Daniel Defoe: The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures

Daniel Defoe: The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures

by Richard West

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The colorful life of a literary phenomenon and masterfully crafted biography that's won applause from readers and critics alike. Intimate with monarchs, pilloried at Newgate Prison, hounded by his creditors to the day he died, the maverick newsman, satirist, soldier, and spy Daniel Defoe did not so much defy contradiction as epitomize it. So Richard West

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The colorful life of a literary phenomenon and masterfully crafted biography that's won applause from readers and critics alike. Intimate with monarchs, pilloried at Newgate Prison, hounded by his creditors to the day he died, the maverick newsman, satirist, soldier, and spy Daniel Defoe did not so much defy contradiction as epitomize it. So Richard West continually demonstrates in this spirited biography of the indefatigable Puritan pamphleteer who earned himself literary immortality with such novels as the scandalous Moll Flanders and the all-time bestselling Robinson Crusoe. "Richard West has provided what must now be counted as the standard popular life of Defoe, chronicling the irresistible story of this writer with an appropriate passion." - Wall Street Journal "This lively book rambles across [Defoe's] England . . . that realm of fops, rogues, merchants, sailors, unctuous divines, and fugitive pamphleteers" - New York Times Book Review "Vivid and comprehensive" - San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle "A full account of Defoe's tempestuous life and times in a biography that doubles as a one-volume history of 17th- and early 18th-century England" - Washington Post Book World "Readable, entertaining, colorful, and hugely informative blend" - Christian Science Monitor "Delightful" - Atlantic Monthly

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
It's not surprising that West, an Englishman and the author of numerous books on history and travel, is an admirer of "the fertility of Defoe's brain as well as the physical strength of his writing hand." West's life of the prolific if unconventional journalist who invented so much of his nonfiction that he moved easily into the novel, begins rather stiffly but becomes livelier as Defoe (1660-1731) grows up, writes more and gets into more trouble. West concedes at the start that he has not written "a definitive, academic, or even scholarly analysis of Defoe's writing." Nor has he produced a biography, he confesses, to replace Paula Backschneider's far more substantial . Rather, inspired by Defoe's semifictional three-volume A Tour of the Whole Island of Great Britain (to West the writer's masterpiece), he turns to Defoe's neglected, often imaginative travel books and the author's equally slighted run of lively and pioneering news-and-gossip papers of 1704-13. West's life, then, is for readers who want to know more about the compulsive writer, royal secret agent and bankrupt London merchant than the author of Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders and his pseudo-histories and pseudo-memoirs. Defoe's method, West contends, was "the exercise of imagination--quite a different thing from invention or lying." Much more than a political pamphleteer and political spy, or the tireless hack penning bogus autobiographies, Defoe emerges in West's colorful (if sourceless) biography as an adventurer whose authentic life might have made his best book.
Not many high school students will be interested in reading more than 400 pages about the religious and literary world of the 17th and 18th centuries in England, but those who are will find this an informative and engaging book. Daniel Defoe, whom we now think of mostly as the author of Robinson Crusoe, lived a dramatic, even harrowing, life close to the center of English politics and thought. Always a Dissenter in a world dominated by the Church of England, Defoe was also a pamphleteer, a jailed debtor, a journalist (when newspapers were in their infancy), a businessman, a novelist, and a travel writer. Biographer Richard West is especially enthusiastic about Defoe's Tour of the Whole Island of Great Britain, to which he devotes 80 pages of summary. The better known works, including Journal of the Plague Year, Moll Flanders, and Robinson Crusoe, are dealt with in shorter summaries with very little analysis or evaluation. West is most interested in Defoe as a man of his times whose twin motivations of religion and money interacted in unpredictable ways. He ended his life impoverished, once more on the run from creditors, reviled as a man of letters, seemingly a failure in all his literary and commercial exploits. West makes the case that this "failure" is the emblematic man of his times. KLIATT Codes: A—Recommended for advanced students, and adults. 1998, Carroll & Graf, 427p, 24cm, illus, index, $14.95. Ages 17 to adult. Reviewer: Michael P. Healy; English Teacher, Wood River H.S., Hailey, ID, May 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 3)
Library Journal
West, a journalist and travel writer, provides a non-scholarly yet detailed and sympathetic biography of Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), an author who was also adept at journalism, pamphleteering, and fiction and travel literature. Known today for such novels as Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, Defoe was initially famous for his polemical writings on politics, religion, and social issues. West also details 17th- and 18th-century England, and--though readers may periodically feel inundated by the wealth of information--establishes the political and social climate that shaped Defoe's life and literature. By the end, readers will feel compelled to return to the works discussed. -- Morris Hounion, New York City Technical College Library, Brooklyn
Allen D. Boyer
...[T]his traditional...approach raises critical questions about a writer who packed his books with partisan judgments but whose own life can only be reconstructed from asides in those same books. -- The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Charming urbanity and a keen historical imagination characterize this biography of the writer who not only helped invent the novel, but did much to shape the modern newspaper and the modern political campaign. West (Tito), a well-traveled veteran British journalist, begins his life of Defoe by describing how he became fascinated, 30-odd years ago, by that author's travelogue A Tour of the Whole Island of Great Britain. What West offers here is a tour through British history during Defoe's lifetime, a journey that extends from the Great Fire of 1666 through the Glorious Revolution and Hanoverian Succession and thence into the 1720s, when the elderly Defoe, having published Robinson Crusoe in 1719, continued to produce fiction masterpieces.

What makes this tour possible is the fact that Defoe was intimately involved in the crucial events of his day. He served Robert Harley and other key ministers as a secret agent, publicist, and all-around factotum, while publishing, in a series of newspapers and tracts, crucial articles on issues of trade, religious rights, foreign affairs, and Anglo-Scots unity. West freely acknowledges that he relies on a few outdated monumental histories of the period (Macaulay, Trevelyan, Churchill) and on Paula Backsheider's recent academic biography of Defoe. More seriously, he does not display an awareness of recent controversies over just how many of the works attributed to him Defoe actually wrote. Yet West is clearly an aficionado of English history, and whatever he lacks in scholarly expertise he makes up for with the empathy that he evinces for his fellow journalist's travails, which included several jailings for bankruptcy and afamous spell in the pillory. West's closing chapters on the novels and the Tour tend towards summary, but contain quite moving passages of imaginative sympathy with the author. Not a definitive biography, but rather an endearingly personal one that opens up a window on the soul of a writer who experienced firsthand much of what was vital in his time.

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Da Capo Press
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6.11(w) x 9.15(h) x 1.18(d)

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