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While Robinson Crusoe has been dramatized many times, Defoe often expressed suspicion of theatre. In The Family Instructor (1715), Defoe explores theatre-going as a gateway to other sins and a form of frivolity. The Fortunate Mistress (1724) depicts theatricality as part of elite corruption and an expression of the heroine’s deceptive practices. While including such versions of antitheatricality in such narratives, Defoe nevertheless weaves theatrical techniques into his own writing and does not engage in the passionate hostility to the stage that we see in some of the religious moralists of his time.
This chapter considers major aspects of Defoe’s output in verse, touching on his debt to influential predecessors from the Restoration era, where his most important models were Andrew Marvell, Samuel Butler, and John Dryden. A discussion follows of characteristic poems that exhibit various modes of satiric writing, including ballads and quasi-Pindaric items such as A Hymn to the Pillory (1703) and The Vision (1706); allusive productions in the fashionable form of heroic couplets, such as The Mock Mourners (1702) and The Dyet of Poland (1705); and his longest poem, Jure Divino (1706), labelled a satire, but centrally an exercise in political theory. The discussion culminates in an analysis of the most successful work in the canon, a biting interrogation of nationhood, The True-Born Englishman (1701), with an exploration of the methods by which Defoe undermined the Little Englander rhetoric of his principal target, the journalist John Tutchin.
Defoe was unusual for a man of his time. He was remarkably individualistic in his relationships with others, and his relationships tended to be more transactional and ‘weak’ than those of contemporaries with less expansive, but more intensive, social networks built on ‘strong ties’. In this way, Defoe’s connections were much more modern than was customary for his contemporaries. Defoe was also singular in his energies, his self-confidence, and, of course, his literary talents. Defoe’s relative ‘modernity’ and his personal distinctiveness surely accounts for the enduring interest his writings have held ever since he began to publish, but they also set him apart from his contemporaries, and these qualities (along with his well-known pugnaciousness and love for duplicity) help to explain why he was such a controversial figure in his lifetime.
Though he is now praised for the realism of his fiction, Defoe often introduced evidence of supernatural presences into his writings. From his satirical poem The Storm. An Essay (1704), which excoriates non-believers in the reality and power of the Divinity, to his Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions (1727), which argues the necessity of belief in angels, spirits, and the Devil, Defoe warned that denial of the supernatural world inevitably ends in the denial of God and the damnation of the non-believer. At the same time, he rejected superstition, ghost stories, idolatry, and paganism as corruptions of the supernatural. Using the paradigm developed by Blaise Pascal, he showed that belief in angels, spirits, and the Devil brought no harm, except for the loss of some material comforts in life, while denial of the signs of Providence delivered through these supernatural messengers was a bad bet.
Defoe was not a philosopher, yet his work demands attention from a philosophical perspective for two reasons. One is contextual. Defoe’s literary career in the first quarter of the eighteenth century coincided with a remarkable period in the history of British philosophy. Second, Defoe frequently takes up themes addressed by the major philosophers of his day, and thus familiarity with their central concerns and arguments will be helpful to his readers. This chapter offers a general and necessarily brief survey of four philosophical contexts likely to be of interest to Defoe’s readers: practical philosophy, natural philosophy, metaphysics and epistemology, and philosophy of religion. In so doing, it seeks to call attention to (and specifically with reference to Robinson Crusoe) several of the ways in which Defoe’s thought intersected with concerns being taken up by some of the leading philosophers of early eighteenth-century Britain.
This chapter takes some of Defoe’s satirical poems and pamphlets, including The True-Born Englishman (1701), The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters (1702), and A Hymn to the Pillory (1703), as starting points for a brief study in how Defoe’s writing and experiences reflected disputes over what today we would call matters of censorship or suppression of thought. Included here is an examination of the slippery concept of ’seditious libel’ in the period, Defoe’s sense of what ’freedom of speech’ and ’freedom of the press’ entailed or should entail, and how Defoe’s involvement in party politics and political controversy shaped his thoughts on the roles of the state and the courts in regulating political and religious expression.
Editions’ begins with the Attribution Controversy: in 1790 George Chalmers attributed 81 titles to Defoe; by 1960 John Robert Moore counted 570. This led to a trio of works by P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens overhauling the bibliography: The Canonisation of Daniel Defoe (1988), Defoe De-attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s ‘Checklist’ (1996), and A Critical Bibliography of Daniel Defoe (1998). Various scholars reinstated titles; various other scholars wondered whether Defoe even wrote Moll Flanders and Roxana. But editors of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were confident enough in identifying the Defovian to produce multi-volume Works, while in this century Pickering & Chatto have published to date forty-four volumes. The chapter concludes with a look at some of the more arresting versions of Robinson Crusoe – such as the one in ’Pitman’s shorthand "(corresponding style)"’.
The breadth of topics covered in Defoe’s extensive canon is universally acknowledged, but so too is the seemingly consistent nature of an authorial perspective marked by authority, firm occupation of the moral high ground, and extensive use of scriptural imagery and language. This chapter considers the textual and biographical evidence for Defoe’s erudition in religious literature. Immediately apparent is Defoe’s use of specific stylistics shared with contemporary ministers, both within and outside the established church. In an author trained from an early age to join the ministry, such linguistic features are hardly surprising, though Defoe’s ministerial training and scholarship is equally apparent at the level of structure and rhetorical device. The chapter further explores how a cultural period fraught with religious contention between English Protestants came to shape the purported identity of Defoe’s authorial ‘voice’ as that of a non-specific Protestant Christian. Notwithstanding this specific authorial response to contesting notions of Christian identity in the period, Defoe engaged first-hand in a series of contemporary religious debates, which the chapter also scrutinizes.
Only some of Daniel Defoe’s correspondence survives, much of that consisting of political exchange between Defoe and his spymaster Robert Harley. In particular, the correspondence relates to Defoe’s time agitating for the Union of Scotland and England in 1707.
The life of Daniel Defoe was filled with adventure. His writing took him to many places, geographically, as well as in the form and content of the works he wrote, including verse that got him pilloried, pamphlets that took him to Scotland as a spy, conduct books reflecting his upbringing as a Dissenter, his periodical Review that commented on world events, and, most famously, his novels, which demonstrated his ingenuity, breadth of knowledge, and experience of the world. This essay surveys Defoe’s life to set the stage for the rest of the book’s essays on his life, works, and culture.
The union of England’s and Scotland’s parliaments was not just a political and economic project but also a narrative and rhetorical one. As a dissenter, tradesman, and newspaper proprietor, Defoe was uniquely positioned to write Great Britain into existence. This chapter reveals that whether he was addressing Scottish or English readers, and whether he was writing pamphlets, poetry, or articles for his Review, Defoe’s message regarding the Act of Union was remarkably consistent. Employing a rhetoric of common sense, he repeatedly argued that it was illogical to pit Scottish against English interests in the negotiation of a treaty that would transform both into Britons and render their interests identical. This argument boldly asked readers to imagine that they were already British, or to proleptically inhabit an as yet unrealized identity.
Daniel Defoe witnessed during his lifetime the rapid transformation of England from a small island nation to a world empire. His writings both reflect and helped to produce that great historical change. This essay describes the imperial aspirations of Defoe’s country and the role his writing played.
While the author has been represented as emerging from dependence on aristocratic patronage owing to a change in author/publisher relations at the turn of the eighteenth century, the difficulties faced by those who sought to make a living by the pen must be taken into consideration. After printing at his own risk and publishing by subscription, Defoe reached a financial agreement with the bookseller, John Baker, to be paid two guineas for every five hundred pamphlets sold. He also received £100 a quarter from the government for his services during the reign of Queen Anne. Patently, Defoe did try to make money from his writings, but in terms of income from sales he does not appear to have been particularly successful, despite the popularity of works like The True-Born Englishman. In the absence of information, it is difficult to judge whether this changed after the publication of Robinson Crusoe in 1719.
An overview of the two major threads of pre-1900 scholarship on Defoe: biography and bibliography. Defoe never provided, publicly or privately, a reliable and comprehensive accounting of his published works. This has led to what P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens call the ’blood-thirsty business’ of Defoe bibliography and attribution studies, which has been at the heart of Defoe studies since its very beginning.
Daniel Defoe’s works, including The Storm (1704), the Review (1704–13), and A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), display his interest in new media forms and his role as a generic pioneer. Defoe’s simultaneous embrace of and scepticism towards these innovations anticipate the digital turn in recent studies of his corpus, which can be interpreted alongside the rise of the digital humanities. Digital methodologies and tools have shaped Defoe scholarship in a variety of ways. Digital collections and repositories have made Defoe’s texts accessible and searchable. Quantitative stylistic analysis has been used to address questions of Defoe’s authorship. Digital tools have afforded new and diverse approaches to Robinson Crusoe (1719), his most famous and enduring novel. And Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year has inspired numerous digital curatorial responses to the coronavirus pandemic.
In Defoe’s lifetime, the words pornography, pornographer, and pornographic did not yet exist. But starting in the 1650s, a new genre of sexually explicit writing began to appear in English, so that by the 1680s a ’canon’ of erotic or obscene texts that would later be termed pornographic had become a familiar part of the literary landscape. In much of his own work, Defoe presents himself as a scourge of sexual immorality and indecency: an anti-pornographer. But in two key later texts – Conjugal Lewdness; Or, Matrimonial Whoredom (1727) and his unsettling final novel, Roxana (1724) – he not only engaged with the content of pornography, i.e. sexual acts and illicit or unregulated desire, but adopted some of its key formal features, such as the seductive dialogue between women and the tension between moral suppression and immoral enticement.
This chapter discusses Defoe’s involvement with the law and the penal system, focusing on his brushes with the censorship laws, resulting in his experience of prison, as well as his business failures and imprisonment for debt. The second half treats Defoe’s representation of the law and prison in his fiction. The chapter outlines the British judicial and penal system at the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century, underlining the differences from today’s situation in the UK. It also discusses Defoe’s representation of Newgate in Moll Flanders in its historical and literary contexts. The latter is especially linked to Defoe’s creative inflection of the genre of the criminal (auto)biography with its moral and religious overtones. The chapter also provides a brief summary of the contemporary sedition and libel laws and how Defoe fell foul of these.
This essay explores the strange, winding, and sometimes hotly debated formation of the Defoe canon in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It pays particular attention to the state of Defoe attributions in the twenty-first century. What emerges from tracing the history of Defoe’s anonymous productions, their circulation, and processes of attribution is an ongoing transformation in our sense of Defoe as an author. Whether we know Defoe primarily as a proto-novelist or as a political pamphleteer is much more a product of the processes by which anonymous works have been attributed to him than a reflection of what he may actually have written.
This essay ties together some key elements of a maritime existence – indulgence, mercy, pretence, prerogative, plunder, homicide – and contrasts them with the growing importance among commercial societies of contract, justice, rights, the legal alienation of goods, and the punishment of those who take what is not theirs. And then it measures Defoe’s adherence on the one side to what amounts to a state of war, and on the other to a state of civil society. It comes as a surprise to find that Defoe, author of The Compleat English Tradesman, entertains opinions about sovereignty that are far from being commercially orthodox. The moment when the pirate Bob Singleton becomes aware that he can exercise the prerogative either of absolute power, and kill his captives, or of mercy, letting them live and even healing their wounds, marks the end of his feelings of guilt and uselessness, and the access of an ecstatic kind of self-discovery, a sort of sublime caprice.
Daniel Defoe lived through multiple controversies surrounding the monarchy: what was it? How should succession work? Who should sit on the throne? What does a monarch do? This chapter outlines both the history and the theory of the monarchy during Defoe’s lifetime, and analyses Defoe’s idiosyncratic analysis of this important national political office.