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Reading Daniel Defoe in Twenty-First Century American High School Textbooks

Elizabeth Zold

The Place of Defoe's Works in the High School Literature Textbook

Where a text is situated in an anthology affects how the reader perceives its thematic elements and historical contextualization. In the Holt (2009) and Prentice Hall textbooks, Defoe's fictional A Journal of the Plague Year is paired with an excerpt from The Diary of Samuel Pepys about the Great Fire of London, enabling students to compare and contrast an actual diary with a fictional autobiographical narrative. This allows them to assess the realistic nature of Defoe's first-person narrator, H. F., while comparing the two authors' reconstructions of a single historical event. Moreover, Prentice Hall explicitly connects the 1660s plague that Defoe writes about with the Great Fire of London, which followed only a year later. Holt (2009) also provides some background on the plague and Defoe’s sources for the text, so the pairing of A Journal of the Plague Year with Pepys's diary makes historical sense in demonstrating the hardships London faced during that time. However, it might be questionable to pair a nonfictional diary with a historical fictional journal so convincingly written that, as Benjamin Pauley notes, "students have to be reminded that 'H. F.' is not Defoe" (106). Such a pairing might have some unintended consequences for students because it could impede their understanding of the narrative work Defoe was doing in reconstructing the plague from secondhand accounts almost 60 years after the event, unlike Pepys, who wrote about his personal experience soon after the Great Fire.

The Glencoe textbook, in contrast, removes A Journal of the Plague Year from its historical context and instead focuses on thematic issues relating to how society at that time dealt with panic, disease, and death. Defoe's work is placed alongside excerpts from The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston (2003), History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides (431 B.C.E.), and The Plague by Albert Camus (1947) in a special section entitled "Comparing Literature across Time and Place." Together, these four texts construct a narrative of the ways in which different societies respond to disease and death and the ensuing threat of mass hysteria (although the emphasis on the modern experience is noticeable given that two of the four selections were written after 1900). In this way, A Journal of the Plague Year becomes one episode in an apparently transhistorical narrative about human nature in the face of tragedy. Unfortunately, the Glencoe textbook does not offer any contextual background before each of the four selections. While this allows for a more fluid reading of the excerpted texts, it removes A Journal of the Plague Year from its historical context. As a result, students might not have a chance to discuss, for example, the Journal’s ties to Enlightenment scientific inquiry and objective first-person narration.

In both Holt editions, Defoe's essay "The Education of Women" is included to help the reader reconstruct the social and political plight of women in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Britain. Paired with an excerpt from Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and the poem "To the Ladies" by Mary, Lady Chudleigh, Defoe’s essay gives students an early male view on the education and rights of women. The editors of the Holt (2009) edition go further, stressing that Defoe's stance was controversial for his time and implying that his own lack of "standard education" might have had something to do with his advocacy of women's right to education (674). Reading both Defoe's and Wollstonecraft's essays and Lady Chudleigh's poem, students can begin to compare and contrast the sentiments expressed on the status of women in the last decades of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Unfortunately, as will later be considered in greater detail, the Holt editions exclude a large part of Defoe's argument in "The Education of Women," misrepresenting his case.

Daniel Defoe in the High School Literature Textbook

The biographical sketch of Defoe that precedes selections from his works in each textbook further illuminates the historical and social environment in which he wrote. A biography of Defoe is a complicated matter, as scholars of the eighteenth century well know. Though Paula Backscheider (Daniel Defoe: His Life), Maximillian E. Novak (Daniel Defoe, Master of Fictions: His Life and Ideas), and John Richetti (The Life of Daniel Defoe) have each devoted hundreds of pages to Defoe's biography, many uncertainties remain; distilling the life of such an enigmatic author as Defoe into a few paragraphs is even more difficult. To that end, some allowances can be made for the editorial choice to highlight the more sensational parts of Defoe's life, making him more memorable to high school students while still providing them with a fairly accurate account of who he was as a person and an author.

The brief biographies of Defoe vary from textbook to textbook, but there are general trends they all follow: all discuss Defoe as an unsuccessful entrepreneur and note his many and varied careers (his spy work is almost always granted a place of prominence), and Robinson Crusoe is always declared his "breakthrough" work. The Prentice Hall and both Holt editions mention Defoe adding the aristocratic "De" to his name, giving students insight into his socioeconomic aspirations. The Holt editions reference some of his more colorful works on glass manufacturing, the history of the devil, and choosing a wife, while the Glencoe edition touches on his brief time in the pillory that led to the composition of his satirical poem A Hymn to the Pillory. The Holt editions point out the irony that although Defoe published prolifically, he is almost always remembered only for Robinson Crusoe, a claim reiterated in the Prentice Hall biography, which alludes only to Moll Flanders as his other major text. Most of the textbooks highlight Defoe's vast knowledge and expansive body of work, hopefully sparking students' interest in who Defoe was as an author and as a significant contributor to late-seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British society.

However, the Prentice Hall biography misrepresents not just Defoe and his work, but eighteenth-century readers and publishers as well. It states, "During his lifetime, Defoe's books were considered so realistic that they were sold as nonfiction. In fact, the first-person narrators were so convincing that Defoe was even accused of 'forging a story, and imposing it on the world for truth'" (502). As scholars of eighteenth-century literature know, Defoe did intentionally present a number of his imaginative texts as works of nonfiction, not even claiming them as his own, which is why an authoritative list of his works is nearly impossible to produce. Instead of informing students about the frequent mistrust of fiction in the eighteenth century and setting forth the reasons why Defoe might present his fictional novels as nonfiction, students are given the impression that eighteenth-century booksellers and readers were not savvy enough to distinguish between fictional and nonfictional genres or that some misunderstanding led to Defoe's works being sold as nonfiction. Thus, not only do students miss an integral part of literary history, they receive a false impression of the intelligence of eighteenth-century printers, publishers, and readers.

Additionally, the short biography in the Prentice Hall edition adds to a subtle but common thread that runs through the majority of the textbooks. The Prentice Hall and Holt (2005, 2009) textbooks construct a gendered view of literary history, particularly where the English novel is concerned. Prentice Hall claims that Defoe "practically invented the modern realistic novel" (502), while Holt (2005) declares that "[b]y the mid-eighteenth century, people were writing—and others, including women, were eagerly buying (or borrowing)—long fictional narratives called novels" (424). The 2009 Holt edition is slightly more inclusive, stating that Robinson Crusoe is considered "by some" to be the first English novel, then listing other early novels by Fielding, Richardson, and Sterne, but also adding that women writers "also entered the literary arena for the first time," citing Behn, Haywood, and Burney (533). These statements effectively overlook the literary work done by early-modern women writers before and after the Restoration and reaffirm the centrality of the male author as the originator of the novel. Of the four textbooks, Glencoe is the only one to discuss a woman as an early novelist, stating, "[Aphra Behn] wrote one of the first novels by an English author, Oroonoko; or the History of the Royal Slave" (542). Considering that no lengthy works of prose fiction written by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century women are excerpted in any of the textbooks, it is no wonder that many students are surprised to learn how many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century female authors wrote early English novels.5
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