I first read Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year on a train from Boston to New York. That’s the truth. It’s not a very interesting truth, but it’s true. I could say that I first read it sitting on a low green couch in the old smoking room of the Cincinnati Palladium, across from a rather glum-looking Henry Kissinger. Or that I found a beat-up Longman’s 1895 edition of Defoe’s Plague Year in a dumpster near the Recycle-a-Bicycle shop on Pearl Street when I was high on Guinness and roxies, and I opened it and was drawn into its singular, fearful world, and I sat right down in my own vomit and read the book straight through. It would be easy for me to say these things. But if I did, I would be inventing—and, as John Hersey wrote, the sacred rule for the journalist (or the memoirist, or indeed for any nonfiction writer) is: Never Invent.
That’s what makes Daniel Defoe, the founder of English journalism, such a thorny shrub. The hoaxers and the embellishers, the fake autobiographers, look on Defoe as a kind of patron saint. Defoe lied a lot. But he also hated his lying habit, at least sometimes. He said the lying made a hole in the heart. About certain events he wanted truth told. And one event he really cared about was the great plague of 1665, which happened when he was about five years old.
A Journal of the Plague Year begins quietly, without any apparatus of learnedness. It doesn’t try to connect this recent plague with past plagues. It draws no historical or classical or literary parallels. It just begins: “It was about the beginning of September, 1664, that I, among the rest of my neighbors, heard in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned again in Holland.” The “I” is not Defoe, but an older proxy, somebody mysteriously named H. F., who says he is a saddler. H. F. lives halfway between Aldgate Church and Whitechapel, “on the left hand or north side of the street.” That’s all we know about him.
H. F. watches the bills of mortality mount—he keeps track—and he debates with himself whether to stay in town or flee. His brother tells him to save himself, get away. But no, H. F. decides to stay. He listens. He walks around. He sees a man race out of an alley, apparently singing and making clownish gestures, pursued by women and children—surgeons had been at work on his plague sores. “By laying strong caustics on them, the surgeons had, it seems, hopes to break them—which caustics were then upon him, burning his flesh as with a hot iron.” H. F. hears screams—many different kinds of screams, and screeches, and shrieks. In an empty street in Lothbury, a window opens suddenly just over his head. “A woman gave three frightful screeches, and then cried, ‘Oh! death, death, death!’ ” There was no other movement. The street was still. “For people had no curiosity now in any case.”
At the plague’s height, H. F. writes, there were no funerals, no wearing of black, no bells tolled, no coffins. “Whole streets seemed to be desolated,” he says, “doors were left open, windows stood shattering with the wind in empty houses for want of people to shut them. In a word, people began to give up themselves to their fears and to think that all regulations and methods were in vain, and that there was nothing to be hoped for but an universal desolation.”
What do we know about Defoe? Very little. He was one of the most prolific men ever to lift a pen, but he wrote almost nothing about himself. Not many letters have survived. Readers have been attributing and de-attributing Defoe’s anonymous journalism ever since he died, broke, in Ropemaker’s Alley, in 1731. He was almost always writing about someone else—or pretending to be someone else. There are a few engravings of him, and only one surviving prose description. It’s unfriendly—in fact it was a sort of warrant for his arrest, printed in a newspaper when Defoe was wanted by the government on a charge of seditious libel. “He is a middle-sized, spare man,” said the description, “about forty years old, of a brown complexion, and dark brown-colored hair, but wears a wig; a hooked nose, a sharp chin, grey eyes, and a large mole near his mouth.” Anyone who could furnish information leading to his apprehension by her majesty’s justices of the peace, said the notice, would receive a reward of fifty pounds.