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Daniel Defoe Robinson Crusoe

Daniel DefoeDaniel Defoe was born around 1660 (the exact date is uncertain) in the parish of St. Giles Cripplegate, London, to Alice and James Foe. His father, James, was a tallow chandler, or candle merchant, and a member of the Butcher's Company, a professional guild. The Foes (Daniel would later change his surname to "Defoe," a more aristocratic name he linked to the De Baux Faux family) were Protestant dissenters, neither following Catholicism nor the official Church of England, and thus a persecuted minority during Great Britain's turbulent seventeenth century.

Defoe lived through a remarkably eventful era, having been born shortly after the death of Oliver Cromwell, and a few years before both the Great Plague (1665) and Great Fire of London (1666). The Foes barely escaped destruction from the fire, and when Daniel was only ten, his mother passed away. Educated at Charles Morton's Academy for dissenters in London, his father expected Defoe to go into the ministry. Not unlike Robinson Crusoe, young Daniel had other ideas and, at the age of eighteen, left school and went into business, eventually becoming a merchant, dealing at various times in hosiery, wool, and wine. He married Mary Tuffley, the daughter of a London merchant, in 1684 and, over a fifty-year marriage, had eight children, six of whom survived to adulthood. It was no doubt a difficult match, as Defoe was constantly in debt and would court disaster with his political activities over the course of his varied career. "No man," he wrote in the preface to the eighth volume of his Review in 1712, "has tasted differing fortunes more, / And thirteen times I have been rich and poor."

Defoe's political intrigues would start off ignominiously, as he supported the Monmouth Rebellion after the death of Charles II, the king who restored the monarchy after the upheaval following Cromwell's death. Charles II, a late convert to Catholicism, had designated his brother, James II, also a Catholic, as his successor, but Charles's bastard son, James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth, was a Protestant and objected to a Catholic king. After his defeat, Monmouth and many of his followers were executed, but Defoe escaped harsh punishment and was eventually pardoned. In three years' time, with the Glorious Revolution and the ascension of the Protestant William of Orange, Defoe was, for a time, in the good graces of the crown. It did not prevent Defoe's arrest in 1692 for indebtedness, however—for as much as £17,000, by some accounts.

After his business failed, he traveled in Europe and tried his hand at other trades before becoming the operator of a tile and brick factory in Essex, a period of relative prosperity and peace for Defoe. He continued to be politically active, beginning to write in support of William III and the king's desire for a standing army. He published a poem in 1701, The True-Born Englishman, a satire defending the king against attacks on his foreign origin. William's death in 1702 heralded a calamitous period for Defoe, as the new Queen Anne was bent on curbing the rights of Nonconformists—dissenters like Defoe who refused to recognize the authority of the Church of England. Defoe courted trouble that year by publishing an anonymous pamphlet titled The Shortest Way with Dissenters, a scathing satire that sarcastically endorsed the most brutal intolerance of dissenters. The piece was a little too on the nose in adopting the voice of the extreme conformists and ended up infuriating those on both sides of the issue. The authorities soon discovered Defoe as the true author of the document and sentenced him to stand for three days in the pillory at Temple Bar, followed by nearly two years' incarceration in Newgate Prison.

Defoe obtained his release by agreeing to act as a spy for the ruling Tory party. While being used to gather intelligence for one political faction, Defoe continued to write, founding A Review of the Affairs of France in 1704, and publishing a collection of eyewitness accounts of London's Great Storm of 1703 titled The Storm, considered by many to be one of the first examples of modern journalism. Defoe continued to single-handedly publish the Review three times a week until 1713. After the death of Queen Anne in 1710, he took up with the newly empowered Whig party, continuing to pen Tory pamphlets that now undermined their supposed intent. Considering the duplicity of his secret government activities, it's difficult to really know how true Defoe was able to be to his stated convictions. But it would seem, as the initial activities were undertaken to secure his release from prison, that Defoe at least tried to rationalize his actions within the integrity of his firmly held beliefs.

No one was a more prolific writer during this age than Defoe, who's credited with at least 370 different works. He published not only his Review and other political works, but pamphlets, manuals, and books on religion and morals. It was on April 25, 1719, that Defoe released Robinson Crusoe, a work that would not only change his life but signal for the English-speaking world a new form of storytelling: the novel. A fictional memoir of a man marooned on a desert island, Crusoe was the first book to deal with realistic events, told in a factual, true-to-life manner, without being true. The simple application of Defoe's casual, conversational, journalistic style of writing—one which would have been commonplace in journals and letters—to a fictional tale, full of allegorical elements, was new. It was immediately successful, selling out six editions in its first year, and prompting Defoe to not only write two sequels—volumes II and III of Robinson Crusoe—but to apply the literary device to several more novels between 1720 and 1724, the most enduring of which would be A Journal of the Plague Year, an "eyewitness" account of one Londoner's experience of the Great Plague of 1665, and Moll Flanders, another fictional memoir, about a lowborn woman who makes her way through life variously as prostitute, thief, bigamist, adulteress, and more before gaining eventual redemption.

The success of Robinson Crusoe and his other novels could not prevent one more turn in Defoe's fortunes late in life. After repeated setbacks, he was once again thrown into poverty and probably forced to hide from his creditors in the end. Living in a London lodging house, he died of lethargy on April 24, 1731, almost twelve years to the day after publishing the work that would make his name immortal. He was interred in a Nonconformist cemetery in Bunhill Fields, London, where John Bunyan and William Blake also lie. After a stroke of lightning split his burial marker, an appeal was made by the editor of the Christian World to the "boys and girls of England" to erect a suitable monument to the author of Robinson Crusoe. In 1870 an engraved obelisk, which still stands to this day, was placed over Defoe's grave, paid for by the donations of more than seventeen hundred children from around the world.

Selected Works

  • Fiction

    • The Consolidator (1705)
    • Atlantis Major (1711)
    • Robinson Crusoe (1719)
    • The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719)
    • Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1720)
    • Captain Singleton (1720)
    • Memoirs of a Cavalier (1720)
    • A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)
    • Moll Flanders (1722)
    • Colonel Jack (1722)
    • Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress (1724)
  • Nonfiction

    • The Shortest Way with Dissenters (1702)
    • The Storm (1704)
    • The Family Instructor (1715)
    • Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724–1726)
    • The Political History of the Devil (1726)
    • An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions (1727)
  • Poetry

    • The True-Born Englishman: A Satyr (1701)