Born Daniel Foe, the son of James Foe, a butcher in the Stoke Newington neighbourhood of London, England, he would later add the aristocratic sounding "De" to his name as a nom de plume. He became a famous pamphleteer, journalist and novelist at a time of the birth of the novel in the English language, and thus fairly ranks as one of its progenitors.
Defoe's pamphleteering and political activities resulted in his arrest and placement in a pillory on July 31, 1703, principally on account of a pamphlet entitled "The Shortest Way with Dissenters", in which he ruthlessly satirised the High church Tories, purporting to argue for the extermination of dissenters. The publication of his poem "Hymn to the Pillory", however, caused his audience at the pillory to throw flowers instead of the customary harmful and noxious objects, and to drink to his health.
After his three days in the pillory Defoe went into Newgate Prison. Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, brokered his release in exchange for Defoe's co-operation in acting as an intelligence agent for the Tories in the Tory ministry of 1710 to 1714. After the Tories fell from power with the death of Queen Anne, Defoe continued doing intelligence work for the Whig government.
Defoe's famous novel Robinson Crusoe (1719), tells of a man's shipwreck on a desert island and his subsequent adventures. The author may have based his narrative on the true story of the shipwreck of Alexander Selkirk. (See Robinson Crusoe: Selkirk as the inspiration for Crusoe).
Defoe's next novel was Captain Singleton (1720), amazing for its portrayal of the redemptive power of one man's love for another. Hans Turley has recently shown how Quaker William's love turns Captain Singleton away from the murderous life of a pirate, and the two make a solemn vow to live as a male couple happily ever after in London, disguised as Greeks and never speaking English in public, with Singleton married to William's sister as a ruse.
He also wrote Moll Flanders (1722), a picaresque first-person narration of the fall and eventual redemption of a lone woman in 17th century England. She appears as a whore, bigamist and thief, lives in The Mint, commits adultery and incest, yet manages to keep the reader's sympathy. Both this work and Roxana, The Fortunate Mistress (1724) offer remarkable examples of the way in which Defoe seems to inhabit his fictional (yet "drawn from life") characters, not least in that they are women.
- "One day, about noon, going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man's naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen on the sand." – from Robinson Crusoe
- Wherever God erects a house of prayer
- The Devil always builds a chapel there;
- And 'twill be found, upon examination,
- The latter has the largest congregation.
- – (from The True-Born Englishman, 1701)
These works of Daniel Defoe are freely availables in electronic form from Project Gutenberg:
- The Life and Most Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe
- The Consolidator
- Dickory Croncke
- An Essay Upon Projects
- Everybody's Business Is Nobody's Business
- The Fortunes And Misfortunes Of The Famous Moll Flanders
- From London To Land's End
- The Further Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe
- A Journal Of The Plague Year
- The Life, Adventures & Piracies of the Famous Captain Singleton
- Of Captain Mission
- Tour through Eastern Counties of England, 1722
- Memoirs of a Cavalier