*Defoe, Daniel

Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe



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Defoe, Daniel

English, c. 1660–1731
The most prolific essayist of early 18th-century England, Daniel Defoe produced some 200 works of nonfiction prose in addition to close to 2000 short essays in periodical publications, several of which he also edited, such as A Review of the Affairs of France.
Such profuse output earned for Defoe a contemptuous mention as “Restless Daniel” in Alexander Pope’s Dunciad (1728), but the energy and intelligence of the writing gained for Defoe an influential voice in public affairs from the end of the previous century until his death in 1731, spanning the reigns of William, Anne, and George I.
Defoe’s first success as an essayist came in 1697–98, at the age of 37, with the publication of two pamphlets on the standing army controversy and a longer work, An Essay upon Projects, a collection of proposals for public ventures such as an academy for women, an institution for those born with mental defects, and an expanded national system of roads. Until this time he had published mainly verse pamphlets and concentrated on his business concerns; but after the success of these prose works—and the failure of his mercantile enterprises—he worked almost solely in nonfiction prose for the next two decades, and even after turning to fiction with Robinson Crusoe in 1719, remained prolific in nonfiction, producing in his last five years several of his most substantial and interesting volumes: The Complete English Tradesman (1725–27), A Plan of the English Commerce (1728), the economic geography Atlas Maritimus (1728), and two works involving the supernatural, The Political History of the Devil (1726) and An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions (1727). Much more than the novels, the nonfiction works provided Defoe his comfortable income.
Despite (or perhaps because of) this prodigious output, Defoe has until recently not held a secure place in the history of the essay, existing instead in the borderlands between the belletristic essay writing of Addison, Swift, and Johnson, on one side, and the anonymous ephemera of Grub Street, on the other. Certainly his work does not exhibit the self-exploration of Montaigne’s Essais (1580, 1588) or the timelessness of the commonplace topics of Bacon’s Essayes (1597, 1612, 1625); only Defoe’s A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724–27) is widely recognized as having the aesthetic qualities of the belles-lettres. However, recent interest in the rhetorical nature of a wider range of nonfiction has prompted a new exploration of Defoe as a writer who used the flexibility and openness of the essay to investigate and shape the social life around him.

Daniel Defoe - Robinson Crusoe

Defoe does share with Montaigne a notion of the essay as an informal and experimental kind of writing. When he uses the word “essay” in a title of a text (as he does a dozen times, e.g. An Essay upon Publick Credit, 1710, or An Essay on the Late Storm, 1704), its primary meaning is an experimental or initial attempt to treat a subject, only secondarily referring to the resulting text. There are several instances of this use of the word, as in Defoe’s remark in the introduction to An Essay upon Projects that “If I have given an Essay towards any thing New, or made Discovery to advantage of any Contrivance now on foot, all Men are at liberty to make use of the Improvement.” In the conclusion to the same work he refers to the essay as a kind of text but one defined only by a “Free and Familiar” language unconcerned with “Exactness of Style.”
The informality and freedom of Defoe’s essays, however, are in their style and tone, not in their structure. Despite the self-effacing tone of the introduction to Upon Projects, the individual essays proceed carefully, if casually, from an exposition of a public problem to a “Proposal” section that lays out the solution methodically, often in enumerated steps. Likewise, the Tour combines an often casual description of landscapes and cityscapes with a meaningful narrative pattern, each essay following a trip out from London and back. The relaxed but consistent repetition of this pattern helps Defoe depict Britain as a regionally diverse but economically unified whole, with London as its heart.
When he pauses to reflect on a vista of fine country houses or a once bustling town now desolate, it becomes not a Montaignean digression but simply another illustration of the theme of national growth and decay.
But in tone and style the essays seem thoroughly “Free and Familiar,” and it is this aspect that readers have always found noteworthy. Most of Defoe’s pronouncements on writing urge the use of “Language plain, artless, and true” for the aim of broad comprehension: “A man speaking to five hundred people, of all common and various capacities…should be understood by them all, in the same manner with one another, and in the same sense which the speaker intended to be understood” (Tradesman). Recent studies have discovered in Defoe’s “plain style” an intriguing variety of figures of speech (especially irony and allegory) and levels of formality. But his essays are almost without exception conversational and accessible, and he is credited with being influential in the increasing use of the lower range of styles in 18th-century prose. Defoe’s own style was inspired by a variety of sources: the plain style of Dryden and the Royal Society, the popular preaching style of Defoe’s Presbyterian upbringing, and the premium upon familiar, unadorned prose among merchants.
The broader significance of Defoe’s essays, however, lies in the remarkable range of his work. From his formative commercial beginnings he took a lasting admiration of the merchant, who through his trade “converses with all parts of the world” and builds his enterprises from what is at first “all project, contrivance, and invention” (Upon Projects).
That Defoe used the essay as a form whose openness would allow both wide converse and the projector’s focus on the present makes him a pivotal figure in the explosion of nonfiction, in both kind and quantity, for which the 18th century is still known.

Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe

Born Daniel Foe c. 1660 in London; used the name Defoe from c. 1703. Studied at Charles Morton’s Academy, London. Hosiery manufacturer and commission merchant, early 1680s: went bankrupt, 1691. Married Mary Tuffley, 1684: two sons and five daughters. Involved in Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion against James II, 1685. Associated with a brick and tile works in Tilbury: business failed, 1703; accountant to the commissioners of the glass duty, 1695–99. Convicted and jailed for seditious libel with The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, 1703. Political writer for Robert Harley, later Earl of Oxford, 1704–11; editor, A Review of the Affairs of France, and of All Europe, 1704– 13, Mercurius Politicus, 1716–20, the Manufacturer, 1720, and the Director, 1720–21; contributor to periodicals published by Nathaniel Mist, from 1715. Died in London, 26 April 1731.

Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
An Essay upon Projects, 1697; facsimile reprint, 1969; as Several Essays Relating to Academies, 1700, and as Essays upon Several Projects, 1702
An Essay on the Late Storm, 1704
An Essay at Removing National Prejudices Against a Union with Scotland, 6 vols., 1706– 07
An Essay upon Publick Credit, 1710
An Essay on the South Sea Trade, 1712
An Essay on the Treaty of Commerce with France, 1713
A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, 3 vols., 1724–27; edited by G.D.H. Cole, 2 vols., 1927, and Pat Rogers, 1971; abridged edition, 1989
The Complete English Tradesman, 2 vols., 1725–27; reprinted 1969
An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions, 1727; as The Secrets of the Invisible World Disclosed; or, An Universal History of Apparitions, 1728
The Shortest Way with the Dissenters and Other Pamphlets, 1927
A Review of the Affairs of France, and of All Europe, edited by Arthur Wellesley Secord, 22 vols., 1938; reprinted 1965; Index by William L. Payne, 1948; selection as The Best of Defoe’s Review, edited by Payne, 1951
Selected Poetry and Prose, edited by Michael F.Shugrue, 1968
Selected Writings, edited by James T.Boulton, 1975
“The Manufacturer” (1719–1721); Together with Related Issues of “The British Merchant” and “The Weaver”, facsimile reprint, 1978
The Versatile Defoe: An Anthology of Uncollected Writings, edited by Laura Ann Curtis, 1979

Other writings: novels (including Robinson Crusoe, 1719; Moll Flanders, 1722; A Journal of the Plague Year, 1722; Roxana, 1724), poetry, and many tracts, pamphlets, broadsides, and other journalism.

Moore, John R., A Checklist of the Writings of Daniel Defoe, Hamden, Connecticut: Archon, 1971 (original edition, 1960, revised edition, 1961)
Peterson, Spiro, Daniel Defoe: A Reference Guide, 1731–1924, Boston: Hall, 1987
Stoler, John A., Daniel Defoe: An Annotated Bibliography of Modern Criticism, 1900– 1980, New York: Garland, 1984

Further Reading
Backscheider, Paula R., Daniel Defoe: Ambition and Innovation, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1986
Backscheider, Paula R., Daniel Defoe: His Life, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989
Curtis, Laura, “A Rhetorical Approach to the Prose of Daniel Defoe,” Rhetorica 11 (1993): 293–319
Furbank, P.N., and W.R.Owens, The Canonisation of Daniel Defoe, New Haven, Connecticut and London: Yale University Press, 1988
Novak, Maximillian E., Economics and the Fiction of Daniel Defoe, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962
Novak, Maximillian E., Defoe and the Nature of Man, London: Oxford University Press, 1963
Richetti, John J., Daniel Defoe, Boston: Twayne, 1987
Rogers, Pat, “Literary Art in Defoe’s Tour: The Rhetoric of Growth and Decay,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 6 (1972–73):153–85
Schellenberg, Betty A., “Imagining the Nation in Defoe’s A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain” English Literary History 62 (1995): 295–311
Schonhorn, Manuel, Defoe’s Politics: Parliament, Power, Kingship, and Robinson Crusoe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1991

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