About a month ago, I would have taken one look at the name Daniel Defoe and questioned, “Who?” After spending the past month on a deserted island with Mr. Defoe’s most famous literary character, Robinson Crusoe, I now know and respect the name of the Father of the Modern Novel.
Daniel Defoe was born Daniel Foe in London around 1660. He later changed his name, adding the “De” to make his name more aristocratic. His family were staunch Puritans, and Defoe’s father meant Daniel for the ministry. However, Daniel was adventurous and ambitious, taking an interest in politics, trade, and traveling. He became a merchant but was unsuccessful and suffered bankruptcy twice. Defoe was an active investor and at one point, invested in a diving machine. Over the years he also fought in a rebellion, served in the King’s army, was a spy and an accountant! Interestingly, when he was hiding in a churchyard during his rebel fugitive days, he spotted the name “Robinson Crusoe” carved onto a stone. He never forgot the name, and used it in his later novel. In the 1680s he married Mary Tuffley. Their marriage lasted fifty years and produced eight children.
His real claim to fame, of course, is his writing. His writing sprang from his concerns in politics, religion, and society. In 1702 he published his pamphlet The Shortest Way with the Dissenters for which he was arrested and placed in the pillory, also known as the stocks. Defoe’s friends stood in front of him protecting him. They also used this public punishment as an opportunity to sell copies of another Defoe pamphlet, Hymn to the Pillory, a mocking of the justice system he had written for this occasion. Another of his works, a satirical poem, The True-Born Englishman, attacked nationalist pride and defended the then Dutch-born King of England. He also wrote and published a newspaper called the Review.
Defoe is most well-known for his novels. Out of his over 500 writings, his most famous work is Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719 under the most spoiler-filled title I think I’ve ever seen: The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates. The novel is the classic story of survival on a deserted island, based in part on the tale of Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk who survived for over four years on an island.
Robinson Crusoe was a huge success for Defoe, who went on to write two sequels to the novel, but they were not as well received as his first. Defoe’s other famous novels include Moll Flanders, A Journal of the Plague Year, and Roxana.
He died on April 26, 1731, in debt and hiding from a creditor. A monument was later built on his burial site.