The “Defoe” to be found in the major modern biographies and the criticism of the last four decades is a radically different person and writer from earlier Defoes. Although the notion of a “constructed” author is by now an over-worked cliché, Defoe represents an especially problematic case. Dryden, Pope, and Fielding as we now conceive them are constructions built on the basis of relatively clear (if not uncontested) materials; the evidence we possess about them is open to varying interpretations, but we have a considerable amount to work with. More than any other major eighteenth-century writer, however, our Defoe is a construction—one that is both relatively recent and of dubious validity. Until the 1960s, Defoe was regarded as a sloppy hack writer who happened to write a few interesting novels. In the last fifty years, his reputation has changed drastically: critics have reconceived him as a brilliant fiction-writer, a master craftsman, and the father of the novel. Defoe is treated very much like other canonical eighteenth-century authors, but he represents a different kind of writer and a unique set of problems, and we should therefore rethink the way we regard him and interpret his writings. For a variety of reasons—having to do with the nature of his life and work, the lack of much personal record, the anonymity and attribution problems—we are simply not on solid ground, as we are with Dryden, Pope, Fielding, or Swift.

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