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.
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.