Defoe was nearly sixty when his first novel, Robinson Crusoe, appeared. He had been known to his contemporaries as a journalist and pamphleteer, however, long before he took overtly to fiction. The first work which brought him fame was The True-Born Englishman (1701), probably the most influential verse satire in English after Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel. It was a defence of William III against those who thought that it was intolerable for a Dutch king to govern 'true-born Englishmen'. Defoe retorted that there was no such thing:
We have been Europe's sink, the jakes where she
Voids all her offal outcast progeny.
He was no poet, although his crude vigour was undeniable. It is further evidenced in such couplets as:
But English gratitude is always such
To hate the hand which doth oblige too much,
and the famous opening:
Wherever God erects a house of prayer,
The devil always builds a chapel there:
And 'twill be found upon examination,
The latter has the largest congregation.
Defoe knew his poetic limitations full well. He wrote in poetic form because that, since Dryden, was the favoured mode for public polemic; but Defoe's real aim was not literary greatness, but immediate effect. So in his Preface he anticipated the critics very jocularly:
'Without being taken for a conjuror, I may venture to foretell, that I shall be cavilled at about my mean style, rough verse, and incorrect language, things I indeed might have taken more care in. But the book is printed; and though I see some faults, it is too late to mend them. And this is all I think needful to say...'
He could be cavalier because his main audience cared little for such niceties; they were not the cultivated patrons to whom so much of previous literature had been primarily addressed, but plain middleclass folk, who constituted an important new force in the reading public, and were strongly asserting their independence, cultural as well as political. They felt, and Defoe agreed, that
Fate has but small distinction set
Betwixt the counter and the coronet,
and that the tastes of those who worked behind the counter must also be served.
So if the great Augustans, Swift and Pope, sneered at him as an outsider, Defoe took little notice. He had more than his share of the truculent self-reliance of the trading classes and he was less an artist than a literary tradesman himself, producing, in a career that was as much devoted to business and politics as to literature, some four hundred separate works, as well as a vast amount of journalism, including the whole of his thrice-weekly newspaper, The Review, which ran for nine years from 1704 to 1713.
His novels —which are certainly the works that interest us most today —were among the greatest concessions he made to the tastes of the reading public. His own literary preference seems to have been for something more factual — for the political, economic, social, and moral improvement of his countrymen. But he had learned as editor of The Review that his readers often needed to be 'wheedled ... in to the knowledge of the world'; and, to 'carry out this honest cheat and bring people to read with delight', he had made an important journalistic innovation. To the usual contents of his paper, an essay-like editorial on a political topic, he had added a lighter section, 'Advice from the Scandalous Club', which dealt humorously with controversial aspects of the social life of the day. This innovation was very successful, and paved the way to The Tatler's more polished presentation of similar matter; it also taught Defoe much about this side of the public's interests and gave him practice in catering to them.
In any case, he was a professional writer, and always ready to supply whatever the printing press could use. Pope might attack what he called Grub Street and the Dunces that wrote for it; but Defoe saw Grub Street as merely an application of commercial principles to the manufacture of literary goods. As he wrote in a letter signed 'Anti-Pope', published in the popular Applebee's Journal in 1725:
'Writing, you know, Mr Applebee, is become a very considerable Branch of the English Commerce. ... The Booksellers are the Master Manufacturers or Employers. The several Writers, Authors, Copyers, Sub-writers, and all other Operators with pen and ink are the workmen employed by the said Master Manufacturers.'
He was true to his understanding of his proper role, then, in writing fiction, whatever his personal inclinations.
He was also true to himself in imposing on what he wrote so much of his own personality and outlook that it became something quite different from anything that the world had seen before; and thus almost accidentally created a form of prose narrative which, if it was not quite the novel in our sense, undoubtedly led to the rise of the novel proper. It is, incidentally, highly appropriate that the rise of the novel — then regarded as a sub-literary form — should begin with a sub-literary figure like Defoe, responsive to the greatly enlarged reading public and independent of patronage and the critical standards of the literati.
Defoe's most important innovation in fiction was his unprecedentedly complete narrative realism. There is little doubt that it springs directly out of his long practice of journalism. Leslie Stephen has described how his early pamphlet, the famous A True Relation of the Apparition of one Mrs. Veal, the next day after her death, to one Mrs. Bargrave at Canterbury, the 8th of September, 1705, contains all the hallmarks of Defoe's later narrative style, including 'the manufacturing of corroborative evidence' and the deflection of attention from weak links in the chain of evidence. Stephen thought that it was a work of fiction, but it has since been discovered that Defoe was merely reporting a popular news item of the day in his own characteristic manner. He was to use exactly the same technique when he came to write fiction, and even there we are never quite sure how much is pure invention. Robinson Crusoe itself was widely regarded as authentic at the time of publication, and it is still not certain to what extent some of Defoe's works, such as the Memoirs of a Cavalier and the Carleton Memoirs, are fictitious or genuine.
It was certainly Defoe's overriding intention that readers should be gulled into thinking his fictions true. If he did not know already that the illusion of authenticity was his forte, he could have learned it from one of his journalist rivals who wrote in 1718 of 'the little art he is truly master of, of forging a story, and imposing it on the world for truth'. Defoe never admitted that he wrote fiction; and typically prefaced his greatest success, Robinson Crusoe, published the next year, with the statement that he, writing merely as 'Editor',
'believes the thing to be a just history of fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it'.
This, of course, is not literally true. For, although Defoe had read about Alexander Selkirk and other castaways, the story and the character are very largely of Defoe's invention. But they are described with so much circumstantial detail, whose only justification would seem to be that things actually happened in just that way, that we do not think of the book as fiction but accord it at least a semi-historical status. Consider for example the way in which the famous finding of the green barley sprouts is told:
In the middle of all my labours it happened, that rummaging my things, I found a little bag, which, as I hinted before, had been filled with corn for the feeding of poultry, not for this voyage, but before, as I suppose, when the ship came from Lisbon. What little remainder of the corn had been in the bag was all devoured with the rats, and I saw nothing in the bag but husks and dust; and being willing to have the bag for some other use, I think it was to put powder in, when I divided it for fear of the lightning, or some such use, I shook the husks of corn out of it on one side of my fortification, under the rock. It was a little before the great rains, just now mentioned, that I threw this stuff away, taking no notice of anything, and not so much as remembering that I had thrown anything there; when, about a month after, or thereabout, I saw some few stalks of something green shooting out of the ground, which I fancied might be some plant I had not seen; but I was surprised, and perfectly astonished, when, after a little longer time, I saw about ten or twelve ears come out, which were perfect green barley of the same kind as our European, nay, as our English barley.
The main aim of the writing is clearly to keep as close as possible to the consciousness of the narrator as he struggles to make the situation clear to himself and to us. Nothing but the exclusive pursuit of this aim, we feel, would have brought about such abrupt dislocations of rhythm and syntax as are found in the first sentence; no other reason could explain the repetitions, the parentheses, the stumblings. And the upshot is that the little bag takes its place with all the other objects of Crusoe's life that have fastened themselves on our imaginations — the first clay pot, the climatically inept fur garments, the umbrella, the boat, the grindstone.
For Defoe's style obeys more fully than ever before the purpose of language as Locke redefined it: 'to convey knowledge of things'. Defoe concentrates his description on the primary qualities of objects as Locke saw them: especially solidity, extension, and number; and he gives them in the simplest language — Defoe's prose contains a higher percentage of words of Anglo-Saxon origin than that of any other well-known writer, except Bunyan. His sentences, it is true, are often very long and rambling, but he somehow makes this a part of his air of authenticity. The lack of strong pauses within the sentence gives his style an urgent, immediate, breathless quality; at the same time, his units of meaning are so small, and their relatedness is made so clear by frequent repetition and recapitulation, that he nevertheless gives the impression of perfectly simple lucidity.
Defoe had been exposed to all the influences which were making prose more prosaic in the seventeenth century: to the Lockian conception of language; to the Royal Society's wish for a language which would help its scientific and technological aims by keeping close to the speech of 'artisans, countrymen, and merchants': and to the plain unadorned style of later seventeenth-century preaching which obtained its effects by repetition rather than by imagery or structural elaboration. Most important of all, his twenty years of journalism had taught him that it was impossible to be too explicit for the audience of 'honest meaning ignorant persons' he kept continually in mind. As a result, his natural prose style is not only an admirable narrative vehicle in itself: it is also much closer to the vernacular of the ordinary person than any previous writer's, and thus admirably adapted to the tongues of Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and his other characters.
But the effect of the passage quoted does not depend only on its style: there is behind it Defoe's emphatic pressure forcing us to attend to the matter. Every relevant detail of the occurrence is made explicit: and after Crusoe has evidenced his scrupulous honesty by admitting that he cannot be absolutely certain about all of them — when the bag had originally been filled with corn, or what he had wanted the bag for later — we are in no mood to take seriously the objection that, as Crusoe admits, 'the climate ... was not proper for corn': for fiction has long before been accepted as established fact. So, wholly convinced, we rejoice with Crusoe at this miracle of divine Providence.
The Puritans saw the whole world, and every incident of their experience, as alive with secret indications of divine intervention or intention; and Crusoe follows the tradition in looking for signs of Grace or Reprobation in this, and in a11 else that happens to him. Robinson Crusoe is not just a travel story; it is also, in intention at least, one of Defoe's 'honest cheats', a sincere attempt to convert a godless form of literature to the purposes of religion and morality: Crusoe's story is supposed to demonstrate how God's Providence saves an outcast who has sinned against the divine will by leaving his family and forgetting his religious training, out of a 'secret burning lust of ambition for great things'. ...