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‘The Greatest Liar’

Is Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year a work of journalism?
July 28, 2009

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.

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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.

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.”

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. 

Nicholson Baker is the author of many books, including his most recent, Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act.