A Journalist and a Prolific Writer.—Defoe has at last come to be regarded as the first great English journalist. He had predecessors in this field, for as early as 1622 the Coranto, or journal of “current” foreign news, appeared. In 1641, on the eve of the civil war, the Diurnall of domestic news was issued. In 1643, when Parliament appointed a licenser, who gave copyright protection to the “catchword” or newspaper title, journalists became a “recognized body.” “Newsbooks” and especially “newsletters” grew in popularity. Only a few years after the Restoration, there appeared The London Gazette, which has been continued to the present time as the medium through which the government publishes its official news.
From 1704 to 1713 Defoe issued The Review, which appeared triweekly for the greater part of the time, and gave the news current in England and in much of Europe. The Review, an unusual achievement for the age, shows Defoe to have been a journalist of great ability. This paper had one department, called The Scandal Club, which furnished suggestions for The Tatler and The Spectator.
It has been computed that Defoe wrote for The Review during the nine years of its publication 5000 pages of essays, in addition to nearly the same amount of other matter. He also issued many pamphlets, which performed somewhat the same service as the modern newspaper with its editorials. It is probable that he was the most prolific of all English authors. Few have discussed as wide a range of matter. He wrote more than two hundred and fifty separate works on subjects as different as social conditions, the promotion of business, human conduct, travels in England, and ghosts.
Fiction.—Defoe was nearly sixty when he began to write fiction. In 1719 he published the first part of Robinson Crusoe, the story of the adventures of a sailor wrecked on a solitary island. The Frenchman Daudet said of this work: “It is as nearly immortal as any book can ever be.” The nineteenth century saw more than one hundred editions of it published in London alone. It has been repeatedly issued in almost every language of Europe. The secret of the success of Robinson Crusoe has puzzled hundreds of writers who have tried to imitate it.
The world-wide popularity of Robinson Crusoe is chiefly due (1) to the peculiar genius of the author; (2) to his journalistic training, which enabled him to seize on the essential elements of interest and to keep these in the foreground; (3) to the skill with which he presents matter-of-fact details, sufficient to invest the story with an atmosphere of perfect reality; (4) to his style, which is as simple and direct as the speech of real life, and which is made vivid by specific words describing concrete actions,—such as hewing a tree, sharpening a stake, hanging up grapes to dry, tossing a biscuit to a wild cat, taking a motherless kid in his arms; and (5) to the skill with which he sets a problem requiring for its solution energy, ingenuity, self-reliance, and the development of the moral power necessary to meet and overcome difficulties.