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Daniel Defoe: the first journalist

September 5, 2011

Defoe in the pillory, by James Charles Armitage.

Daniel Defoe is mostly remembered today as the author of “Robinson Crusoe”, but he wrote more than 500 other works that included pamphlets, novels, verse and non-fiction. His topics ranged from economics to crime and contraception. He’s probably the only English writer of note to be sentenced to three days in the pillory for publishing observations on religion deemed unacceptable by the government.

“Crusoe” is widely regarded as the first real novel in the English language. Defoe is also arguably the first travel writer in English. I recently finished his “From London to Land’s End,” a small piece of a much longer piece of travel writing that described most of England at that time, “A Journey Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain.” This work is so comprehensive and detailed, with descriptions of local towns and their pre-Industrial-Revolution manner of life, that the modern reader views it as a fascinating blend of travelogue and time-travel. “From London to Land’s End” has distinct similarities to Tolkien’s description of hobbits crossing the Shire, as the narrator takes to the Great Western Road, rides across a green and pleasant land, traverses the Downs and encounters mysterious standing stones erected by unknown ancient peoples. A fascinating digression is provided by his pause in one port to describe the Great Storm of 1703, which raged with hurricane-force winds for an entire week, destroying fleets of ships and flattening forests. A storm like this has not been seen in modern times and if a similar one were to occur today it would wreak havoc beyond imagining. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Storm_of_1703.)

Daniel Defoe in a flush moment; he died while hiding from creditors.

Defoe undoubtedly stretched the facts when it suited his purposes; he wrote under nearly two hundred different pen names. “Robinson Crusoe” was presented to the reading public as a factual narrative. The concept of writing a novel was so, well, novel at that time, that he was probably unsure how to proceed without claiming that his narratives were factual.  “Journal of the Plague Year” is presented as an eyewitness account of the plague in London, written by a saddler who remained in the city and refused to flee during the pandemic of 1665. Wikipedia classifies “Plague Year” as fiction since Defoe was five years old when the plague struck England, but I would argue instead that the work is journalism. It’s as sound a piece of reportage as I have ever read. Like a good reporter, Defoe cites weekly mortality figures from the different parishes in London throughout the year of the plague, showing how the disease swept across the city and then ebbed. He cites anecdotes of how the illness made people react,  then judges those tales to be either factual or nonsensical. He pinpoints “ground zero” of the epidemic  (a merchant’s establishment that had just received a shipment of silks from the Continent). He describes streets that are nearly deserted, furtive strangers who will only speak with each other from a distance, and wailings of grief floating down out of windows high above. Centuries before germ-theory was hypothesized, he accurately describes how seemingly healthy people were nevertheless capable of invisibly harboring the disease and transmitting it through their breath. He describes the breakdown in public morale throughout the epidemic, showing how the initial fear to go outside and encounter other people gave way to a “what the hell, we’re all going to die anyway” attitude in which people abandoned all caution. The reader gets the unsettling feeling that the book undoubtedly provides an accurate forecast of the way in which our own society today would respond to an infectious calamity. In his description of how people endured hardship, loss and horror, Defoe does as good a job of recording the human condition as any modern journalist.

For more on Daniel Defoe, see https://housesandbooks.wordpress.com/2011/09/27/the-storm-and-implications-for-climate-change/

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