(1660—1731) writer and businessman
born in London, the son of James Foe, a butcher. He changed his name to Defoe from c.1695. He attended Morton's academy for Dissenters at Newington Green with a view to the ministry, but by the time he married Mary Tuffley in 1683/4 he was established as a hosiery merchant in Cornhill, having travelled to Europe. He took part in Monmouth's rebellion, and in 1688 joined the advancing forces of William III. His first important signed work was An Essay upon Projects (1697), followed by The True‐Born Englishman (1701), an immensely popular satirical poem attacking the prejudice against a king of foreign birth and his Dutch friends. In 1702 appeared The Shortest Way with Dissenters, a notorious pamphlet in which Defoe, himself a Dissenter, ironically demanded the total and savage suppression of dissent; for this he was fined, imprisoned (May–Nov. 1703), and pilloried. While in prison he wrote his mock‐Pindaric ode Hymn to the Pillory. Harley employed him as a secret agent; between 1703 and 1714 Defoe travelled around the country for Harley and Godolphin, gathering information and testing the political climate. Defoe wrote many pamphlets for Harley, and in 1704 began the Review, and in 1706 True Relation of the Apparition of one Mrs Veal, probably by Defoe, a vivid report of a current ghost story. Certain anti‐Jacobite pamphlets in 1712–13 led to his prosecution by the Whigs and to a brief imprisonment. He now started a new trade journal, Mercator, in place of the Review.
Defoe produced some 250 books, pamphlets, and journals, but the works for which he is best known belong to his later years. Robinson Crusoe appeared in 1719, the Farther Adventures following a few months later. The next five years saw the appearance of his most important works of fiction: Adventures of Captain Singleton (1720); Moll Flanders, A Journal of the Plague Year, and Colonel Jack in 1722; Roxana, the Memoirs of a Cavalier (now considered to be certainly by Defoe), and his tracts on Jack Sheppard in 1724. The Memoirs of Captain George Carleton (1728) were probably largely by his hand. His Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain, a guide‐book in 3 vols (1724–6), is a vivid first‐hand account of the state of the country. Defoe's influence on the evolution of the English novel was enormous, and many regard him as the first true novelist. He was a master of plain prose and powerful narrative, with a journalist's curiosity and love of realistic detail; his peculiar gifts made him one of the greatest reporters of his time, as well as a great imaginative writer who in Robinson Crusoe created one of the most familiar and resonant myths of modern literature.