Few details survive about Daniel Defoe's participation in what, for him and the others involved, was probably the single most influential event in their lives: the Battle of Sedgemoor on July 16th, 1685, when the ragtag anti-Catholic forces of the Duke of Monmouth , the illegitimate son of Charles II, rose up against James II in an attempt to usurp the crown of England. Monmouth was tracked down and beheaded. But Defoe, an anonymous soldier of twenty-five, somehow escaped retribution and went on to become surely one of the most remarkable figures in all of literature. With the series of books he started to write at fifty-nine, including Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, he became immortal as the inventor (or one of the inventors) of the English novel. He was already the founder of English political journalism, a crime for which he went to prison and stood in the pillory. As Richard West shows in The Life & Strange Surprising Adventures of Daniel Defoe (HarperCollins, $41), he was also a spy, an insatiable and sometimes reckless entrepreneur and trader, a promoter of good causes, and "the only literary man of his age who was neither a Whig nor a Tory". What he had in place of immovable political ideology was an equally immovable religious conscience.
Defoe was a Puritan, a Dissenter from the Church of England. As such, he was prohibited from sitting in Parliament, belonging to the civil service, or studying at Oxford or Cambridge. In more recent centuries, the Puritans have acquired a thoroughly nasty reputation, stemming, I would guess, from the Puritan extremists who colonized what is now New England and whose poisoned joylessness became the USA's national religion in all but name. But Defoe, as Mr. West is at pains to explain, wasn't like that at all. He was a Good Protestant.
No doubt Defoe produced more words on more different subjects than any other writer of his age, so much in fact that any unsigned English pamphlet of that time is likely to be attributed to him. So tangled did his bibliographical history become that ten years ago two British scholars, P. C. Fairbanks and W. A. Omens, turned iconoclastic in their book, The Canonization of Daniel Defoe. Their splendid work, however, did little to clarify or extend his life story. Social historians, especially Jack Lindsay and Peter Earle, helped by filling in the societal background. Yet Defoe, by James Sutherland, first published in 1938, remained the standard biography until 1989. That's when a U.S. scholar, Paula Backscheider, reached the summit with Daniel Defoe, His Life (now a Johns Hopkins paperback at US$19.95): a work without much grace or narrative juice but one that, barring some newly discovered hoard of documents, certainly ferrets out the known facts with clinical efficiency. Mr. West's book freely credits Ms. Backscheider with an enormous task well done and draws on her for facts. Where Mr. West's book differs is in the context it brings to these borrowings.
Mr. West's Defoe is an apparent turncoat who at various times serves Tory and Whig interests in order to prove his personal adherence to the middle ground, where he sometimes seems to stand alone. This only compounded the outsider status already put round his neck by his non-conforming religion, which was closely bound up with the virtues of hard work, charity, and self-reliance. Defoe would have detested modern corporations and the whole concept of management, but he loved trade, partly because he saw it as the individual's road to security in a hostile world and also because he knew that trade brought culture and civic improvement, as the trader was, of necessity, at home in other cultures and a voice for moderation and broad-mindedness in his own. Defoe felt comfortable making or buying and selling or trading just about anything, from men's hosiery to ship's hulls to decorative tiles, but, alas, he kept going broke. From his thirties until his death, he was never free of nagging debt, and in 1692 he actually went bankrupt in a marine insurance scheme.
His most famous pamphlet, "The Shortest Way with the Dissenters" (1702), a satire on High Church prejudice, caused him to be freed for a while from debtor's prison at Newgate in order to stand in the pillory as a political prisoner-and popular hero. He was freed from Newgate only after agreeing to act as an espionage agent and propagandist for Robert Harley, the Earl of Oxford, the supreme behind-the-scenes manipulator of English politics at the time (though himself of Dissenter background). Swift was another writer in Harley's employ, by the way. In any case, as Mr. West writes, even "all Defoe's skills as a journalist could not allay the discontent in Britain over the price of bread, the Palatine refugees, the press-ganging of soldiers, and all the other grievances people had come to blame on the war [of the Spanish Succession]. During the winter of 1709-10 the grumbling turned into a Tory revolt against the war, the Whigs, the Dissenters, and even the Hanoverian Succession. Over the next five years, before the country became settled under George I, Defoe was the foremost writer in Britain, as usual calling for peace and moderation, as usual abused and hated by both rival parties. He was to be once more ruined, twice jailed, and in the end driven out of journalism and politics to start a new career as a writer of books."
The Tories fell with the ascension of the first George in 1714, and for Defoe "the new reign brought isolation, financial disaster, and threat of prosecution. The Whigs, who had tried to send him to jail the previous year and had threatened to have him hanged when they came to power, now thought they had Defoe at their mercy. His former protector, Lord Oxford, was himself about to be sent to the Tower. The only Tory now on good terms with the Whigs was Defoe's old enemy `Dismal', the Earl of Nottingham, who had hunted him down in 1703. The Tory writers like Swift and Prior would not admit to the Scriblerus Club a Dissenting tradesman and jailbird.
"All the great causes for which Defoe had campaigned-the war against France, freedom of conscience for Dissenters, and the Protestant Succession-were now achieved. During the last fifteen years of his life he was to write occasional political pamphlets and even undertake Secret Service work for the Whigs, though now of mean nature, like spying on Jacobite newspapermen. But Defoe as a public figure was what we would now call `marginalized' and what he called `silenced'."
Thus forced to the outer rim by centrifugal force, Defoe turned to the novels by which he's long been famous-and of which Mr. West gives a sympathetic treatment without ascribing to Defoe any attributes that were not his or his generation's. He points out that "although it is on [a] slaving expedition that Crusoe is shipwrecked and marooned, Defoe at no point even suggests that this was a punishment for buying and selling his fellow men. Instead, in a later novel, Captain Singleton, the hero succeeds in selling a cargo of Africans in Brazil. In Defoe's eyes, Crusoe is punished not for dealing in slaves, but for failing to be content with a quiet and modest life, and restlessly seeking adventure."
Mr. West goes on: "When Crusoe is shipwrecked, he comes to regret his lack of religious knowledge: `What I had received by the good instructions of my father was then worn out by an uninterrupted series, for eight years, of seafaring wickedness and a constant conversation with nothing but such as were, like myself, wicked and profane to the last degree.' Defoe suggests subtly and with conviction that meditation and reading the Bible helped Crusoe to fight off loneliness and despair. However, at least one reader of Robinson Crusoe, Karl Marx, scoffed at these protestations of Christian hope and repentance. Surprisingly, in view of Defoe's strong religious convictions, this is the only novel in which he preaches at the reader."
Roxana was Defoe's last novel. In the seven years that still remained to him after that, he was plagued by poor health, but this sharp "abandonment of fiction after the period 1719-24 should not be seen as a sign of failing power or imagination. On the contrary, he was writing better than ever; moreover, some of the books that we call non-fiction.are just as truly works of imagination as are some of those we call novels. The two-volume General History of the Pirates, for example, published in 1726, is far more exciting and readable than his pirate story Captain Singleton, which would not still be in print were it not a `novel' by Defoe." Indeed, of all Daniel Defoe's accomplishments, the one that seems most relevant and prescient now is his blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction, anticipating some of the most significant (and divisive) debates in the writing world today.
But then Defoe's reputation has always had its rather sharp ups and downs. Some of these movements were political or religious or both: "Defoe's patriotism and pride in Britain's overseas empire were both highly acceptable in the late Victorian age. Although the Nonconformists and the evangelical Christians, who formed the bulk of Defoe's admirers, were enemies of the slave trade and supporters of emancipation, none of them seems to have noticed that Robinson Crusoe was shipwrecked while on his way to Africa to purchase a cargo of `servants'. His reputation was highest in 1870, when readers of Christian World subscribed to the tombstone in Bunhill Fields [London's old Dissenters' cemetery]. From about that time the Nonconformists, like their old tormenters the High Church Anglicans, were beginning a slow descent towards apathy and agnosticism. The Nonconformists enjoyed a revival in 1905, when a Liberal government came to power on a vote to disestablish the Church of England, but then came the First World War, the rise of the Labour party, the rapid decline of the Liberals, and with them the Nonconformists. The last and best loved of the Nonconformist bodies, the Salvation Army, was edged out of its work of helping the needy by the professional social workers."
There were still other reasons for Defoe's low standing. "The decline of the Puritan faith, from which Defoe drew courage and inspiration, meant that much of his writing was incomprehensible to followers of the successor creeds such as Marxism, Freudianism, feminism, and sociology," Mr. West writes. "Defoe's independence of mind and readiness to declare that `all the world is mistaken but himself' were unacceptable in an age which believed that all thought and attitudes were determined by society."
In any event, "Defoe's political principles, for which he had stood in the pillory and suffered in Newgate Prison, were no longer fashionable in the twentieth century. A new generation of scholars debunked what they call the `Whig interpretation of history', once put forward by Burke, Macaulay, and G. M. Trevelyan. With the debunking there came a reaction against the Whig hero, William of Orange. Scottish and Irish nationalists, for their different reasons, turned against William and his admirer Defoe. The Irish writer Sean O'Faolain once lamented, `It is the greatest pity in the world that the novel began in the eighteenth century. The press-reporter Defoe laid his stodgy hand on [it] and his fingerprints are still all over it.'"
Now, it seems, the pendulum is returning. The audience that enjoys what it calls "creative non-fiction" and the "non-fiction novel" should find much to admire in Daniel Defoe. Such readers will also discover much to enjoy in Richard West's untangling of the big ball of yarn that is the story of Defoe's life. If I have quoted from the biography at too great a length, my excuse is simply that the book is so quotable-which is to say, readable.