”Defoe is often enough a comic and satirical writer, who balances his enthusiasm for certain kinds of honest projection with a sense of the prevailing dangers of fraud that feeds on modern greed and dreams of instant riches peculiar to the commercial age. There is at times a free-wheeling and wonderfully irresponsible quality to these reflections… life long project of mythologizing the merchant, a new sort of hero, distinctly apart from the criminal speculator and ‘meer projector’ for the new expansionist commercial age of which Defoe is the unofficial poet laureate… in so doing in his title ‘ relishes the disjunction in tone and purpose between the calm, reasoned essayist and the maddened speculator’ ( John J. Richetti )
Throughout his career, Daniel Defoe’s frequently achieved originality is exactly a matter of such generic tensions and transformations in which he puts his own stamp or twist on conventional subjects and practices; On January 10, 1703, an advertisement appeared in the London Gazette offering a reward of 50 pounds sterling to anyone giving information leading to the arrest of a middle-aged man, about forty years old, of a brown complexion, and dark brown colored hair, but wears a wig; a hooked nose, a sharp chin, gray eyes, and a large mole near his mouth…. He was wanted for seditious libel. Four months later the man was caught, put in Newgate prison, and soon afterward sent to stand in the pillory and face the jeers of the London mob.
The man was Daniel Defoe, onetime tile and brich maker and dealer in stockings, cloth, beer, wine tobacco, oysters, mixed cargoes of all kinds. Now he was a pamphleteer and satirical journalist and, fatal weakness, a dissenter. Not for almost another twenty years, after a life of disaster that recall the misfortunes of Cervantes, would he settle down, at the age of sixty, to become the author of ”Robinson Crusoe” and ”Moll Flanders” and the ”father of the English Novel”
Defoe was the most English of Englishmen of the stubborn, unkillable, common kind. His days in the pillory illustrate his spirit. He was terrfied of the pillory and terrified, quite rightly, of the London mob. First he had abased himself, crawled to his accusers; but when he found his mortification did not work, he plucked up his courage, and shrewdly seeing that he was a news story, he wrote ”A Hymn to the Pillory.” The poem was sold to the crowd as he stood there, converting his disaster into a public triumph. He was not pelted with rotten eggs and bad fish. He was cheered by a crowd which, in fact, disliked his opinions for the most part. London had never taken to Puritans and Quakers; ship them all to America was the London view, and it did not care for the moderate descendants, the Dissenters, to whom Defoe belonged.
‘But London loved a truculent citizen, and before anything else Defoe was a citizen. He spoke with the city’s common, unpolished, incurably argumentative voice. It is important to understand that in Defoe’s lifetime London was not an ancient Tudor city. Certainly it was over sixteen hundred years old, but most of ancient London had gone. Elizabethan London had vanished in a few days in the Great Fire of 1666, which had followed the devastating plague of a year before. Defoe’s London was a city of bright new red brick, and Wren’s white towered churches. In Defoe’s time, London saw the end of medieval commerce and the rise of mercantile capitalism and foreign trade. The city was certainly as new, rich, and enterprising as its rival, Amsterdam; it was a rising entrepot happily placed at the crossroads of the Rhine estuary and the new Atlantic trade.
Defoe himself had traded with Maryland. The first English newspaper, ”Post Boy” appeared during this period; Lloyd’s shipping exchange was established; the first coffehouses or clubs opened; the Bank of England was created; new lowas for the protection of honest bankrupts were made. It was the age of individuality and planners, called projectors, of brokering and solid colonial ventures. Behind the outburst of activity was the new middle-class, liberated by the English revolution, free of the working restrictions of the medieval guilds.
The religious fanaticism of the seventeenth-century was outgrown. The new men were out for their independence, for money, and rising in the world. The dream of any London apprentice was to be a merchant, to make his fortune quickly, to build himself a large house in the country, and possibly to become Lord Mayor. Until he was thirty, Defoe fit precisely into the mold of this new man. Even after two bankruptcies and politics had wrecked his own businesseer, he still regarded the ”complete English tradesman” as the ideal figure.
”He understands languages without books, geography without maps, his journals and trading voyages delineate the world; his foreign exchanges, protests, and procurations speak all tongues;Every new voyage the merchant contrives is a project; and ships are sent from port to port, as markets and merchandises differ, by the help of strange and universal intelligence–wherein some are so exquisite, so swift, and so exact, that a merchant sitting at home in his counting-house at once converses with all parts of the known world. This and travel make a true-bred merchant the most intelligent man in the world, and consequently the most capable, when urged by necessity, to contrive new ways to live. And from hence, I humbly conceive, may very properly be derived the projects, so much the subject of the present discourse. And to this sort of men it is easy to trace the original of banks, stocks, stock-jobbing, assurances, friendly societies, lotteries, and the like.”
Defoe realized for himself, it was fatal for a tradesman to be a Wit. He was not a born trader; he was a born writer. Defoe’s father had been a sounder character. He was a tallow chandler, the lowest of London trades and was rigidly religious. He kept his family sternly apart from the roistering life of Charles II’s reign. By the end of his life he had moved up to the far higher status of butcher, and had become a freeman of the city. A Roundhead, survivor of a cause whose victory had been brief, he held to the Puritan belief in education and sent his children to a modest but distinguished school .
From the beginning Daniel Defoe grew up in a severe and persecuted religion, strict in its regard for work, money and morality, and alarming in its theology. When he was five, the threatrs of religion were, it seemed, confirmed by the outbreak of the terrible plague which decimated the London population, particularly the Cripplegate section where he lived. The Dissenters regarded the Plague as a divine punishment for the sins of the city and the persecution of the saints. Defoe grew up with a dramatic belief in the Devil. When we look at Defoe’s character , there is an extraordinary contradiction between the drive of a dramatic and fearful imagination and the curious, observant, shrewd trademen’s regard for the material details of life. He has, almost to a fanatical degree, the trademan,s regard for practicality and goods, as if goods of what one can sell were virtues in themselves.
The inexplicable elements in Daniel Defoe’s character, are his talents for lying and impersonation. When he was writing about the merchant’s life, Defoe said one of the worst dangers was ”overtrading” , yet Defoe ”overtraded” not only in business but in life. He was not content to be himself; he was driven by an irresistible impulse and gift to become other people. His enemies mocked him for being a hosier’s apprentice. He swore he had never been anything as humble as an apprentice and had never sold stockings. And his contention may have been half true. He may never have been a reatiler, but a wholesale dealer, broker, factor and speculator. The idea was grander. So was the cunning alteration of his name from plain D. Foe to the aristocratic Defoe.
In business he overtraded so much in the boom of the new century that he was often, in the courts, accused of breaches of contract. He would speculate in anything; most calamitously in a farm of civet cats, which were valuable to the perfume trade. In 1684 he married Mary Tuffley, a properous merchant’s daughter by whom he had eight children. He speculated with his wife,s fortune, and it looks as though he married her for it, lost it, and by 1692 was finally bankrupt for the then enormous sum of 17000 pounds. With that went his last commercial daydream. it must be said that in the course of years he paid off most of his creditors; he had the Protestant conscience. Part of Defoe’s famous satiric address, published in 1701, to ”the true born Englishman”, the traditional upper-class Tory:
The True–Born Englishman.
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:
For ever since he first debauch’d the mind,
He made a perfect conquest of mankind.
With uniformity of service, he
Reigns with general aristocracy.
No non-conforming sects disturb his reign,
For of his yoke, there’s very few complain.
He knows the genius and the inclination,
And matches proper sins for ev’ry nation.
He needs no standing army government;
He always rules us by our own consent:
His laws are easy, and his gentle sway
Makes it exceeding pleasant to obey.
The list of his vicegerents and commanders,
Out-does your Cæsars, or your Alexanders.
They never fail of his infernal aid,
And he’s as certain ne’er to be betray’d.
Thro’ all the world they spread his vast command,
And death’s eternal empire is maintain’d.
They rule so politicly and so well,
As if they were Lords Justices of hell;
Duly divided to debauch mankind,
And plant infernal dictates in his mind.
Pride, the first peer, and president of hell,
To his share, Spain, the largest province fell.
The subtle Prince thought fittest to bestow
On these the golden mines of Mexico,
With all the silver mountains of Peru;
Wealth which in wise hands would the world undo;
Because he knew their genius was such,
Too lazy and too haughty to be rich:
So proud a people, so above their fate,
That, if reduced to beg, they’ll beg in state:
Lavish of money, to be counted brave,
And proudly starve, because they scorn to save;
Never was nation in the world before,
So very rich, and yet so very poor.
Lust chose the torrid zone of Italy,
Where blood ferments in rapes and sodomy:
Where swelling veins o’erflow with living streams,
With heat impregnate from Vesuvian flames;
Whose flowing sulphur forms infernal lakes,
And human body of the soil partakes.
There nature ever burns with hot desires,
Fann’d with luxuriant air from subterranean fires:
Here undisturbed, in floods of scalding lust,
Th’ infernal king reigns with infernal gust.
Drunkenness, the darling favourite of hell,
Chose Germany to rule; and rules so well,
No subjects more obsequiously obey,
None please so well, or are so pleased as they;
The cunning artist manages so well,
He lets them bow to heav’n, and drink to hell.
If but to wine and him they homage pay,
He cares not to what deity they pray;
What god they worship most, or in what way.
Whether by Luther, Calvin, or by Rome,
They sail for heaven, by wine he steers them home.
Ungovern’d passion settled first in France,
Where mankind lives in haste, and thrives by chance;
A dancing nation, fickle and untrue,
Have oft undone themselves, and others too;
Prompt the infernal dictates to obey,
And in hell’s favour none more great than they.
The pagan world he blindly leads away,
And personally rules with arbitrary sway:
The mask thrown off, plain devil, his title stands;
And what elsewhere he tempts, he there commands;
There, with full gust, th’ ambition of his mind,
Governs, as he of old in heaven design’d:
Worshipp’d as God, his Paynim altars smoke,
Imbrued with blood of those that him invoke.