Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Daniel Defoe: The Life and Strange, Surprising Adventures.
By Richard West.
Carroll & Graf. 427 pp. $26.

The best physical description of Daniel Defoe comes to us, fittingly, from a wanted poster: “a middle siz’d spare man, about 40 years old, of a brown complexion, and dark brown-coloured hair, but wears a wig; a hooked nose, a sharp chin, grey eyes and a large mole near his mouth.”

This unappealing description was issued by the Earl of Nottingham in 1702 against “Daniel de Foe, alias De Fooe,” sought for “high crimes and misdemeanour” for publishing an anonymous parody of Tory religious invective. The poster, and the accusation that spawned it, neatly encapsulate much of Defoe’s life: a writer on the lam, a lover of aliases, given to anonymous and pseudonymous productions; a middle-class merchant bewigged to pass as an aristocrat; a literary pugilist who scorned the orthodoxies of the day; a man judged by many of his contemporaries to be a ferret, a sneak, a public menace.

Yet Defoe was also a devout Presbyterian, faithful husband, doting father, and genius of the first order, a man who invented both modern journalism and the modern novel in his furious forty-year career. His greatest achievement, Robinson Crusoe, is a masterpiece of religious prose that has appeared in over 1,200 editions in English alone, has been translated into almost every known language, and continues to instruct delighted readers, as it has for nearly three hundred years, on the basics of Christian civilization by means of one of the most exciting adventure stories ever penned.

How to reconcile the two Defoes? This is the mystery that any biographer must confront, and one that Richard West only partially resolves.

The enigma begins with Defoe’s birth. We remain uncertain about his year or place of birth, although 1661 in the parish of St. Giles, Cripplegate, seems likely. Raised a Dissenter––a Presbyterian in an Anglican nation––he was barred from Oxford and Cambridge and instead received three years of higher education under the Reverend Charles Morton, a future vice“president of Harvard University who drilled his pupils in science, modern tongues, and the intricacies of English rhetoric. Defoe learned his lessons well. He took away with him a superb prose style and a burning resentment of the upper classes who had denied him entrance to Oxbridge, coupled with a scarcely-disguised lust to join their ranks––a blend of envy and hatred common among young middle-class men even today.

This ambivalence toward social betters, suggests West, was one of Defoe’s driving obsessions. Another was his terror of debt and his sense of being hounded by creditors, as well as by literary and political opponents. Defoe relished the harsh world of late“seventeenth“ and early“eighteenth“century business, when capitalism was coming of age; unfortunately, he had an uncanny knack for investing in projects that left him in ruins. He traded in cows, bricks, tobacco, honey, land, diving bells, and even civet cats, almost always for a loss. By his early thirties, Defoe had squandered his wife’s considerable dowry, was in debt for 17,000 pounds, and had declared bankruptcy––an act that barred him for life from public service. West describes the aftermath with typical empathy: “The torment of mind he suffered... condemned him to a life of misery, fear, loneliness, and remorse, from which he could only escape through prayer, the love of his family, and eventually by writing books.”

Defoe responded to the crisis with characteristic ingenuity: He decided to switch careers and become a journalist––and not just any journalist. As West enthuses, “He was the first master, if not the inventor, of almost every feature of modern newspapers, including the leading article, investigative reporting, the foreign news analysis, the agony aunt, the gossip column, the candid obituary, and even the kind of soul-searching piece which Fleet Street calls the ‘Why, Oh Why.’”

This new venture unleashed the best and worst in Defoe. On the one hand, he delighted in subterfuge. He wrote bogus letters to the editor, bogus travelogues, bogus histories; he worked as a journalistic double agent, writing for Tory journals while in the employ of the Whigs; he delighted in printing anti-Catholic drivel (and spent a lifetime seething about “Popish Plots,” including, so he thought, the Great London Fire of 1666); he raked up scandal wherever he could, insulting enemies and shocking friends.

On the other hand, he vigorously defended his faith and accepted a prison term as the price of principle. Although it is not always acknowledged by his biographers––West does better here than many––Defoe’s professional life focused on the place of religion in personal and public life. All his writings, from novels to marriage manuals, from occult studies to political broadsides, stem from the viewpoint of a devout Dissenter fighting for survival in an Anglican nation. It was this issue that produced his first best-seller, The True-Born Englishman (1700), a poem of high passion and mordant wit defending the reign of the Protestant King William III. It contains the memorable lines:

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.

Defoe’s somewhat paradoxical love for both religious righteousness and literary deceit soon led to his undoing. In 1702 he published The Shortest Way with the Dissenters , the parody that occasioned the wanted poster quoted above, in which he suggested that the best way to handling religious nonconformists was to hang them. At first many Tories missed the joke and welcomed this splendid final solution. When they discovered that it was all a hoax, they went for Defoe’s throat. Three visits to the pillory and a stretch in Newgate Prison resulted. According to West, this was one of the great defining moments in his subject’s life, a near-martyrdom that, “far from breaking Defoe’s spirit,... gave him the courage, patience, and resolution he needed during the years ahead.”

Defoe’s prison term also gave one of his admirers––Robert Harley, Speaker of the House of Commons and a moderate Tory––a chance to intervene on his behalf. Soon enough Defoe was set free by edict of Queen Anne and enlisted as a spy for Her Majesty’s Government. Here, too, he stood out from the pack. In 1707 he wrote to his employer:

In my management here [among pro-Catholic Jacobites] I am a perfect emissary. I act the old part of Cardinal Richelieu. I have my spies and my pensioners in every place, and I confess ’tis the easiest thing in the world to hire people here to betray their friends.

Defoe’s years as secret-agent-cum-journalist make for the most exciting portions of the biography. West admires his subject and tolerates, even as he tsk-tsks, Defoe’s most outrageous behavior––a refreshing change from the current fashion that requires biographers to rip their subjects to shreds. Happily, there is much that deserves admiration, not least Defoe’s astonishing industry. He started a weekly newspaper, the Review, and from 1704-1713 wrote each issue in its entirety. He churned out one bizarre book after another: The Dyet of Poland (1705) transposes English politics to Gdansk, while the very title of The Consolidator: Or Memoir of Sundry Transactions in the World of the Moon (also 1705) speaks for itself. For twenty years he wrote and spied; at one time, he ran eight newspapers, penning large portions of each himself. Approaching the watershed of his sixtieth year, his journalistic energies finally began to flag. Small wonder! But rather than retire his pen, Defoe reinvented himself again, and became, in 1719, the world’s first novelist.

Here we run up against the mystery already alluded to: How can we explain the miracle of Robinson Crusoe ? West prepares us for this glorious invention by harping on Defoe’s love of subterfuge. For Crusoe, like many of Defoe’s earlier works, is a hoax, a novel posing as autobiography (“The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner.... Written by Himself ”). Defoe’s subsequent novels–– Journal of the Plague Year, Moll Flanders, Roxana, and the rest––belong to the same shadowy genre of fiction passing as truth.

Crusoe ’s format, then, seems well-accounted for. But what of its content? Those who have read the unabridged version know that Crusoe is more than an adventure novel; it is a tale of religious conversion, telling how an isolated man rebuilds Christendom from some bits of flotsam and a repentant heart. Here West provides another clue, demonstrating how, as Defoe aged, he grew more convinced of the dangers of secularism and of the need for religious integrity and a rigorous moral code.

Defoe expounded these ideas in a series of books, written at the same time as Crusoe, including The Family Instructor, Religious Courtship, and Conjugal Lewdness or Matrimonial Whoredom. All three works counsel a strict Christian life, dispensing advice on wayward sons, impious wives, the evil of contraception and abortion, and the danger of exercising the “frolic part” outside of the marriage chamber. As West points out, these texts not only establish Defoe as a champion of Christian virtue––a theme sounded over and over again in Crusoe––but also reveal his domestic happiness, including his love for his wife, Mary.

But what of Crusoe ’s literary brilliance, its startling universality, which led Coleridge to remark that “compare the contemptuous Swift with the contemned De Foe, and how superior will the latter be found.... [He] raises me into the universal man. Now this is De Foe’s excellence. You become a man while you read”? Here West is of little help. In place of analysis, he offers plot summary. It is pleasant to discover a Defoe biography that rises above the special-interest interpretations offered by Rousseau, Marx, Virginia Woolf, et al., but one wishes that West, who is obviously sympathetic to Defoe’s religiosity, had done more to explore its role in his subject’s greatest work. He does advance one pet theory, asserting, contrary to all prevailing Crusoe criticism, that the true-life tale of Alexander Selkirk was not the genesis for Defoe’s masterpiece. The contention is amusing and smartly argued, but hardly makes up for West’s clumsiness at literary discussion––a serious flaw in an otherwise solid book.

Defoe ended his professional years as he began them, writing a string of curiosities that include General History of the Pirates (1726) and The Universal History of Apparitions (1729). He died alone in a London boarding house, hiding from debtors. The cause of death was given as “lethargy,” an ailment that would have surely killed a man of such compressed energies. He left behind 566 books and pamphlets as well as abundant evidence, if such be needed, of the infinite mystery of the human person. For who can fathom this liar, spy, and wearer of masks, this incomparable literary genius, this tireless exponent of Christian goodness? Which aspect reigned supreme we will never know, but we can be sure, from a letter written a year before his death, where Defoe placed his hope: “Be it that the passage is rough and the day stormy, by which way soever He pleases to bring me to the end of it, I desire to finish life with this temper of soul in all cases: Te Deum Laudamus.

Philip Zaleski is editor of The Best Spiritual Writing 1998 and author, most recently, of Gifts of the Spirit. His article “The Strange Shipwreck of Robinson Crusoe” appeared in the May 1995 issue of First Things