Daniel Defoe

A picture of the author Daniel Defoe

Defoe's professions included English trader, pamphleteer, spy, and pioneer of economic journalism. He is most famous for his novel Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719. He wrote over 500 books, pamphlets and journals across a range of subjects, and helped popularize the English novel.

Born around 1660, he witnessed significant historical events in England early in his life: the Great Plague of London, in which 70,000 people died in 1665, the Great Fire of London in which all but Defoe's and two other homes were left standing in his neighborhood, and an attack by a Dutch fleet on the City of Chatham near the River Thames. Then, his mother died, all before Defoe reached the age of 10.

Defoe pursued political writing after establishing himself as a trader, participating in a number of failed uprisings, becoming a visible target for the recently throned Queen Anne to throw in jail for seditious libel in 1703, shortly after his pamphlet professing nonconformity was published, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters; Or, Proposals for the Establishment of the Church.

He got out of jail by agreeing to spy for the Tories, his debts were paid off. Shortly thereafter, he witnessed a huge storm that uprooted millions of trees and killed 8,000 Londoners. He documented eye witness accounts in his first book, The Storm in 1704, regarded as one of the first works of modern journalism.

Defoe saved the best and most famous of his writings for the last ten years of his life, beginning in 1719 with Robinson Crusoe, a tale about a man shipwrecked on a desert island. The character may have been based on Henry Pitman, a political rebel and surgeon who wrote about his adventures as a castaway from a Caribbean penal colony after the Monmouth Rebellion. Defoe may have met him, since he too participated in that rebellion. Both Pitman's and Defoe's book shared the same publisher. Many critics considered this work a manifesto for economic individualism, and an affirmation of Defoe's religious convictions involving repentance. Robert Louis Stevenson admired it, saying that the footprint scene in Crusoe was one of the four greatest in English literature and most unforgettable.

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