We know that Defoe, late in life, wrote the first English novels—Robinson Crusoe in 1719, about a lonely sailor who sees a man’s naked footprint on the beach, and Moll Flanders in 1722, about a woman who was “twelve year a whore.” We know that he was born about 1660, the son of a London butcher or candlemaker named James Foe. In his twenties, Daniel went into business as a hosier—that is, as a seller of women’s stockings. Trade and speculation went well for a while, then less well, and then he had to hide from his creditors, to whom he owed seventeen thousand pounds. He was rescued by friends on high, and began writing pamphlets and poetry.
Soon he was running a large company that made roofing tiles—and the pamphleteering was surprisingly successful. He added a Frenchifying “de” to his name. In 1701 he produced the most-selling poem up to that time, “The True-Born Englishman,” which hymned his native land as a motley nation of immigrants: “Thus, from a mixture of all kinds began / That het’rogenous thing, an Englishman.” Another pamphlet—in which, several decades before Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” he pretended to be a rabid high-churchman who advocated the deportation or hanging of nonconformists—got him clamped in a pillory in 1703 and sent to Newgate Prison.
While in prison he started a newspaper, the Review, an antecedent to The Tatler and The Spectator, which Richard Steele and Joseph Addison would launch within a decade. Besides essays and opinion pieces, the Review had an early advice column, and a “weekly history of Nonsense, Impertinence, Vice, and Debauchery.” That same year, still in prison, he gathered intelligence on a disaster that had visited parts of England. His book, The Storm—about what he called “the greatest and the longest storm that ever the world saw”—is one of the earliest extended journalistic narratives in English.
For a faker, Defoe had an enormous appetite for truth and life and bloody specificity. He wanted to know everything knowable about trade, about royalty, about lowlife, about the customs of other countries, about ships, about folk-remedies and quack doctors, about disasters, about scientific advances, and about the shops and streets of London. He listened to stories people told him. “In this way of Talk I was always upon the Inquiry,” one of his characters says, “asking Questions of things done in Publick, as well as in Private.” But his desire to impersonate and play-act kept surging up and getting him into trouble. He wanted to pass as someone he wasn’t—as a French diplomat, as a Turkish spy, as a fallen woman, as a person who’d seen a ghost, as a pre-Dickensian pickpocket.
He was an especially industrious first-person crime writer. Once he ghostwrote the story of a thief and jailbreaker named Jack Sheppard. To promote its publication, Defoe had Sheppard pause at the gallows and, before a huge crowd, hand out the freshly printed pamphlets as his last testament—or so the story goes. “The rapidity with which this book sold is probably unparalleled,” writes an early biographer, William Lee.
Robinson Crusoe is Defoe’s most famous hoax. We describe it as a novel, of course, but it wasn’t born that way. On its 1719 title page, the book was billed as the strange, surprising adventures of a mariner who lived all alone for eight-and-twenty years on an uninhabited island, “Written by H I M S E L F”—and people at first took this claim for truth and bought thousands of copies. This prompted an enemy satirist, Charles Gildon, to rush out a pamphlet, “The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Daniel de Foe, Formerly of London, Hosier, Who has lived above fifty Years all alone by himself, in the Kingdoms of North and South Britain.”
Addison called Defoe “a false, shuffling, prevaricating rascal.” Another contemporary said he was a master of “forging a story and imposing it on the world as truth.” One of Defoe’s nineteenth-century biographers, William Minto, wrote: “He was a great, a truly great liar, perhaps the greatest liar that ever lived.”
And yet that’s not wholly fair. A number of the things that people later took to be Defoe’s dazzlingly colorful tapestries of fabrication, weren’t. In 1718, in Mist’s Journal, Defoe gave a detailed account of the volcanic explosion of the island of St. Vincent, relying, he said, on letters he had received about it. A century passed, and doubts crept in. One Defoe scholar said that the St. Vincent’s story was imaginary; a second said it was tomfoolery; a third said it was “make-believe” and “entirely of Defoe’s invention.” But the island of St. Vincent had actually blown up, and it had made a lot of noise as it blew. Defoe had done his journalistic best to report this prodigy.