When we recall the English author Daniel Defoe (b. 1660; d. 1731), it’s usually for his novel Robinson Crusoe that many of us were assigned to read as part of a school project, if we remember him at all. But if we, as writers, truly do stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, we need to take another look at Defoe in this our anno Domini 2020 and give him a tip of the hat.
Defoe couldn’t possibly have imagined our modern world 300 years into his future, even when his known world was on the cusp of exploring its own fresh horizon. The New World was discovered. Dogmas and beliefs were being openly challenged. New ideas were being expounded and explored. Established power bases and monarchies had shifted. Civilizations had collapsed and new ones were on the rise. The world was in flux.
Defoe was one of the first authors to take the new social themes and modern ideas and work them into his stories, a strategy authors still use today. His greatest talent was irony, which he used so well he was charged with seditious libel, sentenced to the pillory and thrown in Newgate prison where he wrote Hymn to the Pillory:
“Sometimes the air of scandal to maintain
Villains took from thy lofty loops in vain.
But who can judge of crimes by punishment
Where pirates rule, and laws subservient?
Justice with change of interest learns to bow,
And what was merit once, is murder now:
Actions receive their tincture from the times,
And as they change, our virtues made our crimes.”
In 1719, Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe, a fictional narrative based on the real life experience of castaway Alexander Selkirk. In 1721-1722, he wrote A Journal of the Plague Year, an account of the Great Plague of London in 1665 based on eyewitness interviews and an exhaustive search of parish death records.
“Another died in another house, but in the same parish, and in the same manner. This turn’d the peoples eyes pretty much towards that end of the town; and the weekly bills shewing an increase of burials in St. Gile’s Parish more than usual, it began to be suspected that the plague was among the people at that end of the town; and that many had died of it, tho’ they had taken care to keep it as much from the knowledge of the publick as possible. This possess’d the heads of the people very much and few cared to go thro’ Drury Lane or the other streets suspected unless they had extraordinary business that obliged them to it.”
Suddenly feeling less modern? Is any of this starting to sound eerily familiar?
“But these were trifling things to what followed immediately after. For now the weather set in hot, and from the first week in June the infection spread in a dreadful manner and … the articles of fever … began to swell. For all that could conceal their distempers did it to prevent their neighbors from shunning and refusing to converse with them and also to prevent Authority from shutting up their houses which though it was not yet practiced, yet was threatened, and people were extremely terrify’d at the thoughts of it.”
Shutting up houses for 40 days versus quarantining cruise ships for two weeks. Our 2020 vocabulary now includes 'self-isolation' and 'social distancing.' Is it so very different? To my mind, The Journal of the Plague Year qualifies Daniel Defoe as a modern investigative journalist.
Defoe continued his work when in 1722 he wrote Moll Flanders, an unflinchingly realistic novel outlining the struggles of a powerless, penniless 17th century single woman that challenges gender roles and rings true to this day. He produced over 454 works on topics like politics, religion, and crime using 198 pen names.
He died in London on April 24, 1731, in Ropemaker’s Alley while hiding from his creditors. His books are still in print.