The Canonisation of Daniel Defoe
After long quiescence, the study of Daniel Defoe has been shaken by major tremors; the Richter scale will be vibrating for years to come. Defoe’s place among classic English writers is not in direct question. Robinson Crusoe is safe, not even threatened; so is Moll Flanders, so are most of the other admired fictions. But the list of lesser writings, mostly anonymous—which over the past two centuries has multiplied approximately five-fold—seems to be in for radical shrinkage. The cutting will be slow and painful, but ultimately a reduction of titles definitely or very probably assigned to Defoe may amount to as much as 50 percent.
For most readers there is no reason to panic. From the most recent roster of 570 titles, at least 200 volumes of Daniel Defoe will be left in the “authentic” column—plenty to keep one’s idle hours occupied for some time to come, especially since the heart of Defoe’s fictional achievement will hardly be touched. But professional students of Defoe and bibliographers everywhere will be stirred or disturbed by the new proposals—which, at this point, let me emphasize, are simply proposals. They are serious proposals, however, advanced by responsible people and forcefully argued. If or when they are carried through, all sorts of detailed and particular decisions will have to be settled, and where exactly we will come out nobody knows yet. But an ambitious project of revision is now on the table, and it does not seem possible that nothing whatever will come of it.
How did this curious and, indeed, unique situation come about? England during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was flooded with an extraordinary amount of anonymous and pseudonymous writing. The great issues of the century of revolution, turning away from the arbitrament of saber and musket, and changing terminology as well as tactics to meet new situations, betook themselves to the battleground of the printing press. It was a new social order that England was trying to create, based on politico-religious diversity within unity, an ordered disorder for which no proper precedent existed. Into this society in turmoil came Daniel Defoe, a Dissenter with the reek of trade upon him, a man lucky to have escaped the clutches of hanging judge Jeffrey, an ex-bankrupt with experience of both the pillory and the jail—a fellow of infinite resource and capacity. Defoe’s agile, audacious mind and busy pen would probably have got him in trouble at any period; in the early eighteenth century a newly freed press, a suddenly enlarged field of public discussion, and his own plentiful lack of money made it inevitable that he would drift into journalism, and necessary that in some—many, perhaps most—of his enterprises his name should not appear. His basic positions in the world were precarious, if not anomalous; he was a religious Dissenter who in some extremely important matters dissented from his fellow Dissenters; he was a radically independent thinker who took service …