The Hack of Genius


It will be agreed that, in the case of a writer, biography and bibliography are inextricably intertwined. Were we to find reason for supposing that Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the attribution of which to James Hogg has occasionally been questioned, was really by Jane Austen, or that large chunks of the Edinburgh Review were written by her, David Nokes and Claire Tomalin would have to rewrite their recent biographies drastically. It would mean more than just adding a chapter on her “Edinburgh period.” Michel Foucault, in What is an Author?, makes a very sensible remark in this connection. “The author’s name,” he says, “is not… just a proper name like the rest.” If we decided that the same author wrote the works of Bacon and Macbeth, King Lear, and The Tempest, etc., it would “entirely modify the functioning” of the name “Shakespeare.” In the case of Shakespeare, as in the case of Austen, we would have a different writer, a different person, on our hands.

Richard West, the author of the book under review, seems not to have been concerned by such thoughts. He says frankly that he does not pretend to be a Defoe scholar, and on the question of attribution, he writes, a little vaguely: “Defoe scholars still cannot agree on which of the hundreds of titles are really his. Occasionally one finds attributions that are inaccurate: the style is not Defoe’s; but more often, he is indeed the author.”

For biographical fact, he has largely based himself on Paula Backscheider’s Daniel Defoe: His Life (1989), and he does not seem to have consulted any other biography of Defoe apart from James Sutherland’s.1 (He seems quite unaware of, or at least does not mention, Walter Wilson’s monumental three-volume Memoirs of the Life and Times of Daniel De Foe, published in 1830.) West’s aim has been to rearrange the known events of Defoe’s life according to a new story line, and this is a perfectly honorable project. Indeed he begins to do it rather well, for he has a nice, vigorous, flowing narrative style, though his book somewhat falters as it progresses.

But what he thinks of as the known facts of Defoe’s career are sometimes so questionable, given the bibliographical problems that underlie them, that it is difficult to speak about his book without, first of all, getting into troublesome “scholarly” debates. The general reader tends to think of Defoe as a novelist, but in fact he did not write his first novel (Robinson Crusoe) until he was nearly sixty, and in his lifetime he was better known (and was indeed very famous) as the author of poems, political pamphlets, satires, histories, and didactic treatises.

He was, moreover, a highly prolific author. Nevertheless the way in which the “canon” of his works has swollen over the years from a little over a hundred items in the earliest listing2 to a current figure of 570 or so3 is an astonishing, not to say…

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