outline of those hideous images, so effectively recombined many years later by means of his powerful though limited imagination.
Defoe had the ability to become a good scholar, and to acquire the elements of a good English style; but it is certain he never did. He never had time, or rather he never took time, preferring invariably quantity to quality. What work of his has survived till today is read, not for its style, but in spite of its style. His syntax is loose and unscholarly; his vocabulary is copious but often inaccurate; many of his sentences ramble on interminably, lacking unity, precision, and balance. Figures of speech he seldom abuses because he seldom uses; his imagination, as noticed before, being extremely limited in range. That Defoe, in spite of these defects, should succeed in interesting us in his Plague, is a remarkable tribute to his peculiar ability as described in the preceding paragraph.
In the course of the Notes, the editor has indicated such corrections as are necessary to prevent the student from thinking that in reading Defoe he is drinking from a “well of English undefiled.” The art of writing an English prose at once scholarly, clear-cut, and vigorous, was well understood by Defoe's great contemporaries, Dryden, Swift, and Congreve; it does not seem to have occurred to Defoe to that he could learn anything from their practice. He has his reward. Robinson Crusoe may continue to hold the child and the kitchen wench; but the “Essay on Dramatic Poesy, “The Battle of the Books,” and “Love for Love,” are for the men and women of culture.
The standard Life of Defoe is by William Lee (London, J. C. Hotten, 1869). William Minto, in the “English Men of Letters Series,” has an excellent short biography of Defoe. For criticism, the only good estimate I am acquainted with is by Leslie Stephen, in “Hours in a Library, First Series.” The nature of the article on Defoe in the “Britannica” may be indicated by noticing that writer (Saintsbury) seriously compared Defoe with Carlyle as a descriptive writer. It would be consoling to think that this is intended as a joke.
Those who wish to know more about the plague than Defoe tells them should consult Besant's “London,” pp.376-394 (New York, Harpers). Besant refers to two pamphlets, “The Wonderful Year” and “Vox Civitatis,” which he think Defoe must have used in writing his book.