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On Teaching Another Defoe


1 A Journal of the Plague Year is itself a comparatively recent addition to this list. Oxford revived Louis Landa’s 1969 edition in 1990 with a new introduction by David Roberts, while Paula Backscheider’s Norton Critical Edition appeared in 1992; Cynthia Wall’s edition for Penguin appeared in 2003. Of the major paperback publishers, Penguin has stepped the farthest beyond this core list in recent years, with an edition of The True-Born Englishman and Other Writings edited by P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens in 1997 and a 2003 edition of The Storm edited by Richard Hamblyn for the Allen Lane hardcover imprint, repackaged as a Penguin Classics paperback in 2005. It is also worth noting, perhaps, that a number of on-demand houses have begun hawking other Defoe texts, but these employ the (to my mind, at least) rather dubious practice of charging $15 and more for printouts of freely-available texts from the Project Gutenberg archive. These texts generally provide no editorial apparatus, unless one counts the sometimes bizarrely inapposite stock photographs that they employ for cover art.

2 Daniel Defoe, “A Plan of the English Commerce” in Political and Economic Writings of Daniel Defoe, vol. 7, Trade, ed. John McVeagh (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2000), 215.

3 At one level, the difficulties my students faced with New Voyage were practical ones. Because there is no classroom edition of the novel, we were working from copies of a facsimile of the 1724 first edition. Thus, in addition to the obvious lack of interpretive notes, students had the foreignness of eighteenth-century print to contend with. I am a strong advocate of having students see what eighteenth-century texts looked like when they originally appeared. Seeing the differences in type size and quality, in line spacing and margins, etc., I think, shows them, in a very immediate way, some things about eighteenth-century print culture that are otherwise difficult to imagine. In retrospect, however, my use of this facsimile was a mistake. For a text of this length, and one that presents enough challenges to students’ comprehension without the additional difficulty of making out the words on the page, I would have done better to have provided them with a later, modern print edition. Two editions from around the turn of the twentieth century are available from Google Book Search: Daniel Defoe, A New Voyage Round the World in Romances and Narratives by Daniel Defoe, ed. George A. Aitken, vol. 14 (1895; London: J. M.Dent, 1900); and Daniel Defoe, A New Voyage Round the World in The Works of Daniel Defoe, ed. G. H. Maynadier, vol. 14 (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Company, 1904). Another 1905 issue of the Maynadier edition, from The Jenson Society, is also available.

4 Because A New Voyage Round the World is not especially widely read, a brief plot summary may be in order. The novel is, we might say, a work of capitalist pornography, in which clever and enterprising merchants reap astounding profits. Narrated by a nameless Englishman, it recounts a commercial voyage of fantastic success and dubious legality. When in Spanish waters, the voyagers pose as French to capitalize on the alliance between France and Spain and trade with the Spaniards in ways that English merchants were prohibited from doing. They also carry phony letters of marque, however, which offer a pretence for attacking any Spanish ships they might meet on the open ocean, as they may claim to be English privateers. The text can be divided roughly into five sections: 1) an initial bit of freebooting on the Atlantic coast of South America and a failed attempt to enter the Pacific by rounding Cape Horn; 2) a voyage to the Philippines, where the merchants trade with the Spanish colonists under French colors; 3) a voyage across the South Pacific, in which the crew encounters a succession of accommodating islanders who happily exchange gold for European trinkets; 4) a voyage to Chile, where the merchants once again pretend to be French in order to trade with Spanish colonists, and where a surprisingly broad-minded Spaniard articulates a critique of Spanish colonial policy that, in effect, invites any sufficiently enterprising nation to take possession of territory in loosely-held sections of South America; and 5) an overland eastward crossing of South America, during the course of which the adventurers find more gold than they can carry lying around on the ground, and which also demonstrates the hospitableness of Patagonia to English colonization.

5 In addition to the discussion in chapter six of The Far East in the English Imagination, Markley addresses A New Voyage in “‘So Inexhaustible a Treasure of Gold’: Defoe, Capitalism, and the Romance of the South Seas,” Eighteenth-Century Life 18.3 (1994): 148-67.

6 Jane H. Jack, “A New Voyage Round the World: Defoe’s Roman à Thèse,” The Huntington Library Quarterly 24 (1961): 323.

7 John Richetti, The Life of Daniel Defoe (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 222.

8 Richetti, Life of Daniel Defoe, 224, 222. Richetti reminds us, however, that “for Defoe (despite his proto-novelistic flair) the objective world of facts mattered much more than the merely subjective” (224).

9 Richetti, 222; Jack, 324. James R. Sutherland, likewise, suggests notes that Defoe “wished to offer a new method for trading with the Spaniards in South America, and he wanted to outline a scheme that had long been in his mind for settling two new English colonies.” James R. Sutherland, Daniel Defoe: A Critical Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), 156.

10 In the Preface to his recent edition of the novel, McVeagh argues that “as elsewhere [Defoe] concentrates on character rather than escapade … [and] sustains throughout his description even of piratical doings an interest in moral and political analysis, refracting adventure through a moral lens and making A New Voyage into a thoughtful, even philosophical text.” McVeagh also sees in the novel a nuanced relationship to the genre of travel writing that serves to “[debunk] the whole genre … and results in an intriguing, complex tone.” Daniel Defoe, A New Voyage Round the World, ed. John McVeagh, The Novels of Daniel Defoe vol. 10 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2008), 1. Subsequent citations of A New Voyage Round the World will be from this edition, and will be given parenthetically.

11 In this respect, A New Voyage presented greater difficulties for the students in the class than Captain Singleton did to a similar group of students the following semester in a senior seminar on “The Figure of the Pirate.” Though the students in that class found Bob Singleton’s peregrinations about the Indian Ocean similarly difficult to keep straight, they were able, at least to latch on to Singleton as a narrator, and to find in his relationship with William the Quaker something that looked like character development.

12 At the Philippines, for example, their profits on the European goods they dispose of would appear to be 500% and more: three Spanish merchants purchase goods for 22,000 pieces of eight which, Defoe’s narrator supposes, “might cost in England, one sixth Part of the Money, or hardly so much” (91). The profits on the Philippines episode as a whole would seem to be still higher. The super cargo reports “he had dispos’d of as many Goods, as he receiv’d the Value of one hundred thousand Peices of Eight for, all which, by his Accounts did not amount to, first Cost, above three thousand Pounds Sterling in England” (92). Judging by the figures provided in John J. McCusker’s Money and Exchange in Europe and America, 1660-1775: A Handbook (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978), 100,000 pieces of eight would have been worth approximately £20,350 in 1713, which would represent a nearly six-fold profit (309.) Figuring the profits of the South Pacific leg of the voyage is more difficult, as the crew receives pure gold from the islanders, but they seem almost incalculably large. At one point, two sailors receive “near five Ounces” of gold in exchange for beads and other “toys” equaling “about the Value of two Shillings” (109). When they come to deal with the king and queen of one nation, they receive, in all, some two pounds of gold pieces and eleven pounds of gold dust (114, 119). One roughly contemporary source gives the price of gold as £3 14s. 2d. per ounce, so even the more modest exchange yielding five ounces of gold (£18 10s. 10d., or a little more than 370 shillings, for simplicity’s sake) for goods worth 2 shillings would represent something more than 18,000% profit. (See Guy Miege, The Present State of Great Britain and Ireland, 3rd ed. [London, 1715], 311.)

13 Daniel Defoe, A New Voyage Round the World (London: A. Bettesworth and W. Mears, 1725), Part I, 19-23. The section appears on pp. 40-42 of McVeagh’s edition.

14 I recall with glee the moment when one of the sharpest students in the class asked, with a sense of dawning understanding, but also of incredulity, “So the whole point of this book is that they sailed around the world counterclockwise?”

15 The question of context, of course, is a perennial one. I don’t mean to suggest that A New Voyage is unique in kind where the problem of context is concerned, but I do think it’s fair to say that it’s remarkable in degree. Knowing something about the ’45 enriches students’ understanding of Tom Jones, to be sure, but they can get by reasonably well without it. Or, perhaps more to the point, a professor teaching Tom Jones can have plenty to occupy a class of students without ever venturing beyond the gloss of “Jacobite” to be found in the endnotes of any decent classroom edition. The same cannot be said of A New Voyage.

16 Daniel Defoe, “An Essay on the South Sea Trade” in Political and Economic Writings of Daniel Defoe, vol. 7, Trade, ed. McVeagh. Robert Allen, An Essay on the Nature and Methods of Carrying on a Trade to the South-Sea (London, 1712). I might also have done well to have assigned the students a small number of essays from the Review. In the numbers for 7 and 12 July, for instance, Defoe’s discussion of the French advantage in the South Sea trade is especially clear and forceful.

17 K. N. Chaudhuri, The Trading World of Asia and the English East India Company, 1660-1760 (1978; repr. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). Holden Furber, Rival Empires of Trade in the Orient, 1600-1800 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1976).

18 The pun inherent in “plot” in this context is, I trust, too familiar and too obvious to require elaboration.

19 Indeed, my hope is to pose the possibility that there might be an entire class of questions that can only be successfully interpreted, as the historian Woodruff D. Smith suggests of the habit of taking tea with sugar, through interdisciplinary analysis. Woodruff D. Smith, “Complications of the Commonplace: Tea, Sugar, and Imperialism,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23.2 (1992): 259.

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