Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe (dĬfō´), 1660?–1731, English writer, b. London.

Early Life and Works

The son of a London butcher, and educated at a Dissenters' academy, he was typical of the new kind of man reaching prominence in England in the 18th cent.—self-reliant, industrious, possessing a strong notion of personal and moral responsibility. Although intended for the Presbyterian ministry, he had by 1683 set himself up as a merchant dealing in many different commodities. In spite of his own considerable savings and his wife's dowry, Defoe went bankrupt in 1692. Although he paid his creditors, he was never entirely free from debt again.

Defoe's first important publication was An Essay upon Projects (1698), but it was not until the poem The True-born Englishman (1701), a defense of William III from his attackers, that he received any real fame. An ill-timed satire early in Queen Anne's reign, The Shortest Way with Dissenters (1702), an ironic defense of High Church animosity against nonconformists, resulted in Defoe's being imprisoned. He was rescued by Robert Harley and subsequently served the statesman as a political agent.

Defoe has been called the father of modern journalism; during his lifetime he was associated with 26 periodicals. From 1704 to 1713 he published and wrote a Review, a miscellaneous journal concerned with the affairs of Europe; this was an incredibly ambitious undertaking for one man.

Defoe the Novelist

He was nearly sixty when he turned to writing novels. In 1719 he published his famous Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, followed by two less engrossing sequels. Based in part on the experiences of Alexander Selkirk, Robinson Crusoe describes the daily life of a man marooned on a desert island. Although there are exciting episodes in the novel—Crusoe rescuing his man Friday from cannibals—its main interest derives from the way in which Crusoe overcomes the extraordinary difficulties of life on the island while preserving his human integrity. Robinson Crusoe is considered by some critics to be the first true novel in English.

Defoe's great novels were not published under his name but as authentic memoirs, with the intention of gulling his readers into thinking his fictions true. Two excellent examples of his semihistorical recreations are the picaresque adventure Moll Flanders (1722), the story of a London prostitute and thief, and an account of the 1665 great plague in London entitled A Journal of the Plague Year (1722).

Defoe's writing is always straightforward and vivid, with an astonishing concern for circumstantial detail. His other major works include Captain Singleton (1720), Colonel Jack (1722), Roxana (1724), and A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724–27). In 1724 A General History of the Pyrates by a Captain Charles Johnson was published; it was not until 200 years later that Defoe was discovered to be the true author of the work (see edition by Manuel Schonhorn, 1972).


See Defoe's letters, ed. by G. H. Healey (1955); biographies by J. R. Sutherland (2d ed. 1950), J. R. Moore (1958), and J. Richetti (1987); studies by G. H. Starr (1965 and 1971), J. R. Sutherland (1971), P. Rogers, ed. (1972), L. A. Curtis (1984), and P. R. Backscheider (1986).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

Daniel Defoe: Selected full-text books and articles

Daniel Defoe By Francis Watson Longmans, Green, 1952
The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner By Daniel Defoe; J. Donald Crowley Oxford University Press, 1983
Defoe and the Nature of Man By Maximillian E. Novak Oxford University Press, 1963
The Columbia History of the British Novel By Deirdre David; Michael Seidel; John J. Richetti; John Bender Columbia University Press, 1994
Librarian’s tip: "Defoe and Early Narrative" begins on p. 23
The English Novel in History, 1700-1780 By John Richetti Routledge, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Defoe: Mapping Social Totality"
Heroes of Empire: The British Imperial Protagonist in America, 1596-1764 By Richard Frohock University of Delaware Press, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Labor and Conquest"
Women, Accounting, and Narrative: Keeping Books in Eighteenth-Century England By Rebecca Elisabeth Connor Routledge, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Birds of a Different Feather: Going Toe-to-Toe with Defoe"
The Trauma of Gender: A Feminist Theory of the English Novel By Helene Moglen University of California Press, 2001
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Daniel Defoe and the Gendered Subject of Individualism"
Defoe's Roxana: The Making and Unmaking of a Heroine By Crane, Julie The Modern Language Review, Vol. 102, No. 1, January 2007
Novel Streets: The Rebuilding of London and Defoe's 'A Journal of the Plague Year.' (English Novelist Daniel Defoe)(Making Genre: Studies in the Novel or Something like It, 1684-1762) By Wall, Cynthia Studies in the Novel, Vol. 30, No. 2, Summer 1998
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