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 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 a weird, phenomenon. It occurred because his writing was mainly done anonymously, and because there was no serious attempt to draw up a list of his works till forty years after his death in 1731. This meant that, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, scholars were tempted to assign further works to him (his latest bibliographer, J.R. Moore, added over 140!); and they did so, for the most part, purely on the basis of internal evidence, i.e., on the strength of certain “favorite phrases,” recognition of his prose style, etc.

This burgeoning canon has been treated with a certain skepticism by scholars over the last few decades—for instance by Rodney Baine and J.A. Downie, who have proposed quite a few loppings and de-attributions. It must be admitted, though, that W.R. Owens and the present writer have thrown ourselves into revisionism with more zest than anyone before. In our Defoe De-Attributions4 we argue for dropping no fewer than 252 works from the “canon.” (Though Ihasten to add that what we are saying is not that Defoe could not have written those works, but that we know of no good or sufficient reason for supposing that he did.)

But suppose you were undertaking a new biography of Defoe: Were you to take our views seriously, might you not wonder whom, or what, you were writing about? Was it a “Defoe” who (to quote West) wrote “lives of Peter the Great of Russia and Charles XII of Sweden, stories of pirates and murderers, bogus memoirs of soldiers and sailors,” or was it the markedly different “Defoe” who—according to our view—most probably did nothing of the kind?

The relationship between biography and bibliography has many aspects, but one is peculiarly important:it is that a bibliographer enjoys a freedom denied to a biographer. Say that a bibliographer, on the strength of internal evidence (certain habits of style or “favorite phrases,” and conceivably the findings of “stylometry”), were to decide that Jane Austen probably, though only probably, wrote Confessions of a Justified Sinner. This would represent no hopeless dilemma: art historians take such matters in their stride. All that would need deciding would be whether to add the work to the Austen canon at once (attaching a warning label to it as merely “probable”), or to wait till more evidence came along.

Now, a biographer cannot behave like this. A biographer has to decide one way or the other and, plucking up courage, shape his or her narrative accordingly. If an “Austen in Edinburgh” chapter is called for, it must be written. And then what…? Such decisions have ramifications.

I said that West’s book “falters” as it proceeds. It may be the wrong word; but halfway through (page 237) he gives up on biography, devoting his next hundred and fifty pages to blow-by-blow plot summaries of Defoe’s novels and a synopsis of his Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-1727), only leaving himself space for a brief final biographical chapter. It is true that, a journalist himself for forty years, he has had a lifelong love affair with the Tour, which he regards as Defoe’s masterpiece; and his genial, knowledgeable, and quirky commentary on it might easily win the work some new devotees. Still, it is an awkward way to construct a book; and part of West’s motive, one cannot help thinking—it would be very human—is that the later part of Defoe’s career is, for a biographer, quite a nightmare.


Defoe was born in 1660 or thereabouts, the son of James Foe, a City tradesman and member of the Butchers’ Company. The Foes were Dissenters (i.e., Protestants who did not belong to the Anglican Church) and, as such, were exposed to persecution and restriction of their civil rights under Charles II. Defoe himself was educated at an academy for Dissenters and was indeed originally intended for the ministry. Instead, however, he became a merchant, trading in woolen goods and wines, among other things, and speculating in marine insurance. He had a fairly large business, but by 1692 he had overreached himself and went bankrupt, with debts amounting to over å£17,000. He would never be entirely free from the effects of this catastrophe throughout the remainder of his career.

In the year before it happened he had published, anonymously, a long verse satire on City politics (A New Discovery of an Old Intreague); and in 1697 he made a serious bid for recognition as a professional writer with a lengthy prose work entitled An Essay Upon Projects (the preface being signed “D.F.”). In this he put forward proposals for country banks and friendly societies, highway repair, a pension office, a military academy, an academy for women, care for the mentally handicapped, and reform of the bankruptcy laws. In the same year he began a series of pamphlets in support of King William, in the latter’s struggles with Parliament, and a further series attacking “Occasional Conformity,” i.e., the practice among Dissenters of making a token appearance at the Anglican communion table in order to qualify for public office.

King William had long been a hero with Defoe, and when in 1700 a vi-cious verse attack on the King and his Dutch entourage appeared, Defoe countered it with a long, boisterous satirical poem, The True-Born Englishman, lampooning English chauvinism. It was an instant and runaway success and led, or so at least Defoe liked to claim, to his becoming personally known to the King and even in some sense an adviser to him. For a brief period he now figured as a sort of Whiggish Tribune of the People, and in May 1701 he delivered to the Speaker of the House of Commons a flaming manifesto in support of William, in the name of the People of England. “Our Name is Legion, and we are Many,” it says. (It is usually referred to as Legion’s Memorial.)

This period of his career was, however, to end in disaster also. William III died in March 1702, and the accession of his successor, Queen Anne, to the throne was marked by a strong swing to high-Toryism and a determined attack on the liberties of the Dissenters. They were furiously assailed from the pulpit as well as in Parliament, and this put into Defoe’s head a cunning retaliation. It was to publish, anonymously, a pamphlet entitled The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, urging, in a close imitation of bloodthirsty High-Church rhetoric, that the simplest way of dealing with the Dissenters would be to hang them. He was hoping that certain of his High-Church readers might fail to spot the irony and take it for real; and, to his misfortune, he succeeded all too well. Many, both High-Churchmen and Dissenters, were taken in and were highly enraged when they realized the fact—the Dissenters almost as much as their opponents—and the government declared the pamphlet scandalous and seditious. Defoe took flight, but after some months was caught and arrested; and, after a show trial, he was condemned to imprisonment in Newgate and to stand three times in the pillory.

From this new plight he was rescued by Robert Harley, a rising politician and leader of the new “Country” party (and the very Speaker of the Commons to whom Defoe had delivered Legion’s Memorial). Harley had realized the potential usefulness of such a skilled writer and propagandist and managed to secure his release from Newgate, proceeding to engage him as an unofficial agent and adviser—also enabling him to launch a triweekly political journal, the Review, written entirely by himself.

There were to be a great many more “strange surprising adventures” in wait for Defoe. He summed up his life in a couplet:

No Man has tasted differing Fortunes more,
And Thirteen Times I have been Rich and Poor.

In the School of Affliction I have learnt more Philosophy than at the Academy, and more Divinity than from the Pulpit: In Prison I have learnt to know that Liberty does not consist in open Doors, and the free Egress and Regress of Locomotion. I have seen the rough side of the World as well as the smooth, and have in less than half a Year tasted the difference between the Closet of a King, and the Dungeon of Newgate.

But the little sketch I have given so far is significant in the present context. For, from 1704 to 1713, we have Defoe’s Review, and for roughly the same period his letters to his employer Robert Harley. Thus, during those years (though no doubt a good deal is hidden from us), we can monitor what he was up to fairly closely, often week by week. But after that—and especially from 1714 to 1720, when he was still deeply embroiled in politics—night and fog descend.

For to know what he did, we must first know what he wrote, and this is a task plagued by paradoxes of the most bewildering kind. When there is external evidence, even a tiny scrap of it, to suggest that Defoe wrote a certain anonymous tract or book, the normal rules of reasoning can prevail. But if one has to depend solely on the internal evidence of his prose style and alleged views—which amounts to resorting to hunches and intuition—how does one escape paradox? To decide that a pamphlet is by Defoe because it “sounds like him” is to perform an act not so much of bibliography as of biography. It implies that you already know what he is like. (From which it follows that no anonymous pamphlet can be allowed to tell you anything new about him.) At all events, to assign a new pamphlet or periodical to Defoe in the period from 1714 to 1720 may have quite drastic consequences biographically and calls for extreme caution; but it cannot be said that bibliographers have shown such caution. They have cheerfully attributed new works to Defoe right and left; and the biography that appears to emerge from these attributions is not only often quite hypothetical but, at certain points, impossible to make sense of.


But if I am right that the standard account of Defoe’s later years is so questionable, the blame, evidently, does not lie with Richard West. Indeed the reason why, like other biographers, he holds that Defoe wrote “stories of pirates and murderers” (not to mention lives of Peter the Great and Charles XII of Sweden) is not far to seek. It is because William Lee, Defoe’s Victorian biographer and bibliographer, convinced himself that, through prolonged study, he could recognize the prose style of Defoe “as the voice of a familiar friend.” It prompted him to identify vast swathes of periodical journalism as being by Defoe and to reprint them as his “Newly Discovered Writings”: in particular all the leading articles in Applebee’s Journal for five years from June 1720 onward, an addition to the “canon” of some 300,000 words. But this was only the beginning. For the journal’s proprietor, John Applebee, specialized in publishing criminal “Lives,” and Lee reasoned to himself that, since Defoe appeared to be on his staff, it must have been he who interviewed criminals in Newgate for Applebee and who was the author of the various Lives of criminals published under the Applebee imprint. Lee even pictured the elderly novelist, having written his Narrative of all the Robberies, Escapes etc. of John Sheppard, as mounting the executioner’s cart at Tyburn, so that Sheppard could hand him a copy, as a sort of dying confession before the assembled multitude. Thus does bibliography engender biography and biography engender bibliography. How far along the path of dreaming Lee has led us is a question no one seems quite ready to face.

But there are other problems, too, in writing about Defoe’s later career, arising not so much from lack of evidence as from misreading the evidence we have. Defoe was again in the employ of Harley when, in 1710, the Whigs fell from power and his protector Harley formed the Tory ministry which dismissed Marlborough, made secret contact with the Pretender, brought in various measures against the Dissenters, and entered into secret and unilateral peace negotiations with the French. The fall of this Tory ministry in 1715, consequent on the death of Queen Anne and the advent of the Hanoverian George I, was cataclysmic, and with it, so West writes, the great days of Defoe’s career in politics came to an end. Thereafter, says West, he took to work of a “mean nature,” spying on Jacobite newspapermen on behalf of the Whig government and performing “the seedy role of nark and even agent provocateur.”

West is responding here to a great milestone in Defoe scholarship:the discovery in 1864 of six remarkable letters, written, between April and June 1718, to the Whig Under-Secretary of State Charles Delafaye, through whom Defoe is receiving Secret Service money. In them, Defoe relates how, two years or so earlier, he had been commissioned by Lord Townshend, the then Secretary of State, to help the Whig government by masquerading as a Tory. It was to be his task—though it meant working among men whom, he says, his “Very Soul abhors”—to infiltrate Tory journals, so as to make them “Pass as Tory Papers, and yet be Dissabled and Ennervated.” The letters, especially the one dated April 26, are most fascinating; and, since in them Defoe seems to be accusing himself of somewhat shady behavior, it has been assumed he must have been telling the truth. But this does not follow at all, and indeed is disproved both by reason and by fact.

It is disproved by reason, if one reflects that an antigovernment monthly, Mercurius Politicus, which ran from May 1716 to December 1720, was not only run by Defoe, but (though his language is a little ambiguous on the subject) was pretty plainly actually founded by him. (It was not a matter of his infiltrating an already existing periodical.) Now, no one is likely to found a political journal simply in order for it to be ineffective. Nor was Mercurius Politicus ineffective: it had a wide readership and nee-dled the government with considerable skill.

A point to be borne in mind is that, in 1716, there was a spectacular split in the Whig Party. It had taken place before the end of the year and became public knowledge when, in April 1717, Townshend was forced out of office and his relative Walpole resigned in sympathy, whereupon they and their associates formed an unholy alliance with the Tory opposition.

The best-known Tory organ at this time was Nathaniel Mist’s Weekly Journal, and, according to Defoe’s letter to Delafaye, he had managed to insinuate himself onto its staff and, unknown to Mist, was contriving to tone down its antigovernment propaganda. With its issue for October 25, 1718, however, Mist’s Journal got into serious trouble. It printed an inflammatory letter signed “Sir Andrew Politick” which accused the Whig government of dragging Britain into a totally unnecessary war with Spain. (What, asked Sir Andrew, had Britain to do with a private quarrel between two Popish powers—i.e., Spain and the Empire?)

The subtext to this letter was that George I’s foreign policy was designed to serve the interests not of Britain but of Hanover—which was precisely what the Townshend/Walpole faction had recently been saying, or hinting, in Parliament. The letter was considered highly seditious and brought the government down heavily on Mist. His office was raided and his staff taken into custody; and during the ensuing interrogations not only he, but two other witnesses, affirmed categorically that the offending letter had been written by Defoe. Further, according to one of these witnesses, Defoe had said that if his authorship were found out, he would have to flee the country.5

We have here, what is so often lacking at this period, good solid evidence of what Defoe was up to; and the interpretation seems obvious. It was not Nathaniel Mist whom Defoe was fooling, but his Whig employers.6

Richard West, who takes Defoe’s letter at its face value, is put in an awkward situation by it. For it is not clear how Defoe’s performing this “seedy role” can really be reconciled with his being “a man who could not be bullied or bought by the government.” William Lee, who also took the letter at its face value, was deeply disturbed by it but persuaded himself that Defoe did what it described for the highest possible motives. But this does not work very well either. Indeed there is simply no future in taking the letter at its face value. It always sounded somehow too pat, too convenient; and to see through or round its prodigious bluff is a liberation. For, interpreted rightly, the incident offers the biographer all sorts of precious new clues. One day, indeed, it may be possible to fill in the later chapters of Defoe’s biography. But what a forest clearance, what a patient dispersing of legend, romance, and illusion, there is going to have to be first.


Meanwhile we may at least discuss West’s account of Defoe’s character, a warm and sometimes shrewd portrait, and by no means hagiographical. He evidently sees Defoe as a man who, after endless travail, found salvation in authorship—book authorship as distinct from journalism. It is West’s theory that Defoe’s bankruptcy in 1692 condemned him to “a lifetime of misery, fear, loneliness and remorse, from which he could only escape through prayer, the love of his family and eventually by writing books.” He was a “hack of genius” who only “begins his great career as an author” when he is nearing sixty: that is to say, with Robinson Crusoe. West regards Defoe’s poem The True-Born Englishman as “doggerel” and his Hymn to the Pillory as even worse, although personally Ithink them magnificent.

Defoe, West thinks, was “a man of shifty and secret ways,” like Harley himself, but “of moderate views and kindly nature” and incorruptibly independent. He was a man who, though he “might respond to an act of kindness,” “never tailored his views to suit a patron.” Despite this, though—according to West—“he would often write articles on the same subject for different newspapers, adopting opposing arguments.” There is a puzzle here, for it is hard to see how this goes with rugged independence. Does he mean that Defoe did it in some pedagogic spirit? Not, Ishould add, that we need believe it anyway, though it was the sort of thing his enemies loved to say of him. Whenever one investigates a supposed case of his writing on both sides of a question, it tends to fall to pieces.

West’s Defoe is evidently a highly emotional man, with a tendency to obsession and fanaticism; but here, too, one queries West slightly. He speaks of the “Popish Plot”—the scare spread by Titus Oates in 1678 about a supposed Jesuit conspiracy to murder Charles IIand massacre Protestants—as Defoe’s “obsessional bugbear.” But the way that Defoe writes about the plot in the Review (December 22, 1709) strikes one, surely, as rather measured and temperate?

Tho’ these Apprehensions, as Fear always puts People upon Extremes, might put us upon Foolish, Fanciful and Ridiculous things in those Days; yet it must be allow’d on all hands, there was real Cause of Concern.

A “kindly nature”? I do not really get the impression of much loving kindness in Defoe. One remembers too many instances of vengefulness and backbiting, for instance in his vicious vendetta against Richard Steele. That, in his own way, he could be philanthropic and public-spirited is a different matter.

Remorse” (a lifetime of remorse over his bankruptcy) needs perhaps a little looking at too. In general, I do not get the feeling that Defoe had too much trouble with his conscience. On the other hand he put his experience of bankruptcy (“the infinite mazes of a bankrupt”) to great intellectual and imaginative profit. Think, for instance, of the eloquent tirade on the subject in the Review for February 19, 1706. “BREAK, GENTLEMEN, for God sake, for your own sake, for your Creditors sake, for your Wife and Childrens sake, and for the Public Good,” etc. What is more, he seems to have played a significant part in reforming the law of bankruptcy. His response to his experience, that is to say, was eminently clear-headed and intelligent.

That Defoe was, in a certain sense, a lonely man one can agree. I think the reason, though, may not lie exactly where West finds it. It lies, rather, in a certain quality—a contrariness or cussedness, an addiction to cutting off the branch he was sitting on—at the heart of his intellectual life. That the so-called “true-born” English, including himself, were all hopelessly mongrel; that the Dissenters, of whom he was one, were impossibly factious and brought disgrace on themselves by “occasional conformity”; that England had everything to learn—culturally, militarily, and even, in a sense, religiously—from their enemy, the French: these are the kinds of positions to which Defoe was instinctively drawn.

There is a connection between them and his moral realism and Realpolitik. If one examines his favorite allusions—for instance to the soldiers in the Peninsular war, who claim the right of free-born English citizens to kill themselves by eating unwashed grapes; or the Tinker of Exeter, who comforts himself at the gallows that he has “done something to have his Name talk’d of in the world” 7—one will see that they have an underlying theme, that of paying the agreed price. It was for this reason that—rather oddly for a Puritan—Defoe’s favorite poet was Rochester, whose most reckless paradoxes (like “For all men would be cowards if they durst”) have a similar “cussed” logic. This habit of mind was a very strong weapon polemically, but it amounted to opting for loneliness.

  1. 2

    By George Chalmers, in 1790.

  2. 3

    In the second edition of J.R. Moore’s A Checklist of the Writings of Daniel Defoe (Archon Books, 1971).

  3. 4

    London: Hambledon Press, 1994.

  4. 5

    The depositions can be read in George Aitken’s “Defoe and Mist’s ‘Weekly Journal’,” Athenaeum, August 26, 1893, pp. 287-288.

  5. 6

    For more about this incident, see P.N. Furbank and W.R. Owens, “Defoe and ‘Sir Andrew Politick’,” British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Spring 1994).

  6. 7

    Defoe, Eleven Opinions about Mr. H——y (1711), p. 60. Defoe often mentions him elsewhere.