Monday, September 9, 2013

Daniel Defoe (ca 1660-1731)

Childhood (1660-1676)
Daniel Foe was born in London around 1660. His father was a successful seller of candles and soap. In 1665 he managed to survive the Great Plague of London which killed 70,000 others. In 1666 his family's house was one of only three in his neighborhood to survive the Great Fire of London. After all that excitement, he was sent to boarding school and, as a teenager, attended a progressive Nonconformist (non-Anglican) academy.

Hustler (ca 1678-1685)
As an adult, he first worked as a merchant hustling (selling energetically yet deceitfully) a variety of products. In 1684 he married and received a small fortune as dowry.

Opportunist (1685-1703)
The next year he supported participants in the Monmouth Rebellion. This was a vain attempt by Nonconformists and others to murder and replace James 2nd, the new ruler of Britannia and a Catholic, with the Duke of Monmouth, a Protestant. The attempt failed miserably. The duke was beheaded for treason and over 1,400 of his rebel supporters were either executed or sent as slave labor to the West Indies. Daniel fled to the Continent to avoid prosecution.

In 1688 William, a Protestant from Holland, successfully marched against this same James for the same reason but with the prior approval of Parliament and the Church of England. Daniel returned to England and managed to become a close friend of and spy for William.

William pursued policies which irritated the French. This reduced the profits which Daniel the hustler made through trade with them. Despite his connections with the king, the police imprisoned Daniel for massive indebtedness in 1692. Upon his release, he traveled, hustled some more, started using the more aristocratic-sounding Defoe as his last name, got a job collecting taxes, and made some money running a factory.

Many inhabitants of England resented having a king from Holland because he wasn't a pure-blooded Englishman. In 1701 Daniel wrote a satirical poem, The True-Born Englishman, in which he defended the king by mocking the notion that any English person in his day had pure blood.

William died in 1702. That same year Daniel published the pamphlet, The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters; Or, Proposals for the Establishment of the Church. Some saw it as straightforward support for the Church of England; others, as ironic (though poorly developed) support for Nonconformists. Whatever its purpose, the pamphlet bothered Queen Anne enough that she had Daniel arrested in 1703 for seditious libel. He was found guilty and sentenced to standing in a pillory for three days, paying a punitive fine, and remaining in prison until she chose to release him. Being in prison also bankrupted him.

Conformist (1703-1719)
From prison Defoe promised Anne's ministers of state that he would spy on his friends for them if they would release him. They did.

Soon after his release England experienced the Great Storm of 1703. It destroyed buildings and trees all over England and killed over 8,000 people. Defoe solicited eyewitness accounts and edited sixty of them for inclusion in his book The Storm (1704). This report on the hurricane was the first in Olympia to rely on what became the normative journalistic method of using eyewitness accounts.

As part of his work for the Tories (Conservatives), Daniel established a thrice-weekly newspaper (1704-1713) in which he attacked their opponents and supported their causes. At one point the Whigs (Liberals), their enemies, managed to get Daniel imprisoned again for libel.

In 1706 Daniel's master sent him to Scotland. He was to spy on opposition to the English attempt to take control of Scotland and to work deceptively to create support for it. At that time the Church of Scotland was Presbyterian and Daniel was understood to be a Presbyterian Nonconformist who had suffered for the faith. As such he was welcomed for his advice by both the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and by the Scottish Parliament. He deceived and helped persuade both to accept English control disguised in the Treaty of Union (1707).

When the Whigs took control of the state following the death of Anne in 1714, Daniel simply switched his loyalty and started working for them.

Author (1719-1731)
In 1719 Daniel published the book by which he is best known: The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. The reading public loved it. It is the story of an Englishman who experiences life as a merchant, slave, plantation owner, slave trader, and finally lone survivor of a shipwreck on an island. It describes how Robinson manages to respond creatively to a variety of challenges on the island for more than twenty-seven years before being rescued and returning to England.

Robinson Crusoe is a typically Olympian novel about autonomy, self-centeredness, or being a law unto oneself and over others. After some success as a merchant, Robinson as a plantation owner goes in search of more slaves to exploit when he becomes shipwrecked. After years of solitary living, he finally makes meaningful contact with another human being. He names this person Friday, treats Friday as a slave, teaches Friday to call him master, and dislikes the possibility of Friday returning home. When he and Friday happen upon a group of 21 potential rivals, they use their superior weapons to easily kill 17 of them. When he next encounters two other people, including a Spaniard, he relates to them as king to subjects. At the end of the story Robinson receives lots of money: the typically Olympian reward for an autonomous existence oblivious to the intrinsic value of others as human beings.

Other books he wrote late in his life include Moll Flanders (1722), A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), which was misunderstood to be a factual account of the Great Plague of London for over a hundred years, and The Political History of the Devil (1726).

Daniel died on April 24, 1731, while hiding from a creditor.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.