David Nokes on the duality of Defoe
- Daniel Defoe: His Life by Paula Backscheider
Johns Hopkins, 671 pp, £20.50, November 1989, ISBN 0 8018 3785 5
In many ways, Paula Backscheider has written a highly appropriate life of Defoe. Fat, fact-filled and repetitious, her book offers a meandering narrative of merchant adventures and spying, opportunism and piety, taking us from fire and plague to bankruptcy via the battlefield of Sedgemoor, Newgate prison and the pillory. It is, in other words, much like a novel by Defoe. The one essential difference is that at the heart of all Defoe’s novels there is a voice, the beguilingly candid tones of a first-person narrator skilfully blending puritan confessional with con-man’s patter to impose a rhetorical identity upon the turmoil of events. It is not merely that Professor Backscheider’s book inevitably lacks the strong dramatic unison of such an autobiographical persona. More disappointingly, she seems uncomfortable describing, or attempting to account for, the virtuoso feats of moral and political ventriloquism which render Defoe’s true ‘identity’ a reverberating compromise between rhetorical fantasy and documentary fact.
Writing a biography of Defoe is a daunting task. Quite apart from his relentless mercantile activities as hosier, brick-and-tile manufacturer, wine-importer, horse-dealer, salt-factor, oyster-farmer, perfumier, linen-trader, timber-merchant etc etc, and his extensive espionage work on behalf of Robert Harley, Defoe was an indefatigable writer. Peter Earle, in the introduction to The World of Defoe (1976), confesses the alarm he experienced when ‘with the contract signed, I began to realise just what I had let myself in for ... To my horror I discovered that Defoe was probably the most prolific writer in the English language, a writer moreover who wrote on every conceivable topic from angels to annuities and from adultery to agriculture.’ More recently, in their book The Canonisation of Defoe (1988) P.N. Furbank and W.R. Owens have argued – persuasively, in my view – that the traditional check-list of Defoe’s output may considerably exaggerate the number of items written by him. Backscheider appears unhappy at this revisionist attempt to cut her author down to size. Her prefatory note that ‘my own use of the received canon is conservative’ is itself ambiguous. It appears to mean that she has, as she claims, ‘re-examined and re-evaluated every work attributed to Defoe’: yet in practice her conservatism is more evident in her acceptance of almost all the traditional canon and her rejection of the radical cut-backs proposed by Furbank and Owens. Indeed the sheer volume of Defoe’s output becomes for her a measure of his literary stature as she sets about proving his ‘superiority as a propagandist’ over his contemporaries Swift and Steele. Swift, she tells us, ‘spent many months on “The Conduct of the Allies”, and while working on it had written little else’. By contrast, the vastly more prolific Defoe ‘seems to have had no trouble sustaining the Review and publishing more than twenty tracts on the [peace] negotiations (plus half a dozen pamphlets on other subjects) in twelve months’. Her chapter titles reinforce this admiration for heroic feats of productivity. Chapter Seven is entitled ‘Four Hundred Thousand Words’, a record easily surpassed by Chapter 14’s ‘Six Hundred Thousand Words’. To gauge Defoe’s true superiority over his literary rivals one doesn’t need to read his works, merely to weigh them.
Vol. 12 No. 10 · 24 May 1990
It is not fashionable to say that people sometimes don’t read the books they review, but when a parody, and one that blatantly misrepresents, appears instead of a review, perhaps it is time for a writer to suggest that she suspects that a hasty scanning instead of an unbiased, serious reading has been done. The misrepresentations and omissions in David Nokes’s review of my Daniel Defoe: His Life (LRB, 19 April) are so numerous that I shall mention only two.
Rather than being ‘idealistic’ about Defoe (although I do say that Defoe was idealistic about many things) or ‘uncomfortable’ with his ‘Machiavellian deceit’, I state repeatedly and unequivocally that many of his actions were pathetic, despicable, and alienating, and I describe these incidents fully. It is hard to square Nokes’s account with such sentences in my biography as ‘Thus, Defoe had involved two friends in his desperate manoeuvres and had cheated his mother-in-law.’ Nokes especially objects to my treatment of Defoe’s political journalism: that I find Defoe a master propagandist with a few specific goals (sometimes his own, sometimes his employer’s), and a few firm beliefs (support for the monarchy as a form of government, for instance), does not mean that Defoe did not ‘allow his rhetoric to exploit the most rancorous and antagonistic prejudices on either side’, as Nokes states – and I say so, even using some of the same incidents and quotations that Nokes does. Nokes is mouthing some familiar commonplaces based on superficial understanding of political propaganda and of Defoe’s periodical and non-fiction output.
Second, in ‘evaluating’ my use of the recently much-disputed canon of Defoe’s works, Nokes quotes from the preface and ignores the fact that I note dozens of works I do not think Defoe’s, and argue the attribution of others in the text and notes. Mine is a biography of Defoe’s life and times, both exciting and extremely eventful; it is not a narrow contribution to the already waning exchanges among half a dozen scholars over the authorship of such works as a life of the Baron de Goertz. Although I cared greatly about the canon and deliberately excluded all works I doubted to be Defoe’s – and there were more than a hundred such – I must admit that I didn’t think most readers would think the authorship of such works as interesting or important as Defoe’s life as a rebel, spy, merchant, controversialist, novelist, and self-proclaimed ideal British citizen, or as his complex personality, which included obsessive secretiveness, stubborn pride, and tireless war on injustice.
Nokes’s quarrel with my treatment of the novels is another matter, and here I have some sympathy with him. My literary criticism of Defoe’s novels and other works has been published elsewhere; I decided I wanted to produce a readable life rather than a three-volume ‘life and works’ such as Irvin Ehrenpreis’s on Jonathan Swift. When I made that decision, I knew that many academic readers would not be happy with 26 pages on Robinson Crusoe, but Defoe lived 71 years and spent many, many more years as a merchant and as a spy than he did writing that novel – or on all of his novels together. Defoe’s novels have been exhaustively studied by scholars and critics all over the world; his life and actions have not been: mine is the first full biography of Defoe published in nearly thirty-five years, and its major contribution may be the presentation of new evidence gathered all over England and Scotland that gives us a new view of Defoe and certainly fills in what have been huge gaps in our knowledge of his life.
University of Rochester, New York
Vol. 12 No. 12 · 28 June 1990
‘It is not fashionable,’ writes Paula Backscheider (Letters, 24 May), ‘to say that people sometimes don’t read the books they review.’ Sadly, I find it all too common for authors, confronted by an unfavourable review, to insist that the reviewer cannot have read the book before him. I can sympathise to some extent with Backscheider’s reaction. Years of painstaking research evidently went into her Daniel Defoe, and it would indeed be galling to think that so much patient industry could have been dismissed by a ‘hasty scanning’. However, I can only assure her that I did indeed read her book carefully and thoroughly, and that the review I wrote represents my considered opinion.
Two weeks after my review appeared, the TLS published Maximilian Novak’s review of Professor Backscheider’s book. I assume that she would not accuse him, as she accuses me, of a ‘superficial understanding’ of Defoe’s periodical journalism. There is not one word of Novak’s review with which I disagree. He writes: ‘Backscheider’s Defoe is Hogarth’s good apprentice of the Industry and Idleness series … As a view of the man, it is certainly different from the adventurous Defoe of former biographers, but as a reading of his character it is almost totally lacking in depth and insight.’ Perhaps I should, like Novak, have acknowledged more fully the new documentary material that Backscheider has uncovered, but my fundamental point, like his, concerns her consistent blandness of tone (Novak calls it ‘obvious and banal’).
Backscheider confesses ‘some sympathy’ with my criticisms of her treatment of the novels, but characteristically expresses her misgivings in terms of bulk, not of interpretation: ‘I knew that many academic readers would not be happy with 26 pages on Robinson Crusoe’. But it is not the lack of space devoted to the novels that is at issue, but rather the lack of critical subtlety in consistently presenting Robinson Crusoe as a simple work of Christian piety like the Family Instructor.
King’s College, London