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was started by his son-in-law, Henry Baker, in October, 1728. There is
more than internal and circumstantial evidence that this prospectus was
Defoe's composition. When Baker retired from the paper five years
afterwards, he drew up a list of the articles which had appeared under
his editorship, with the names of the writers attached. This list has
been preserved, and from it we learn that the first number, containing a
prospectus and an introductory essay on the qualifications of a good
writer, was written by Defoe. That experienced journalist naturally
tried to give an air of novelty to the enterprise. "If this paper," the
first sentence runs, "was not intended to be what no paper at present
is, we should never attempt to crowd in among such a throng of public
writers as at this time oppress the town." In effect the scheme of the
_Universal Spectator_ was to revive the higher kind of periodical essays
which made the reputation of the earlier _Spectator_. Attempts to follow
in the wake of Addison and Steele had for so long ceased to be features
in journalism; their manner had been so effectually superseded by less
refined purveyors of light literature - Defoe himself going heartily with
the stream - that the revival was opportune, and in point of fact proved
successful, the _Universal Spectator_ continuing to exist for nearly
twenty years. It shows how quickly the _Spectator_ took its place among
the classics, that the writer of the prospectus considered it necessary
to deprecate a charge of presumption in seeming to challenge comparison.

"Let no man envy us the celebrated title we have assumed,
or charge us with arrogance, as if we bid the world expect
great things from us. Must we have no power to please, unless
we come up to the full height of those inimitable performances?
Is there no wit or humour left because they are
gone? Is the spirit of the _Spectators_ all lost, and their mantle
fallen upon nobody? Have they said all that can be
said? Has the world offered no variety, and presented no
new scenes, since they retired from us? Or did they leave
off, because they were quite exhausted, and had no more to

Defoe did not always speak so respectfully of the authors of the
_Spectator_. If he had been asked why they left off, he would probably
have given the reason contained in the last sentence, and backed his
opinion by contemptuous remarks about the want of fertility in the
scholarly brain. He himself could have gone on producing for ever; he
was never gravelled for lack of matter, had no nice ideas about manner,
and was sometimes sore about the superior respectability of those who
had. But here he was on business, addressing people who looked back
regretfully from the vulgarity of _Mist's_ and _Applebee's_ to the
refinement of earlier periodicals, and making a bid for their custom. A
few more sentences from his advertisement will show how well he
understood their prejudices: -

"The main design of this work is, to turn your thoughts a
little off from the clamour of contending parties, which has
so long surfeited you with their ill-timed politics, and restore
your taste to things truly superior and sublime."

"In order to this, we shall endeavour to present you with
such subjects as are capable, if well handled, both to divert
and to instruct you; such as shall render conversation pleasant,
and help to make mankind agreeable to one another."

"As for our management of them, not to promise too much
for ourselves, we shall only say we hope, at least, to make our
work acceptable to everybody, because we resolve, if possible,
to displease nobody."

"We assure the world, by way of negative, that we shall
engage in no quarrels, meddle with no parties, deal in no scandal,
nor endeavour to make any men merry at the expense of
their neighbours. In a word, we shall set nobody together
by the ears. And though we have encouraged the ingenious
world to correspond with us by letters, we hope they will not
take it ill, that we say beforehand, no letters will be taken
notice of by us which contain any personal reproaches, intermeddle
with family breaches, or tend to scandal or indecency
of any kind."

"The current papers are more than sufficient to carry on all
the dirty work the town can have for them to do; and what
with party strife, politics, poetic quarrels, and all the other
consequences of a wrangling age, they are in no danger of
wanting employment; and those readers who delight in such
things, may divert themselves there. But our views, as is
said above, lie another way."

Good writing is what Defoe promises the readers of the _Universal
Spectator_, and this leads him to consider what particular
qualifications go to the composition, or, in a word, "what is required
to denominate a man a _good writer_". His definition is worth quoting as
a statement of his principles of composition.

"One says this is a polite author; another says, that is an
excellent _good writer_; and generally we find some oblique
strokes pointed sideways at themselves; intimating that
whether we think fit to allow it or not, they take themselves
to be very _good writers_. And, indeed, I must excuse them
their vanity; for if a poor author had not some good opinion
of himself, especially when under the discouragement of having
nobody else to be of his mind, he would never write at
all; nay, he could not; it would take off all the little dull
edge that his pen might have on it before, and he would not
be able to say one word to the purpose."

"Now whatever may be the lot of this paper, be that as
common fame shall direct, yet without entering into the
enquiry who writes better, or who writes worse, I shall lay
down one specific, by which you that read shall impartially
determine who are, or are not, to be called _good writers_. In a
word, the character of a good writer, wherever he is to be
found, is this, viz., that he writes so as to please and serve at
the same time."

"If he writes to _please_, and not to _serve_, he is a flatterer and
a hypocrite; if to _serve_ and not to _please_, he turns cynic and
satirist. The first deals in smooth falsehood, the last in
rough scandal; the last may do some good, though little;
the first does no good, and may do mischief, not a little; the
last provokes your rage, the first provokes your pride; and in
a word either of them is hurtful rather than useful. But the
writer that strives to be useful, writes to _serve_ you, and at
the same time, by an imperceptible art, draws you on to be
pleased also. He represents truth with plainness, virtue with
praise; he even reprehends with a softness that carries the
force of a satire without the salt of it; and he insensibly
screws himself into your good opinion, that as his writings
merit your regard, so they fail not to obtain it."

"This is part of the character by which I define a good
writer; I say 'tis but part of it, for it is not a half sheet that
would contain the full description; a large volume would
hardly suffice it. His fame requires, indeed, a very good
writer to give it due praise; and for that reason (and a good
reason too) I go no farther with it."



Those of my readers who have thought of Defoe only as a writer of
stories which young and old still love to read, must not be surprised
that so few pages of this little book should be left for an account of
his work in that field. No doubt Defoe's chief claim to the world's
interest is that he is the author of _Robinson Crusoe_. But there is
little to be said about this or any other of Defoe's tales in
themselves. Their art is simple, unique, incommunicable, and they are
too well known to need description. On the other hand, there is much
that is worth knowing and not generally known about the relation of
these works to his life, and the place that they occupy in the sum total
of his literary activity. Hundreds of thousands since Defoe's death, and
millions in ages to come, would never have heard his name but for
_Robinson Crusoe_. To his contemporaries the publication of that work
was but a small incident in a career which for twenty years had claimed
and held their interest. People in these days are apt to imagine,
because Defoe wrote the most fascinating of books for children, that he
was himself simple, child-like, frank, open, and unsuspecting. He has
been so described by more than one historian of literature. It was not
so that he appeared to his contemporaries, and it is not so that he can
appear to us when we know his life, unless we recognise that he took a
child's delight in beating with their own weapons the most astute
intriguers in the most intriguing period of English history.

Defoe was essentially a journalist. He wrote for the day, and for the
greatest interest of the greatest number of the day. He always had some
ship sailing with the passing breeze, and laden with a useful cargo for
the coast upon which the wind chanced to be blowing. If the Tichborne
trial had happened in his time, we should certainly have had from him an
exact history of the boyhood and surprising adventures of Thomas Castro,
commonly known as Sir Roger, which would have come down to us as a true
record, taken, perhaps, by the chaplain of Portland prison from the
convict's own lips. It would have had such an air of authenticity, and
would have been corroborated by such an array of trustworthy witnesses,
that nobody in later times could have doubted its truth. Defoe always
wrote what a large number of people were in a mood to read. All his
writings, with so few exceptions that they may reasonably be supposed to
fall within the category, were _pièces de circonstance_. Whenever any
distinguished person died or otherwise engaged public attention, no
matter how distinguished, whether as a politician, a criminal, or a
divine, Defoe lost no time in bringing out a biography. It was in such
emergencies that he produced his memoirs of Charles XII., Peter the
Great, Count Patkul, the Duke of Shrewsbury, Baron de Goertz, the Rev.
Daniel Williams, Captain Avery the King of the Pirates, Dominique
Cartouche, Rob Roy, Jonathan Wild, Jack Sheppard, Duncan Campbell. When
the day had been fixed for the Earl of Oxford's trial for high treason,
Defoe issued the fictitious _Minutes of the Secret Negotiations of Mons.
Mesnager_ at the English Court during his ministry. We owe the _Journal
of the Plague in 1665_ to a visitation which fell upon France in 1721,
and caused much apprehension in England. The germ which in his fertile
mind grew into _Robinson Crusoe_ fell from the real adventures of
Alexander Selkirk, whose solitary residence of four years on the island
of Juan Fernandez was a nine days' wonder in the reign of Queen Anne.
Defoe was too busy with his politics at the moment to turn it to
account; it was recalled to him later on, in the year 1719, when the
exploits of famous pirates had given a vivid interest to the chances of
adventurers in far-away islands on the American and African coasts. The
_Life, Adventures, and Piracies of the famous Captain Singleton_, who
was set on shore in Madagascar, traversed the continent of Africa from
east to west past the sources of the Nile, and went roving again in the
company of the famous Captain Avery, was produced to satisfy the same
demand. Such biographies as those of _Moll Flanders_ and the _Lady
Roxana_ were of a kind, as he himself illustrated by an amusing
anecdote, that interested all times and all professions and degrees; but
we have seen to what accident he owed their suggestion and probably part
of their materials. He had tested the market for such wares in his
Journals of Society.

In following Defoe's career, we are constantly reminded that he was a
man of business, and practised the profession of letters with a shrewd
eye to the main chance. He scoffed at the idea of practising it with any
other object, though he had aspirations after immortal fame as much as
any of his more decorous contemporaries. Like Thomas Fuller, he frankly
avowed that he wrote "for some honest profit to himself." Did any man,
he asked, do anything without some regard to his own advantage? Whenever
he hit upon a profitable vein, he worked it to exhaustion, putting the
ore into various shapes to attract different purchasers. _Robinson
Crusoe_ made a sensation; he immediately followed up the original story
with a Second Part, and the Second Part with a volume of _Serious
Reflections_. He had discovered the keenness of the public appetite for
stories of the supernatural, in 1706, by means of his _True Relation of
the Apparition of one Mrs. Veal_.[4] When, in 1720, he undertook to
write the life of the popular fortune-teller, Duncan Campbell - a puff
which illustrates almost better than anything else Defoe's extraordinary
ingenuity in putting a respectable face upon the most disreputable
materials - he had another proof of the avidity with which people run to
hear marvels. He followed up this clue with _A System of Magic, or a
History of the Black Art_; _The Secrets of the Invisible World
disclosed, or a Universal History of Apparitions_; and a humorous
_History of the Devil_, in which last work he subjected _Paradise Lost_,
to which Addison had drawn attention by his papers in the _Spectator_,
to very sharp criticism. In his books and pamphlets on the Behaviour of
Servants, and his works of more formal instruction, the _Family
Instructor_, the _Plan of English Commerce_, the _Complete English
Tradesman_, the _Complete English Gentleman_ (his last work, left
unfinished and unpublished), he wrote with a similar regard to what was
for the moment in demand.

[Footnote 4: Mr. Lee has disposed conclusively of the myth that this
tale was written to promote the sale of a dull book by one Drelincourt
on the _Fear of Death_, which Mrs. Veal's ghost earnestly recommended
her friend to read. It was first published separately as a pamphlet
without any reference to Drelincourt. It was not printed with
Drelincourt's _Fear of Death_ till the fourth edition of that work,
which was already popular. Further, the sale of Drelincourt does not
appear to have been increased by the addition of Defoe's pamphlet to the
book, and of Mrs. Veal's recommendation to the pamphlet.]

Defoe's novel-writing thus grew naturally out of his general literary
trade, and had not a little in common with the rest of his abundant
stock. All his productions in this line, his masterpiece, _Robinson
Crusoe_, as well as what Charles Lamb calls his "secondary novels,"
_Captain Singleton_, _Colonel Jack_, _Moll Flanders_, and _Roxana_, were
manufactured from material for which he had ascertained that there was a
market; the only novelty lay in the mode of preparation. From writing
biographies with real names attached to them, it was but a short step to
writing biographies with fictitious names. Defoe is sometimes spoken of
as the inventor of the realistic novel; realistic biography would,
perhaps, be a more strictly accurate description. Looking at the
character of his professed records of fact, it seems strange that he
should ever have thought of writing the lives of imaginary heroes, and
should not have remained content with "forging stories and imposing them
on the world for truth" about famous and notorious persons in real life.
The purveyors of news in those days could use without fear of detection
a licence which would not be tolerated now. They could not, indeed,
satisfy the public appetite for news without taking liberties with the
truth. They had not special correspondents in all parts of the world, to
fill their pages with reports from the spot of things seen and heard.
The public had acquired the habit of looking to the press, to periodical
papers and casual books and pamphlets, for information about passing
events and prominent men before sufficient means had been organized for
procuring information which should approximate to correctness. In such
circumstances, the temptation to invent and embellish was irresistible.
"Why," a paragraph-maker of the time is made to say, "if we will write
nothing but truth, we must bring you no news; we are bound to bring you
such as we can find." Yet it was not lies but truth that the public
wanted as much as they do now. Hence arose the necessity of fortifying
reports with circumstantial evidence of their authenticity. Nobody
rebuked unprincipled news-writers more strongly than Defoe, and no
news-writer was half as copious in his guarantees for the accuracy of
his information. When a report reached England that the island of St.
Vincent had been blown into the air, Defoe wrote a description of the
calamity, the most astonishing thing that had happened in the world
"since the Creation, or at least since the destruction of the earth by
water in the general Deluge," and prefaced his description by saying: -

"Our accounts of this come from so many several hands
and several places that it would be impossible to bring the
letters all separately into this journal; and when we had
done so or attempted to do so, would leave the story confused,
and the world not perfectly informed. We have therefore
thought it better to give the substance of this amazing
accident in one collection; making together as full and as
distinct an account of the whole as we believe it possible to
come at by any intelligence whatsoever, and at the close of
this account we shall give some probable guesses at the natural
cause of so terrible an operation."

Defoe carried the same system of vouching for the truth of his
narratives by referring them to likely sources, into pamphlets and books
which really served the purpose of newspapers, being written for the
gratification of passing interests. The History of the Wars of Charles
XII., which Mr. Lee ascribes to him, was "written by a Scot's gentleman,
in the Swedish service." The short narrative of the life and death of
Count Patkul was "written by the Lutheran Minister who assisted him in
his last hours, and faithfully translated out of a High Dutch
manuscript." M. Mesnager's minutes of his negotiations were "written by
himself," and "done out of French." Defoe knew that the public would
read such narratives more eagerly if they believed them to be true, and
ascribed them to authors whose position entitled them to confidence.
There can be little doubt that he drew upon his imagination for more
than the title-pages. But why, when he had so many eminent and notorious
persons to serve as his subjects, with all the advantage of bearing
names about which the public were already curious, did he turn to the
adventures of new and fictitious heroes and heroines? One can only
suppose that he was attracted by the greater freedom of movement in pure
invention; he made the venture with _Robinson Crusoe_, it was
successful, and he repeated it. But after the success of _Robinson
Crusoe_, he by no means abandoned his old fields. It was after this that
he produced autobiographies and other _primâ facie_ authentic lives of
notorious thieves and pirates. With all his records of heroes, real or
fictitious, he practised the same devices for ensuring credibility. In
all alike he took for granted that the first question people would ask
about a story was whether it was true. The novel, it must be remembered,
was then in its infancy, and Defoe, as we shall presently see, imagined,
probably not without good reason, that his readers would disapprove of
story-telling for the mere pleasure of the thing, as an immorality.

In writing for the entertainment of his own time, Defoe took the surest
way of writing for the entertainment of all time. Yet if he had never
chanced to write _Robinson Crusoe_, he would now have a very obscure
place in English literature. His "natural infirmity of homely plain
writing," as he humorously described it, might have drawn students to
his works, but they ran considerable risk of lying in utter oblivion.
He was at war with the whole guild of respectable writers who have
become classics; they despised him as an illiterate fellow, a vulgar
huckster, and never alluded to him except in terms of contempt. He was
not slow to retort their civilities; but the retorts might very easily
have sunk beneath the waters, while the assaults were preserved by their
mutual support. The vast mass of Defoe's writings received no kindly aid
from distinguished contemporaries to float them down the stream;
everything was done that bitter dislike and supercilious indifference
could do to submerge them. _Robinson Crusoe_ was their sole life-buoy.

It would be a mistake to suppose that the vitality of _Robinson Crusoe_
is a happy accident, and that others of Defoe's tales have as much claim
in point of merit to permanence. _Robinson Crusoe_ has lived longest,
because it lives most, because it was detached as it were from its own
time and organized for separate existence. It is the only one of Defoe's
tales that shows what he could do as an artist. We might have seen from
the others that he had the genius of a great artist; here we have the
possibility realized, the convincing proof of accomplished work. _Moll
Flanders_ is in some respects superior as a novel. Moll is a much more
complicated character than the simple, open-minded, manly mariner of
York; a strangely mixed compound of craft and impulse, selfishness and
generosity - in short, a thoroughly bad woman, made bad by circumstances.
In tracing the vigilant resolution with which she plays upon human
weakness, the spasms of compunction which shoot across her wily designs,
the selfish afterthoughts which paralyse her generous impulses, her fits
of dare-devil courage and uncontrollable panic, and the steady current
of good-humoured satisfaction with herself which makes her chuckle
equally over mishaps and successes, Defoe has gone much more deeply into
the springs of action, and sketched a much richer page in the natural
history of his species than in _Robinson Crusoe._ True, it is a more
repulsive page, but that is not the only reason why it has fallen into
comparative oblivion, and exists now only as a parasite upon the more
popular work. It is not equally well constructed for the struggle of
existence among books. No book can live for ever which is not firmly
organized round some central principle of life, and that principle in
itself imperishable. It must have a heart and members; the members must
be soundly compacted and the heart superior to decay. Compared with
_Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders_ is only a string of diverting
incidents, the lowest type of book organism, very brilliant while it is
fresh and new, but not qualified to survive competitors for the world's
interest. There is no unique creative purpose in it to bind the whole
together; it might be cut into pieces, each capable of wriggling
amusingly by itself. The gradual corruption of the heroine's virtue,
which is the encompassing scheme of the tale, is too thin as well as too
common an artistic envelope; the incidents burst through it at so many
points that it becomes a shapeless mass. But in _Robinson Crusoe_ we
have real growth from a vigorous germ. The central idea round which the
tale is organized, the position of a man cast ashore on a desert island,
abandoned to his own resources, suddenly shot beyond help or counsel
from his fellow-creatures, is one that must live as long as the
uncertainty of human life.

The germ of _Robinson Crusoe,_ the actual experience of Alexander
Selkirk, went floating about for several years, and more than one artist
dallied with it, till it finally settled and took root in the mind of
the one man of his generation most capable of giving it a home and
working out its artistic possibilities. Defoe was the only man of
letters in his time who might have been thrown on a desert island
without finding himself at a loss what to do. The art required for
developing the position in imagination was not of a complicated kind,
and yet it is one of the rarest of gifts. Something more was wanted than
simply conceiving what a man in such a situation would probably feel and
probably do. Above all, it was necessary that his perplexities should be
unexpected, and his expedients for meeting them unexpected; yet both
perplexities and expedients so real and life-like that, when we were

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Online LibraryWilliam MintoDaniel Defoe → online text (page 10 of 13)