Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe: Ambition and Innovation

Paula R. Backscheider
Copyright Date: 1986
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Daniel Defoe
    Book Description:

    In this book, Paula Backscheider considers Daniel Defoe's entire canon as related, developing, and in close dynamic relationship to the literature of its time. In so doing, she revises our conception of the contexts of Defoe's work and reassesses his achievement and contribution as a writer.

    By restoring a literary context for modern criticism, Backscheider argues the intensity and integrity of Defoe's artistic ambitions, demonstrating that everything he wrote rests solidly upon extensive reading of books published in England, his understanding of the reading tastes of his contemporaries, and his engagement with the issues and events of his time. Defoe, the dedicated professional writer and innovator, emerges with a new wholeness, and certain of his novels assume new significance.

    Defoe's literary status continues to be debated and misunderstood. Even critical studies of the novel often begin with Richardson rather than Defoe. By moving from Defoe's poetry, pamphlets, and histories to the novels, Backscheider offers an argument for the thematic and stylistic coherency of his oeuvre and for a recognition of the dominant place he held in shaping the English novel. For example, Defoe deserves to be recognized as the true originator of the historical novel, for three of his fictions are deeply engaged with just those conceptual and technical issues common to all later historical fiction. And Roxana now appears as Defoe's deliberate attempt to enter the fastest growing market for fiction -- that for women readers.

    What have been powerfully significant for the history of the novel, then, are the very characteristics of his writing that have been held against his literary stature: its contemporaneity, its mixed and untidy form, its formal realism, its concentration on the life of an individual, and its probing of the individual's psychological interaction with the empirical world, making that world representative even as it is referential. It is exactly these characteristics most original, prominent, and subsequently imitated in Defoe's fiction that define the form we call "novel."

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6183-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-2)
    (pp. 3-11)

    DEFOE WAS THE most English of the major writers of his time, and therein lies the problem with his literary reputation. Although he knew Latin, had studied the classics, and drew upon the ancients frequently and with facility, Horace and Virgil did not dominate his conception of literature. He brought to his work the Renaissance awareness of the increase in human knowledge, of the richness of experience, and of the complexity of human nature. Widely read in historical collections, universal histories, travel books, conduct books, sermons, political tracts, works of natural science, and theoretical treatises on government and aware of...

    (pp. 12-41)

    ALTHOUGH NO ONE today thinks of Defoe as a poet, he wrote more verse than Milton or Dryden, and the signature he used most frequently on his published works identified him as the author of a poem. Some of Defoe’s poems were indisputably popular.The True-Born Englishman(1700) went through ten authorized editions and at least twelve pirated editions in the first year.The Mock-Mourners(1702) was in its seventh edition less than a year after its publication,A Hymn to Victoryhad at least four editions in 1704, subscribers clamored forJure Divino(1706), which was soon published as...

    (pp. 42-69)

    DANIEL DEFOE was a writer for almost thirty years before he publishedRobinson Crusoe, and, in his own lifetime, his fame rested primarily upon his pamphlet and periodical publications. As a journalist and controversialist he dwarfed even the greatest of his contemporaries. Richard Steele, Joseph Addison, Jonathan Swift, and dozens of the best minds of his generation engaged him in party warfare, but he was finally declared the “Goliath of his Party.” More than any other single writer, Defoe demonstrated the potential of this important means of opinion shaping.

    Just as some of the most ingenious writing today is in...

    (pp. 70-119)

    WE DO NOT THINK of the early eighteenth century as an important time in the development of history writing for not one great history was written; yet more than one hundred works of history were published in England alone between 1700 and 1754, and the evolution that would move history away from Raleigh’sHistory of the Worldtoward the histories of Hume, Robertson, and Gibbon was well under way. Defoe and his nameless fellow historians were caught in the crucial moment of the struggle to resolve the contemporary demand for the empirical with the eternal compulsion to find pattern and...

    (pp. 120-151)

    HISTORICAL FICTION explicates the meaning of the past. Writers of historical novels try to understand why the past was as it was, how and why events took place, and how people thought and felt. They do not merely reproduce the furniture in a room but also the furniture in a mind: the influences, ideas, opinions, knowledge, and uncertainties that lead to actions. At its best, the historical novel re-creates the mind and experience of the past so intensely that the reader understands that time as an important influence on the present.

    Defoe wrote three historical novels, each different and each...

    (pp. 152-181)

    “I SAW,” “I SAW,” “then I saw.” These words occur thousands of times in the prose fiction of Defoe’s time. Greedy for knowledge, experience, novelty, and opportunity, early eighteenth-century readers wanted to look through others’ eyes at what they could not see and undergo themselves. New World plantations, Caribbean shipping, the Sahara, Siberia’s tundra, even elephant herds and Asian idols were exotic and amazing. Freak accidents, gory murders, congenital deformities, and gallows behavior fascinated them. This craving for sensation contributed to a phenomenal rise in the popularity of travel and criminal literature.

    The travel and criminal books of the time...

    (pp. 182-214)

    DEFOE INTENDEDThe Fortunate Mistressto be a “woman’s novel.” By 1724 when Defoe published this book, which we callRoxana, novels for women were well established. Two full years had passed since the publication of Defoe’s last novel, and those two years were unusually significant in the development of the English novel. In these years, Penelope Aubin published three novels and Eliza Haywood four. These works, Mary Davys’sThe Reform’d Coquet(1724), and Jane Barker’sA Patch-Work Screen(1723) mark changes in these authors’ own writings. A turning point had been reached in the history of the novel, and...

    (pp. 215-240)

    DEFOE’s immortality will always rest onRobinson Crusoe, that immensely subtle, complex book with its simple plot. Defoe gives us a character of compelling reality who appears in one archetypal incident after another. Crusoe is, of course, living one of the most common fantasies of humankind: what if I were stranded in a foreign place? alone on an island? completely unable to escape? what if I had almost nothing with me on the island? Crusoe is bothisolatedandimprisonedand in an unfamiliar place. His questions are entirely predictable: Is survival possible? how can the most basic needs for...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 241-266)
    (pp. 267-288)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 289-299)