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, generally in secret, under Robert Harley, the Tory prime minister.

For this variety of tangled reasons, Defoe contributed largely and vigorously to the flood of anonymous and pseudonymous writing that was characteristic of his age. The vanity of authorship was no great part of his makeup. For nine years, from 1704 to 1713, he singlehandedly wrote as “Mr. Review” a newspaper that appeared two or three times a week; he wrote on practical social improvements such as toll roads and education for women; he wrote books of advice on family life and business ethics; he involved himself in discussions of international politics and theological controversy. Even in his own time, Defoe’s rapid pen and habits of anonymity confused “polite” readers, for whom all this busy journalism had no pretense of being good literature and for whom Defoe himself was simply one of that class known indiscriminately as “Grub-Street scribblers.” He was sixty years old, and the year was 1719, when the first and greatest of those novels appeared on which his modern fame rests. Even after Robinson Crusoe and its successors, few of his contemporaries paid any attention to Defoe and his achievements. It was 1786, and Defoe had been dead for fifty-five years, when George Chalmers first undertook to publish a list of his writings. From the first, in other words, the creation of a Defoe bibliography was a work of antiquarian research, a circumstance which has not prevented the list from expanding ever since.

The new book on the canon of Defoe’s publications by P.N. Furbank and W.R. Owens consists of three sections: an argument on the general principles of author-attribution; biographical accounts of the six men (Chalmers, Wilson, Crossley, Lee, Trent, and Moore) most influential in making up the list of works currently attributed to Defoe; and a third section on some general characteristics of Defoe as a man and an author.


In some respects the second section is the most interesting for readers approaching the subject “from the outside.” George Chalmers, pioneer in the field, was evidently a man of erudition and industry; but he was also a byword in his own day for gullibility in the face of a forgery and overeagerness in the presence of a possible attribution. He adopted as a working principle that “every presumption is evidence until the contrary is made apparent”—following, it would seem, a delusive analogy with the law-court adage that every defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty. This premise, however valid in a court of justice, opens the way to all manner of hearsay and unverifiable speculation in the assignment of authorship. For example, Chalmers accepted something he called “booksellers’ tradition”; the mere name “Defoe” written on an anonymous pamphlet by an anonymous hand he accepted as grounds for assigning a piece to Defoe. A particular construction or locution that paralleled a passage in a writing known to be by Defoe became evidence of Defoe’s authorship of the questioned piece.

From this liberal foundation the canon of Defoe’s writing grew and grew. Especially under the hands of William Lee, William Peterfield Trent, and John Robert Moore, all men of passionate industry and immense erudition, the numbers multiplied impressively. Some of their contributions were authentic, many of their intuitions were brilliant; yet, Furbank and Owens argue, their very successes contributed to excesses. For, after studying Defoe for years, and absorbing a vivid sense of their author’s style, they tended to feel perfectly confident of being able to recognize its distinctive features wherever they might turn up. Sometimes they compiled little lists of stylistic tricks and verbal mannerisms that served as hallmarks of the genuine Defoe; sometimes their long experience with the author enabled them to recognize instinctively the unique Defoe gestalt.

On occasion instinct spoke imperiously in the absence of any of the designated tricks or mannerisms. Then, though not without a struggle, it was allowed to prevail. Connoisseurship of this sort is, for a conscientious man, a very exacting moral exercise; it seems to depend a good deal on the mood of the connoisseur. So they checked their first reactions against second reactions; they worried about the security of their responses and sometimes, in private letters or even in public statements, let some of their misgivings appear. But Furbank and Owens show that when it was time to publish checklists or bibliographies, they almost always came down in favor of adding something to the list and subtracting little or nothing.

The growth of the Defoe bibliography was incremental, and for good reason. For a book was commonly assigned to Defoe on the basis of comparison with one of his known writings; and, once assigned, it provided a basis for more comparisons and further speculative assignments. The wider the pool of attributed writings expands, the more reasons appear to expand it even further. If Defoe is thought capable of writing anything, it’s only a short step to suppose him capable of writing everything. And in fact sardonic suggestions of that sort were being made even before Furbank and Owens applied their astringent principles to stemming the flood.

The principles in question are severe but not many. They seem to divide naturally into three major and three minor rules:

  1. No such thing as provisional attribution is to be allowed. Attribution must be founded on strong internal evidence, no disqualifying evidence, and at least one piece of external—that is, documentary—evidence. Anything less is not proven.
  2. All attributions are to be accompanied by a summary of the supporting evidence: no nameless guessers or private intuitions.
  3. No “chains of attribution”—questionable B attributed to Defoe because of its likeness to accepted A, C because of its likeness to B, D because of its likeness to C, etc.

A. Parallels used to establish an attribution should not merely be numerous but distinctive—they must possess some character in themselves and not of everyday usage. Parallels are to be considered not in isolation but in context, both as configurations in themselves and as elements of a pattern.

B. Some weight is to be laid on the congruity of a work proposed as Defoe’s with his habits of mind, compositional skills, and known intellectual commitments.

C. Some literary judgment should enter into decisions—the quality of the sentences, the skillfulness or ineptitude of the narration, the artfulness or clumsiness of the argument, the management of imaginative detail, insight into character, etc.

None of these injunctions is esoteric; none is so peremptory (I suppose) that an exceptionally strong piece of evidence, positive or negative, might not justify an exception. Their main purpose (if a reviewer may venture to interpret for the authors) would be to get the problems of attribution out in the open, to lay forth the evidence pro and con, to seek something like a degree of consensus. The procedures are not even particularly new; what is new is the scale on which it is proposed they be applied. It’s only to be expected that any a priori “Rules of Literary Evidence” that the human mind can devise will be modified as they are put into practice; it is just as certain that approaching a motley mass of hard-to-discriminate materials with nothing in mind but private intuitions is a recipe for disaster. A housecleaning being in order, Furbank and Owens propose that it be done thoroughly, not piecemeal, and in an organized way, according to explicit criteria.


On a cosmic scale, there is no need for dismay. The Defoe items eliminated from the fattest known list of 570 or so will not be cast into outer darkness; they will be listed as “not yet proven,” with the understanding that upon the submission of satisfactory credentials they may be reinstated. There is no serious chance that a withering skepticism, spreading out from the Defoe bibliography, will exert a blighting influence upon English Lit as a whole. Defoe is a special case among English authors; most of the publications prospectively assigned to the “unproven” list have not been looked at, except by specialists, in the past 250 years; and some positive, practical benefits may accrue to the reputation of Daniel Defoe from shortening the long and in some respects indiscriminate list of his publications.

Not the least intriguing unit of the Furbank-Owens volume is their third section, in which, among other things, they try to assess briefly the quality of Defoe’s intelligence. They find it to be sharp, aware, and directed. The early troubles he created for himself with his pamphlet “The Shortest Way with the Dissenters” came from his being too subtle for his enemies, too farsighted for his friends. Provocatively pushing the High Church position to its “logical” conclusion (one gets rid of the Dissenters by exterminating them physically), he not only scared the Dissenters but befooled some High Churchmen who would actually have welcomed a tidy little massacre of troublesome, stubborn people like Defoe. The boldness with which he then converted the pillory into a pulpit from which to denounce the government—the mob garlanded the pillory and drank his health—was in the proudest tradition of Prynne and Lilburne. This might be a man who, from erratic independence and audacity, would stick his foot in his mouth, but it is improbable that he would write inept, desultory, self-contradictory pamphlets leading to mere confusion.

No doubt Defoe, who wrote so much, wrote sometimes well, sometimes badly; but if some of the most dubious stuff can be relegated to the “not proven” category, we may be able to catch a better glimpse of the keen, sinuous, and daring mind that distinguished him at his best. To this end Furbank and Owens propose a temporary moratorium on the catchall phrases commonly used to describe (or dismiss) Defoe, such as calling him a “Protean” figure, a venal turncoat who adopted positions or abandoned them at the drop of a few (purely hypothetical) shillings, or a trickster consistent only in his deliberate inconsistencies. As all such formulas amount essentially to saying that Defoe’s thought processes are unknowable, it seems the part of discretion to postpone that conclusion as long as possible, and concentrate on understanding what can be understood.

Admittedly, the problem of judging whether a pamphlet is well or badly written, clever or clumsy, is likely to yield less definite conclusions than the mechanical exercise of counting up so-called distinctive usages (but how distinctive are they really?). Admittedly, too, the argument from the “character of Defoe’s mind” is stronger in a negative than a positive context. That is, a clever man will not, probably, be equally clever all the time; but it’s very unlikely that a man who is capable of real cleverness will write something grossly and gratuitously stupid. And so with other profoundly rooted characteristics of this remarkable personage, who seems to have come, and indeed did come, from a stratum of English society to which the light of belles-lettres had rarely penetrated before.

Much of his writing was hasty and careless, and a good deal of it may have been collaborative, which renders the application of stylistic criteria precarious. Some of it was apparently tempered to serve two masters—one ostensible, the other unavowed. Defoe is not always to be believed when he says he didn’t write a particular work, or even, necessarily, when he says he did. In one combination of pamphlets, the so-called “Secret History” set, Furbank and Owens suggest that Defoe set up one of his pamphlets in order to destroy it with another, which in turn self-destructs—the aim being to cast discredit on the very idea of “inside information” about secret diplomatic negotiations. Taking the full measure of a mind so bold and so bound, so rich in audacities and complacencies and intricate mischief, will be no work of an idle hour. Defoe can never be made other than a very complex fellow. All the more reason, then, to pare down the evidence as far as possible toward the lean and authentic before trying to compose that lengthened shadow of a man that passes for history.

The title of the Furbank-Owens book carries a rich range of overtones, both straight and ironic. The canon of Defoe’s works is a list of the authentic ones, as the canonical books of the Bible are distinguished from the Apocrypha. A holy man is canonized when he is set apart from merely virtuous persons and enrolled among the saints. In both usages, the feeling of ecclesiastical reverence is strong, so strong that Donne joked or half-joked on it in his poem about a new erotic religion, “The Canonization.” Though for his most dedicated bibliographers Defoe evidently became an all-but-holy figure, so that the canon of his writings held for them an aura of the sacred, he’s really a very odd person to set at the center of a religion, secular or otherwise. Few other English writers carry in their pores so much of the grime, so much of the cocky, instinctive grit, of the streets. Few require the compounding of such a range of attitudes and interests. Like the first Reformers, Furbank and Owens (whose book seems at moments like a manifesto nailed to the cathedral door of English studies) offer the promise of a purified and corrected liturgy. But the big problem will be holding the two parts of the job in line. Will a new strict canon of Defoe’s writings really yield the outlines of a more coherent and understandable Defoe? Or will the forming of such an image require of the canon-maker so many exceptions to his original rules that he might as well not have made them? The venture will have to be tried; but its success is not assured. I will hope to see it completed triumphantly; but if I were involved in the doing, I should not advance on the task without trepidation.

This Issue

December 22, 1988