Robinson Crusoe: Biography: Daniel Defoe

Born around 1660, Daniel Foe (he added the “de” prefix later as an aristocratic affectation) was raised in the Presbyterian faith and was, his family hoped, bound to become a clergyman. Instead, he entered secular business. He was also, over the course of his life, a merchant, a volunteer solider in King Williams army, and manager of a tiling factory.
His first known writing is a satirical piece from 1691. It would be another piece of satirical writing that caused his bankruptcy in 1703: entitled The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, it earned its author a warrant for his arrest and fifteen months time in Newgate prison. Bitter and disillusioned, Defoe turned to the mercenary life, and became a government spy. He did, however, continue his satirical and polemical writing, on behalf of various factions through the years, before mysteriously vanishing in 1729. He died, alone and again destitute, in 1731.
“All Defoes novels were half-based on truth; he thought of them rather as what we call today fictionalized biographies” (Stanley J. Kunitz & Howard Haycraft, British Authors Before 1800 [New York: H. W. Wilson, 1952] 147). In the case of Robinson Crusoe-no doubt Defoes most famous work-the “biographical subject” was Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor marooned, at his own choice after a fight with his commanding officer, on an island off the Chilean coast from 1704-09. Defoes fiction, most probably inspired directly by Selkirks account, proved incredibly popular: it saw numerous editions, both official and pirated, in 1719 alone, the year of its first publication. A sequel appeared in the same year, and a third volume, Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, debuted the following year, but neither has ever enjoyed the popularity of the first volume, which belongs, in some critics estimation, among the dozen immortal books in English” (Stanley J. Kunitz & Howard Haycraft, British Authors Before 1800 [New York: H. W. Wilson, 1952] 147-48).
Defoe “was a master of plain prose and powerful narrative, with a journalists 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 (Margaret Drabble, ed., Oxford Companion to English Literature, [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985] p. 263)