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.
Something similar happened in the case of A Journal of the Plague Year. When Defoe published it, he, as usual, left himself off the title page, ascribing the story to H. F. “Written by a Citizen,” the title page falsely, sales-boostingly claimed, “Who Continued All the While in London.” People believed that for a while; but by 1780, at least, it was generally known that Defoe was the book’s author. Then someone did some arithmetic and realized that Defoe had been a young child when the plague struck London—whereupon they began calling the book a historical novel, unequaled in vividness and circumstantiality. Walter Raleigh, in his late nineteenth-century history of the English novel, called the book “sham history.” In a study of “pseudofactual” fiction, Barbara Foley says the Plague Year “creates the majority of its particulars.” And John Hollowell, investigating the literary origins of the New Journalism, writes that Defoe’s book is “fiction masquerading as fact.” Is it?
One night H. F. visits the forty-foot burial trench in Aldgate churchyard, near where he lives. “A terrible pit it was,” he writes, “and I could not resist my curiosity to go and see it.” He watches the dead cart dip and the bodies fall “promiscuously” into the pit, while a father stands silently by. Then the father, beside himself with grief, suddenly lets out a cry. Another time, H. F. describes the butcher’s market. “People used all possible precaution,” he says. “When any one bought a joint of meat in the market, they would not take it out of the butcher’s hand, but took it off the hooks themselves. On the other hand, the butcher would not touch the money, but have it put into a pot full of vinegar, which he kept for that purpose.”