Some sources, apparently without authority, give September 13, 1660 as the birthday of the landmark British author Daniel Defoe (d. 1731). I therefore post on him today in an abritrary spirit — today’s as good as any. My father’s battered, yellow, crumbling old paperback of Robinson Crusoe (1719) was one of my first books, along with that Huckleberry Finn I mentioned here. Neither of these are really kids’ books; early exposure to them in unabridged form is probably one of the reasons I don’t have the terror of reading that seems to paralyze so many adult Americans. Is it over your head? Then SWIM, motherfucker!
Defoe is one of those individuals whose life is hard to capture in capsule form. It’s hard to stop, his life is so fascinating, you want to keep rolling until you fill a book. Still he is beyond worth celebrating. As the father of the English novel, among other things, he practically deserves an annual national holiday. But even were it not so, his life itself was full of incident. He lived through the Plague of 1665, the Fire of 1666, and The Great Storm of 1703. His account of the latter, The Storm (1704) is considered by many to be the first work of journalism. As it deals with a natural disaster (a hurricane), a favorite topic of mine, it attaches me to him all the more. It’s an early prototype of the disaster movie. Defoe also spent time in prison, sometimes for debts, and on at least one harrowing occasion for libel, for his authorship of the satirical pamplet The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702), which purports to argue for their extermination. Defoe was himself a dissenter (a Presbyterian); it was thus in the spirit of Pope, who came later but is more associated with such stuff.
Though rarely (if ever) out of debt, Defoe’s social status was as a prosperous merchant and manufacturer. Both he and his wife were the children of merchants. Defoe dealt in wine, perfume, hose and woolens, and for a time operated a tile and brick works. He was a compulsive political intriguer, a holder of Whig sentiments, and thus was in hot water when the Tories were in power. Under William and Mary he throve; under Anne, he suffered. He lived in a transitional time, and was himself a major figure in the cultural shift. At various times he was a spy and an adventurer and his experiences found their way into his writings. Which were jaw-droppingly numerous. Well over half a thousand pieces of writing are attributed to him, mostly pamphlets, periodicals and such publications, commentary on politics and economics, journalistic works and the like. In essence, his fiction writing was an outgrowth of the rest. He normally wrote in a first person style that resembled a diary or journal entries or memoir, setting him up to be a founder as well of the great hoax tradition of some of the best fiction writers. Often, people assumed his works were true accounts, rather than flights of imagination. And some of his writing was, shall we say, inadvertently fiction, such as The Political History of the Devil (1726), A System of Magick (1727) and An Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions (1727).
His best known works:
Robinson Crusoe (1719)
Time was, the fact of my early exposure to this pivotal work of literature would not have been remarkable. Today, now that children are encouraged to read nothing (except, I dunno, cereal boxes?) I’m not so confident that that is the case any longer. There are more published versions of this old tale than you can shake a stick at — and, as we all know, Robinson Crusoe could shake a LOT of sticks. This, for a story that spends almost almost all of its time on a single character, the eponymous gent, who is shipwrecked on an island, and must learn, like early man, to get his own food and shelter from the land. (Shades of Rousseau?) He does encounter other people, most of them potentially dangerous, but in the end, does find companionship with a native from the mainland whom he dubs “Friday”, who becomes his servant. Racist assumptions aside (which were universal back then), the Master and Man relationship, though not comical, reminds me a bit of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Works clearly influenced by Robinson Crusoe include such diverse things as Gulliver’s Travels (1727) by Jonathan Swift, The Swiss Family Robinson (1743) by Johann David Wyss, more than one of Melville’s novels, and The Admirable Crichton (1902) by J.M. Barrie.
My first screen version was Luis Buñuel’s 1954 one, which was shown at a children’s matinee when I was very young (circa 1972). Buñuel wasn’t the only major European director to take on the story: Sergio Corbucci made Mr. Robinson in 1976, although his was a spoof. Prior to this, there had been a Méliès version in 1902, a silent Unversal serial in 1922, and a silent British adaptation in 1927. Later there was a 1988 version with Aidan Quinn and a 1997 one with Pierce Brosnan (and let’s throw in 2000’s Cast Away, one of Robert Zemeckis’s best movies, with Tom Hanks). And all the gimmicky riffs on it we haven’t yet mentioned: there’s Little Robinson Crusoe (1924) with Jackie Coogan, Mr. Robinson Crusoe (1932) with Douglas Fairbanks, Miss Robinson Crusoe (1953) with Amanda Blake, Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) with Adam West, Lt. Robinson Crusoe, U.S.N. (1966) with Dick Van Dyke, and Man Friday (1975) with Richard Roundtree, which puts the focus on Peter O’Toole’s “servant”. There are also animated versions starring the likes of Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry. And of course the Reality TV explication, Survivor.
There were also the Broadway shows Little Robinson Crusoe (1896) with Eddie Foy and Marie Dressler and Robinson Crusoe Jr (1916) starring Al Jolson, and the 1954 Laurel and Hardy movie Robinson Crusoeland a.k.a. Utopia a.k.a. Atoll K. And let us not for a second forget Gilligan’s Island or Lost in Space.
The moral of the story? Nobody likes to be all by themselves for too long. Preaching to the choir, 2021! Which brings us to…
A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)
Basically this entire post owes its existence to our current plague. For reasons that should be obvious, I used the occasion to finally read Defoe’s famous account of the Plague of 1665 and some of his other works, thus placing the author closer to the front of my consciousness than he normally lives. Like almost all of Defoe’s works, A Journal of the Plague Year defies simple classification. It’s generally regarded as a novel, but because it is so extensively researched, and likely based on the contemporaneous notes of his uncle, it comes awfully close to being an actual history, with the injection of a plausible inner monologue and other invented details. Defoe himself had been alive at the time of the event, but only a small child, and I fully understand his obsession with articulating it, and trying to understand it. It’s bleak but riveting — reads very much like apocalyptic science fiction. It may well be the most readable of his books. The solitude of the main character’s ordeal is reminiscent of Robinson Crusoe, although in this case, he’s isolated within a city: I Am Legend, but without the monsters. The “Bring out yer dead!” section of Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a clear reference to A Journal of the Plague Year.
Moll Flanders (1722)
Again, fresh in my head. Near the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, trapped in our house, my wife and I took turns reading Moll Flanders (which we had both previously read) aloud to one another. We’ve since read dozens of other books aloud to each other, one of the few positive outcomes of this horrible event. This picaresque telling of the misadventures of a wanton woman is surprisingly sympathetic for someone as Puritanical as Defoe, who once wrote a famous essay against contraception. But he himself had seen the inside of a prison, and likely met a few Moll prototypes, and heard their stories. He also lays out the circumstances for Moll’s fall, and redeems her in the end, Many a book would be inclined to blame Moll herself for many of her choices: in Defoe’s world, circumstances foist them upon her. She has a good heart, but she’s living in a wicked world. My wife and I also watched the 1996 British TV series starring Alex Kingston who simply IS Moll Flanders. No one else will ever do, including Robin Wright, who was in a film version the same year. There is also a naughty 1965 version called The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders starring Kim Novak that is very much in the spirit of Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones.
Defoe followed up Moll Flanders with the similar Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress (1724). Both anticipate Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa. The genius of these works (I cynically feel) is that unlike works of straight-up erotica like Fanny Hill, the author and the reader can have their cake and eat it too — experience the thrills of sin, followed by the redemption of virtue. Exploitation films have been feeding off that formula for a century.
Defoe also penned Memoirs of a Cavalier (1720), a historical novel depicting a character in the English Civil Wars and 30 Years War (covering events in the 1630s and ’40s); the seagoing adventure Captain Singleton (1720) and lots of other pirate writings from around the same time; and Colonel Jack (1722) concerning the exploits of a sort of male Moll Flanders, and which I imagine must have had some influence on Fielding’s Tom Jones.
After that brief window of fiction-writing, Defoe returned to his more typical political and economic writing ’til the end of his days.