A Journal of the Plague Year is an astounding performance. It’s shocking, it’s messy, it’s moving, it sobs aloud with its losses, it’s got all the urgency and loopingly prolix insistence of a man of sympathy who has lived through an urban catastrophe and wants to tell you what it was like. The fear of death, notes H. F., “took away all bowels of love, all concern for one another.” But not universally: “There were many instances of immovable affection, pity and duty.” And Defoe’s narrator is at pains to discount some of the stories that he hears. He is told, for example, of nurses smothering plague victims with wet cloths to hasten their end. But the details are suspiciously unvarying, and in every version, no matter where he encounters it, the event is said to have happened on the opposite side of town. There is, H. F. judges, “more of tale than of truth” in these accounts.

Still, there’s the false frame. The story isn’t really being told by H. F., it’s being told by Defoe. That’s clearly a forgery—although more understandable when you learn that Defoe had an uncle with those initials, Henry Foe. Henry was in fact a saddler, who lived in Aldgate near the burial pit. It seems that in order to launch himself into the telling of this overwhelmingly complex story of London’s ordeal, Defoe needed to think and write in his uncle’s voice. The “I” is more than a bit of commercial-minded artifice. The ventriloquism, the fictional first-person premise, helped Defoe to unspool and make sequential sense of what he knew. He sifted through and used a mass of contemporary published sources, as any journalist would, and he enlivened that printed store with anecdotes that people had told him over the years. (His father could have been a source for the butcher’s vinegar pot.) The book feels like something heartfelt, that grew out of decades of accumulated notes and memories—although written with impressive speed. It doesn’t feel like an artificial swizzle of falsifications.

In 1919, a young scholar, Watson Nicholson, wrote a book on the sources of Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. He was quite upset by the notion that the Journal was now, without qualification, being called a novel. In his book, Nicholson claimed to have established “overwhelming evidence of the complete authenticity of Defoe’s ‘masterpiece of the imagination.’” There was not, Nicholson said, “a single essential statement in the Journal not based on historic fact.” True, Defoe had a way of embroidering, but even so, “the employment of the first person in the narrative in no sense interferes with the authenticity of the facts recorded.”

Other critics agreed. In 1965, Frank Bastian checked what Defoe said in the Journal against Pepys’s Diary, which Defoe couldn’t have seen because it wasn’t decoded until a century later. “Characters and incidents once confidently asserted to be the products of Defoe’s fertile imagination,” wrote Bastian, “repeatedly prove to have been factual.” Introducing the Penguin edition of the Plague Year in 1966, Anthony Burgess wrote: “Defoe was our first great novelist because he was our first great journalist.”

Six thousand people a month died in London’s plague, most of them poor. The locations of many burial pits passed from memory. One was later used, according to Defoe, as a “yard for keeping hogs”; another was rediscovered when the foundation of a grand house was being dug: “The women’s sculls were quite distinguished by their long hair.” Is the author being a reporter here, or a novelist? We don’t know. We want to know.

Daniel Defoe seems to have needed a pocket full of passports to get where he was going. But the moral of his story, at least for the nonfictionist, still is: Never Invent. People love hoaxes in theory—from a distance—but they also hate being tricked. If you make up sad things and insist that they’re true, nobody afterward will fully trust what you write. 

 

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Nicholson Baker is most recently the author of Human Smoke, was published last year. A novel, The Anthologist, will be published in September.