An engraved illustration of people in a town square carrying shrouded stretchers, weeping over a body and expressing distress.

Defoe and the Plague Year

By Stephen J. Greenberg ~

Until recently, if one thought of Daniel Defoe at all, it was of Robinson Crusoe, alone (well, not quite alone) on some desert island in Defoe’s famous novel. At one time, Robinson Crusoe was the most translated work after the Bible.

But there is a lot more to Defoe than Crusoe. In an age where few could make a living as a professional writer, Defoe made his living in just that way, although he did dabble in other occupations, including espionage. By and large, however, he made his way with his pen, and as a partisan political writer as well. He fits nicely in a small select group that included John Milton (somewhat older), and Jonathan Swift (a bit younger).

Daniel Foe (the change to Defoe came later, to class up the act a bit) was born in London around 1660—the details are a bit hazy, which becomes important further on in this story. He received some formal education, but did not go to university.  Defoe’s plans were to make his fortune as a merchant. However, his luck was poor, his timing was worse, and he also backed to wrong side in the abortive Monmouth rebellion in 1685.  As a result, he was in and out of prison in the 1680s and 1690s, mostly for debt, but he nearly was hanged for his support of Monmouth.

The turn to writing seems to have begun just before 1700, writing pamphlets in support of King William and Queen Mary. The death of William and the accession of Queen Anne in 1702 made politics more dicey for Defoe (he was never simply Church of England), so he began looking for other writing outlets. Defoe never did quite abandon writing about political and religious issues, which were largely inseparable in 18th century England.

The big breakthrough came in 1719, with the publication of Crusoe. This was quickly followed by Captain Singleton (1720) and Memoirs of a Cavalier (also 1720). A sequel to Crusoe was published in 1719. The books follow an interesting and uniform pattern: they are presented as memoirs of historical characters, with Defoe as the invisible editor, but they are in fact fictionalized to a greater or lesser degree.  The character of Crusoe, for example, is largely based on the life of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor (1676–1721) marooned for four years on a desert island, but Defoe’s imagination far outstrips Selkirk’s actual adventures. In a period of time when the English novel, as a fully fictional story-telling genre, was still in its infancy, it’s not entirely clear what Defoe’s public thought they were reading: fact or fiction.

Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722, raises the fact/fiction dilemma yet another notch.  Nearly 300 pages long in its original edition, and described on its title page as “Written by a citizen who continued all the while in London,” it is full of first-hand accounts and official statistics about the last great outbreak of bubonic plague in London (1665–66). It is in equal parts thrilling and instructive. But exactly who wrote/compiled/edited the work? Clearly Defoe could not have been the eyewitness; he was only about five years old in 1665, depending on which date of birth we use. On the very last page of the text, the account is signed by HF, after a chilling epigram:

“A dreadful Plague in London was,

In the Year Sixty Five,

Which swept an Hundred Thousand Souls

Away, yet I alive!”

An engraved illustration of people in a town square carrying shrouded stretchers, weeping over a body and expressing distress.
The Plague Of London 1665, 1790
National Library of Medicine #101392764

The mysterious “HF” is usually believed to be Henry Foe, Defoe’s uncle, who did live through the 1665 outbreak in London. Presumably, he left a journal that his nephew used a his primary source, coupled with the printed bills of mortality. The anecdotes in the published volume have a raw, matter-of-fact immediacy that sounds like eye-witness accounts.  But the original manuscript of HF’s journal has never been found. Modern critics and historians still struggle over whether to classify the book as a novel or as non-fiction. In either case, the published work was widely received at the time as a true account.  It sold well, but not as well as Defoe’s next book, Moll Flanders, a picaresque novel, published in the same year. Once again, it is presented as autobiography, with no author or editor’s name on the title page, although it is customarily attributed to Defoe, who is believed to have based the work on the life of a female convict he met in Newgate Prison.

Texts, however, have a way of escaping the control of their authors and publishers, and Journal of the Plague Year is no exception. In 1754 (that is, twenty-three years after Defoe’s death) the Journal was reprinted in London as The History of the Great Plague of London, with an account of a 1720 outbreak in Marseille attached. Defoe’s name does not appear, although HF remains. But even more intriguing is an abridgment printed in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1763 by Christopher Sower, and digitized by the National Library of Medicine, under the title The Dreadful Visitation in a Short Account of the Progress and Effects of the Plague.

Title page of a printed book about the progress and effects of the plague.
The dreadful visitation in a short account of the progress and effects of the plague, 1763
National Library of Medicine #2551027R

Short account indeed. Defoe’s nearly 300 pages has been whittled down to a mere sixteen, not all of which is directly quoted from Defoe’s text. Freed of any pesky notions of copyright (the Statute of Queen Anne, passed in 1709, was the first English law to give some protection to authors, but only for fourteen years), the publisher merely printed some interesting bits from the Journal on a single sheet, formatted and folded in octavo, to make a neat little pamphlet.

Christopher Sower was an enterprising man.  Born in Germany in 1721, he emigrated with his family to Pennsylvania in 1724. His father, also Christopher, was a highly educated man, even studying medicine in Halle. In 1735, the elder Sower set up as a printer, the first German-language printer in North America. The younger Sower took over the printshop (probably at his father’s death in 1758), and expanded it to be one of the largest printing/publishing concerns in the colonies. The younger Sower died in 1784, after losing much of his property and business during and after the American Revolution.

It should be noted that the difficulties of printing German-language works in colonial North America were considerable. Although Pennsylvania had a large and literate German-speaking population in the Philadelphia-Lancaster area, works for this audience were usually printed in a modified black letter font known as Fraktur, which needed to be brought from Europe. British colonial law prevented any local production of type in the colonies.  Nevertheless, both of the Sowers experimented with casting their own type, as did their local chief competitor, a Philadelphia printer named Benjamin Franklin.

Printed titlepage of a book on an account of the plague in English.
The dreadful visitation, in a short account of the progress and effects of the plague, 1774
National Library of Medicine #2551029R

The source of the “brief account” text is unclear, but it continued to have a life of its own.  In 1774, it was reprinted by the prolific Philadelphia printer Joseph Crukshank (1746?–1836). This copy has also been digitized by NLM. The text and format are virtually the same as the Sower edition. Less biographical information is known about Crukshank, but the sales catalogues of his press show him to have been a very busy man. Sower the Younger was still active in 1774, and in the Philadelphia area. However, Sower was suspected of being a Tory (he probably was not), and his professional activities were curtailed. He could have sold the account text to Crukshank for ready money.

And yet, in none of these editions (1722, 1754, 1763, 1774) does the name of Daniel Defoe actually appear. In 1790, the British scholar Richard Gough ascribed the Journal to Defoe, but there was still a debate over how much was fact and how much was Defoe’s imagination.  The question of authorship is inseparably linked to whether the Journal is a novel or an historical record. As late as 1965, the historian and critic F. Bastian could still wonder about how the question of authorship affected how much we could “trust” Defoe’s work [Bastian, F: “Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year Reconsidered.” The Review of English Studies 16:62 (May, 1965) 151–173]. But now, three hundred years after its composition, and in the midst of yet another plague, the immediacy of the document, in all of its variants, overwhelms the minutiae of its composition.

Black and white Photograph of a white man.Stephen J. Greenberg, PhD, is Head of Rare Books and Early Manuscripts for the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.


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