About the Author
English novelist, pamphleteer, and journalist, author of Robinson Crusoe (1719), a story of a man shipwrecked alone on an island. Along with Samuel Richardson, Defoe is considered the founder of the English novel. Before his time stories were usually written as long poems or dramas. He produced some 200 works of nonfiction prose in addition to close 2 000 short essays in periodical publications, several of which he also edited.
Defoe was born as the son of James Foe, a butcher of Stroke Newington, whose stubborn puritanism occasionally comes through Defoe's writing. He studied at Charles Morton's Academy, London. Although his Nonconformist father intended him for the ministry, Defoe plunged into politics and trade, travelling extensively in Europe. Throughout his life Defoe also wrote about mercantile projects, but his business ventures failed and left him with large debts, seventeen thousand pounds - which he later paid off.
In the early 1680s Defoe was a commission merchant in Cornhill but went bankrupt in 1691. In 1684 he married Mary Tuffley; they had two sons and five daughters. Defoe was involved in Monmouth rebellion in 1685 against James II. While hiding as a fugitive in a churchyard after the rebellion was put down, he noticed the name Robinson Crusoe carved on a stone, and later gave it to his famous hero. Defoe became a supporter of William II, joining his army in 1688, and gaining a mercenary reputation because change of allegiance. From 1695 to 1699 he was an accountant to the commissioners of the glass duty and then associated with a brick and tile works in Tilbury. The business failed in 1703.
In 1702 Defoe wrote his famous pamphlet The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters. Himself a Dissenter he mimicked the extreme attitudes of High Anglican Tories and pretended to argue for the extermination of all Dissenters. Nobody was amused, Defoe was arrested in May 1703, but released in return for services as a pamphleteer and intelligence agent to Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford, and the Tories. While in prison Defoe wrote a mock ode, Hymn to the Pillory (1703). The poem was sold in the streets, the audience drank to his health while he stood in the pillory and read aloud his verses.
When the Tories fell from power Defoe continued to carry out intelligence work for the Whig government. In his own days Defoe was regarded as an unscrupulous, diabolical journalist. Defoe used a number of pen names, including Eye Witness, T.Taylor, and Andrew Morton, Merchant. His most unusual pen name was 'Heliostrapolis, secretary to the Emperor of the Moon,' used on his political satire The Consolidator, or Memoirs of Sundry Transactions from the World in the Moon (1705). His political writings were widely read and made him powerful enemies. His most remarkable achievement during Queen Anne's reign was the periodical A Review of the Affairs of France, and of All Europe (1704-1713). It was published weekly, later three times a week and resembled a modern newspapers. From 1716 to 1720 Defoe edited Mercurius Politicus, then the Manufacturer (1720), and the Director (1720-21). He was contributor from 1715 to periodicals published by Nathaniel Mist.
Defoe was one of the first to write stories about believable characters in realistic situations using simple prose. He achieved literary immortality when in April 1719 he published Robinson Crusoe, which was based partly on the memoirs of voyagers and castaways, such as Alexander Selkirk. However, at first Defoe had troubles in finding a publisher for the book and eventually received £10 for the manuscript. Employing a first-person narrator and apparently genuine journal entries, Defoe created a realistic frame for the novel, which distinguished it from its predecessors. The account of a shipwrecked sailor was a comment both on the human need for society and the equally powerful impulse for solitude. But it also offered a dream of building a private kingdom, a self-made Utopia, and being completely self-sufficient. By giving a vivid reality to a theme with large mythic implications, the story have since fascinated generations of readers as well as authors like Joachim Heinrich Campen, Jules Verne, R.L. Stevenson, Johann Wyss (Der schweizerische Robinson), Michael Tournier (Vendredi ou les limbes du Pacifique), J.M. Coetzee (Foe), and other creators of Robinsonade stories.
During the remaining years, Defoe concentrated on books rather than pamphlets. At the age of 62 he published Moll Flanders, a Journal of the Plague Year and Colonel Jack. His last great work of fiction, Roxana, appeared in 1724. Defoe's choice of a female protagonist in Moll Flanders reflected his interest in the female experience. Moll is born in Newgate, where her mother is under sentence of death for theft. Herr sentence is commuted to transportation to Virginia. The abandoned child is educated by a gentlewoman. Moll suffers romantic disillusionment when she is ruined at the hands of a cynical male seducer, she becomes a whore and a thief, but finally she gains the status of a gentlewoman through the spoils of a successful colonial plantation.
In the 1720s Defoe had ceased to be politically controversial in his writings, and he produced several historical works, a guide book A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-27, 3 vols.), The Great Law of Subordination Considered (1724), an examination of the treatment of servants, and The Complete English Tradesman (1726).
Phenomenally industrious, Defoe produced in his last years also works involving the supernatural, The Political History of the Devil (1726) and An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions (1727). He died on 26 April, 1731, at his lodgings in Ropemaker's Alley, Moorfields.
Most author biographies courtesy of Author's Calendar. Used with permission.