The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

I. Defoe—The Newspaper and the Novel

§ 16. The Review

It was held until recently that Defoe remained in Newgate until August, 1704, although more careful examination of The Review would have led to a different conclusion. Research in other newspapers and the publication of his correspondence with Harley have now made it clear that he was released, through Harley’s good offices, about 1 November, 1703. This disposes of the story that The Review was founded while its editor was in prison, and it also absolves us from the necessity of supposing that, when, in his volume on the great storm, Defoe described devastations of which he had been an eyewitness, he was drawing on his imagination. The fact that, in this matter and in not a few others, research has tended to strengthen belief in his ability to tell the truth about himself ought to make it less possible for critics to treat him as totally untrustworthy. Such criticism has never been based upon adequate psychological study of the man, and it is not warranted by a minute examination even of his most discreditable writings. Instead of becoming a shameless and wholesale liar, Defoe, in all probability, developed into a consummate casuist who was often his own chief dupe. His experience of the pillory was ever before his eyes, and it seemed to him necessary and even meritorious to avoid the pitfalls that lay in those days before all journalists. For more than twenty years, he practised every sort of subterfuge to preserve his anonymity, and he soon grew sufficiently callous to write, presumably for pay, on all sides of any given subject. Within the arena of journalism, he was a treacherous mercenary who fought all comers with any weapon and stratagem he could command. Outside that arena, he was a pious, philanthropical, fairly accurate and trustworthy man and citizen.

Space fails us for a discussion of the pamphlets and poems of this period, the stream of which not even imprisonment or his employment as a busy agent for Harley could check. Mention should be made, however, of the two volumes of his collected writings—the only collection made by himself—which appeared in 1703 and 1705, as well as of controversial pamphlets against the eccentric John Asgill, the publicist Dr. Davenant, the tory politician and promoter Sir Humphrey Mackworth and the fanatic Charles Leslie. Only one tract of them all possesses permanent interest, the famous Giving Alms no Charity, of November, 1704, and even that is probably less of an economic classic than some have thought it. Defoe’s real achievement of the time was his establishment of The Review, the importance of which as an organ of political moderation has already been pointed out. It was equally important as a model of straightforward journalistic prose, and, in its department of miscellanea, its editorial correspondence when Defoe was away from London and other features, it probably exerted an influence out of proportion to its circulation, which was never large. In its small four-paged numbers, in the main triweekly, the student of contemporary France, of English ecclesiastical history, of the union with Scotland, of the war of the Spanish succession, of the movements of the Jacobites, of the trial of Sacheverell, of British commerce and of manners and customs in general finds abundant materials to his hand. Why its eight large volumes and incomplete ninth supplementary volume (17 February, 1704, to 11 June, 1713) have never been reprinted from the unique set in the British Museum it is hard to say. Even as the record of one man’s enterprise and pertinacity (Defoe wrote it practically unaided and kept it going with extraordinary regularity during the years he was serving as a government agent in Scotland), it would be worthy of a place on our shelves—much more so when that man is the author of Robinson Crusoe. Such republication would not be equivalent to the erection of a monument of shame, since, on the whole, the Defoe of The Review is liberal and consistent in his politics and far-sighted in commercial and economic matters. In a sense, too, a reissue of these rare volumes would be a monument to the prescience of that enigmatical, underestimated politician Robert Harley, who clearly perceived the political importance of the press.