THE SOURCE: “‘The Greatest Liar’” by Nicholson Baker, in Columbia Journalism Review, July–Aug. 2009.
Joseph Addison labeled Daniel Defoe “a false, shuffling, prevaricating rascal,” and even his 19th-century biographer, William Minto, admitted that Defoe was “perhaps the greatest liar that ever lived.” Yet he is also considered the first real journalist. “For a faker,” Nicholson Baker says, “Defoe had an enormous appetite for truth and life and bloody specificity.”
Both Defoes—the dissembler and the earnest seeker of truth—hover over one of his greatest creations, A Journal of the Plague Year. Published in 1722, when Defoe was in his sixties, it’s a first-person account of London’s great plague of 1665. The “first person” is not Defoe, but a saddler named H. F., who vividly describes such things as the “terrible pit” where the carts dump bodies that fall “promiscuously,” and the city so numbed by death that nobody looked up when a woman “gave three frightful screeches, and then cried, ‘Oh! death, death, death!’” In all ways, A Journal of the Plague Year is, Baker asserts, “an astounding performance. It’s shocking, it’s messy, it’s moving.” But is it true?
Determining an answer is as difficult as verifying details about the prolific writer’s life. He was born, most likely in late 1660, to a London butcher or candle maker named James Foe; the Frenchified version of the family name was the writer’s affectation. Defoe worked as a hosier, tile maker, and speculator while penning satirical pamphlets on the side, but suffered a series of bankruptcies, from which some of his wealthy literary patrons rescued him. In the early 1700s, one of his writings landed him in Newgate Prison for a time, where he started a newspaper, the Review. According to Baker, the author of both fiction and nonfiction books, Defoe’s appetite for news was boundless. A character in one of Defoe’s works, Colonel Jack, doubtless spoke for his creator: “In this way of Talk I was always upon the Inquiry, asking Questions of things done in Publick, as well as in Private.”
In 1719 Defoe produced his famous novel, Robinson Crusoe. The work was billed as a memoir—“Written by H I M S E L F”—and initially taken as such, and it was only when that story unraveled that Defoe admitted that the work was fictional. Something similar happened when
A Journal of the Plague Year appeared three years later, its title page boldly claiming it to be “Written by a Citizen Who Continued All the While in London.” Initially accepted as an eyewitness account, it eventually came to be seen as Defoe’s work, dismissed as “fiction masquerading as fact.” That view held until 1919, when a young scholar, Watson Nicholson, determined that there was not “a single essential statement in the Journal not based on historical fact.” Others have confirmed Nicholson’s judgment. The late man of Defoe was our first great novelist because he was our first great journalist.”
The two roles, Baker believes, are not mutually exclusive. With A Journal of the Plague Year, Defoe, the relentless questioner and scribbler, felt the need to invent a new kind of narrative, one that would combine his gift for tale telling with details gleaned from people’s experiences. His stand-in, H. F., perhaps patterned after his own uncle, Henry Foe, is “more than a bit of commercial-minded artifice. The ventriloquism, the fictional first-person premise, helped Defoe to unspool and make sequential sense of what he knew.” Defoe may also have recognized that his own reputation might work against him. As Baker cautions, “If you make up sad things and insist that they’re true, nobody afterward will fully trust what you write.”