Introduction to Daniel Defoe: Biography and Major Works

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  • 0:05 A Born Dissenter
  • 3:15 Early Writing and Politics
  • 6:12 Major Fiction Works
  • 10:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stacy Redd

Stacy has taught college English and has a master's degree in literature.

Castaways, pirates, spies and political prisoners. Some of it is fiction and some of it is the author's real life. In this lesson, you'll learn more about Daniel Defoe, one of England's most prolific and exciting authors.

A Born Dissenter

All right, let's talk about Daniel Defoe. You may not know much about Daniel Defoe yet, but his legacy is really strong. If you've ever seen the show Survivor or the movie Cast Away, those are really influenced by Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe. If you're a reader of novels, which I hope you are, it's good to know that Defoe was actually one of the earliest writers of the English novel. (Also, fun fact, he also had a great wig - neither here nor there.) Anyway, this guy did a little bit of everything. He wrote literally hundreds of books and pamphlets. I don't even know how to get started, so I just will.

Daniel Defoe's birth name was actually Daniel Foe. He was born in 1659 or 1660 (apparently we can't nail that down). He was born in London. He'd add that more dignified-sounding prefix to his surname a little bit later on, and we'll talk about that. Daniel Defoe was raised as a dissenter, which is not the same as a Dementor. It was a group of people who didn't believe in the Church of England, which maybe now, when we live in a society that celebrates freedom of religion, might not seem like a big deal, but this wasn't an era of religious tolerance in England. It was a rough time to be a dissenter. They often faced a lot of persecution and animosity from people who disagreed with them.

You could say Defoe was a lucky child. He survived the Great Plague of London, which, as I'm sure you know, many did not. It was the last bubonic plague outbreak, and it killed about 1 in 5 people. That is ridiculous. Then, he also survived the Great Fire of London, and that destroyed about 90% of Londoners' homes. I don't think they really understand what the word 'great' means.

Like a lot of writers, Defoe flirted with the idea of becoming a minister, which, I know, makes no sense if you belonged to a group that didn't support the Church of England, but he ultimately decided against it. He wanted to go into business. He had a pretty successful career in hosiery (I guess those guys needed tights to go with their wigs). In 1664, he married a lady named Mary Tuffley, which to me sounds like a made-up name, but apparently it was not. They'd go on to have eight children together, so good for them.

In 1665, shortly after his marriage, he took a break from his business to take part in something called the Monmouth Rebellion. This was an ill-fated attempt to overthrow King James II. Good try, Daniel. After that failed, hundreds of rebels were put to death. As I'm sure you can imagine, the King didn't take kindly to people trying to overthrow him - some people were hanged, some were beheaded, some were burned at the stake, and others were drawn and quartered, which I think means cut up. I didn't want to look it up. It sounds gross. Daniel Defoe actually was able to get a pardon and survived that, too. So he was a pretty lucky dude.

So we've got plague, fire, rebel - I don't even know what the word is when you try to attack a rebel, but he survived that too - clearly, he was destined for great things. So, let's talk about what they were.

Early Writing and Politics

Since Defoe was born a dissenter, you might expect that he was born to have a career in politics, and you'd be right. Near the end of the 17th century, he began publishing pamphlets and poetry that had sort of a political leaning. The pamphlets were essays and articles that were intended to share the author's opinions on politics, amongst other things. They were kind of like an early Twitter or some political blogs, only with a lot less Justin Bieber (thankfully for them). He wrote hundreds of pamphlets. It's sort of ridiculous. I don't know how he got anything else done.

The first notable publication of Defoe's was called An Essay upon Projects, and it was published in 1697. This was a collection of essays on improving education, roads and other social issues through taxes. It was apparently over 50,000 words long. That is a serious pamphlet.

During the reign of William III, Defoe was a big supporter of the monarchy, which makes not a lot of sense considering he tried to overthrow a previous king. Regardless, in 1701, he published something called 'The True-Born Englishman', which was his most popular poem and to me sounds like an article in GQ. This poem made use of satire, a key theme in a lot of Defoe's writings. It's good to know that King William was Dutch. There was a lot of xenophobia in England at the time, and some people resented having a foreign-born king. No evidence of that in the U.S. today, though (lucky us). Today, they'd ask to see the king's birth certificate, but back then they just got violent. So Defoe used his weapon, his pen, and satirically noted that everyone in England is pretty much from somewhere else, what with all the conquering by foreign hordes and colonization - again, sounds kind of familiar.

The poem won Defoe favor with the king since he was reaching out in the king's defense, but then that king died, and Queen Anne took over. She didn't like the dissenters. She didn't like something he wrote called 'The Shortest Way with the Dissenters', which was a satirical suggestion that the dissenters be violently suppressed. The anti-dissenter crowd thought that he was serious, and the pro-dissenter crowd was appalled. When they realized what his actual intentions were, everyone was mad at him. I guess they didn't see the irony of it. They arrested Defoe and put him in a pillory, which is weird and thankfully something we don't do today, unless you go to Colonial Williamsburg, and then you can.

While he was under arrest, Defoe wrote a poem - shocking - called 'Hymn to the Pillory' which, reportedly, made him very popular again. Apparently you can win or lose favor in England with a great poem. He got out of prison by agreeing to be a spy for the Tory party and would spend the next several years writing, and then spying, and then writing some more.

Major Fiction Works

We're going to jump now into his works of fiction because his personal life is getting a little too insane. In 1719, when Defoe was around 60 years old, he published his best-known work, which is Robinson Crusoe. You're probably familiar with this or some later version of it. It's inspired a lot of adventure stories. The book tells the fictional story of a castaway who lived for nearly 30 years on a remote island. Even if you think about Swiss Family Robinson, the show Lost or Gilligan's Island, which I know is not contemporary at all, a lot of those deal with people stranded on an island, and you can see ties back to Robinson Crusoe. Though the novel is fiction, it was partially based on some real experiences of either one or multiple real castaways from Defoe's time. The book was an immediate, massive success, and it's still widely read over 200 years later, which is a real testament, I think, to Defoe's writing and understanding of what people find entertaining.

After the great success of Robinson Crusoe, Defoe quickly published two sequels, though neither of those did nearly as well, and they definitely didn't have the staying power that Robinson Crusoe did.

Defoe's next original novel after Robinson Crusoe was called Captain Singleton, and it was published in 1720. It is an adventure story about an English pirate. Following that, he published Memoirs of a Cavalier; it's a historical fiction novel set during the Thirty Years' War.

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