Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 20. Discreditable later tracts

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

§ 20. Discreditable later tracts

Belief in a serious breakdown of Defoe’s health is rendered almost ridiculous by an examination of his bibliography, certain and plausible, for the year 1715. It contains at least thirty pamphlets and two thick volumes, the first instalments of The Family Instructor and of a History of the Wars of Charles XII of Sweden. No newspaper now taxed his pen for regular contributions, he had to support his family and, perhaps, drown his apprehensions as to the trial awaiting him, and he had every inducement to display his loyalty. Hence, a multitude of certain and suspected tracts on nearly every phase of affairs, especially on the rebellion of the autumn. Meanwhile, in July, he had been convicted of libel; but sentence had not been passed. It never was passed, probably because Defoe managed, through an appealing letter and by pointing to numerous loyal pamphlets, to secure the favour of that very chief justice Parker whom he had offended in 1713. Parker introduced him, as a valuable secret agent and journalist, to Lord Townshend, the principal secretary of state. A bargain was soon struck, the gist of which was that Defoe should continue to pass as a tory journalist still labouring under the displeasure of the government, and that, as such, he should edit mildly tory periodicals and secure employment with more rabid Jacobite organs, in order that he might be able to tone down or suppress treasonable articles and keep the administration posted upon what was going on in Jacobite circles. The arrangement seems to have lasted for some ten years, 1716—26, and, by his discovery of the letters attesting it, Lee succeeded, not only in showing that the older biographers were in error in supposing that Defoe’s activity as a political journalist had ceased with Queen Anne’s death, but, also, in disinterring from the newspapers of the time, particularly from the weeklies published by Mist and Applebee, a mass of articles surely from Defoe’s pen and illustrative of his not inconsiderable powers as an essayist. His chief activity as a spy dates from 1716 to 1720 and is mainly connected with the office of the Jacobite publisher, Nathaniel Mist. Whether he was Mist’s good or evil genius, whether, as Lee opined, Mist tried to kill Defoe on discovering his treachery and pursued him maliciously for many years, whether, on the other hand, Defoe’s gradual abandonment of journalism was not due to advancing years and the competition of younger men, are questions we cannot discuss here. It seems enough to say that, prior to, and throughout, his short career as a writer of fiction, Defoe was almost preternaturally active as a journalist and pamphleteer.

His tracts for the year 1717 alone are sufficiently numerous and discreditable to warrant all that his contemporaries said of him as a mercenary scribbler. To this bad year, that of his exemplary Memoirs of the Church of Scotland, belong his forged Minutes of Mesnager, his unprincipled tracts against Toland, his impertinent and, in the main, overlooked contributions to the Bangorian controversy. As remarkable, however, as his industry, his versatility, his unscrupulousness and his impudence, is the confidence some modern students, notably Lee, have been able to maintain in him. Many of his tracts belonging to this period have been rejected because of the assumption that Defoe was too virtuous or too dignified to have written them, or that no mortal man could have written so much. It may be safely held that Defoe was capable of writing almost anything, and that few pens have ever filled with greater facility a larger number of sheets. On the other hand, no condemnation of Defoe the spy and scribbler is just that does not also include statesmen who, like Townshend and Stanhope, employed him, rivals, who, like Toland and Abel Boyer, were for ever hounding him, religious controversialists who set him a bad example and partisan publishers and public who suffered themselves to be exploited by him. With all his faults, he was probably the most liberal and versatile writer of his age; with his comparative freedom from rancour, he seems a larger and more humane figure than any of the more aristocratic men of letters that looked down on him, including Pope and Swift; though an Ishmael, he managed to secure comfort for his family and a partial amnesty for himself in his old age; and he wrote the most authentic and widely read classic of his generation.