Born in London sometime in 1660 to James Foe, a chandler, and his wife, Daniel Defoe was originally educated for the Presbyterian ministry at the celebrated academy for Dissenters in Newington. The young Daniel’s interests lay elsewhere, however, and around 1682 he established himself as a hosiery merchant. During the next ten years, Daniel Foe prospered: he married well and added the aristocratic “De” to his name; his business expanded to include the wine trade and the importation of tobacco; he traveled extensively in Europe. Seduced by his success, Defoe launched a series of unwise business speculations that failed. In addition, he was taken to court for various underhanded dealings, including allegedly swindling his mother-in-law. By 1692 he was in debt to the tune of 17,000 pounds. Deprived of his business, and in need of a way to pay off his creditors and feed his family, Defoe turned to writing as a profession.
One of the most prolific writers of the 18th century, Defoe wrote hundreds of essays and books. Although he is known today as a novelist, he also wrote pamphlets, journalistic pieces, political polemics, poetry, satire, didactic tracts, and family instruction. His subjects were equally varied: trade, religion, technology, education, travel, conduct and manners, the plague, ghosts and apparitions, pirates, and politics. Although he remained true to the Dissenting faith in which he was raised, Defoe lacked the same fidelity in politics, working first for the Tories and then switching allegiance to the Whigs when the Tory government fell from power. In each case, he wrote eloquently and convincingly about his adopted party’s position on political issues, using his considerable talent in the service of those who paid his wages.
In 1719, when he was almost 60 years old, Defoe published Robinson Crusoe, the adventure story that many consider his greatest work. By the time of his death in London on April 26, 1731, Defoe had written several long works of fiction, among them A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Colonel Jack (1722), Moll Flanders (1722), and Roxana (1724). These prose narratives form the basis of Defoe’s literary reputation.
Defoe authored only one novel for young people, but his entire body of work has earned him a permanent place in English literary history. He is recognized today as an important figure in the development of the novel, and as a master of narrative realism. Many of Defoe’s works are taught in literature classes at all levels, and are still perused for pleasure by readers of all ages.