Center for Library Partnerships

at the University of Massachusetts Boston

The Imaginative Worlds of Daniel Defoe: Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and the Early Novel

Boston Public Library, 2013

Image of The Imaginative Works of Daniel Defoe: Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and the Early Novel flyer

Daniel Defoe (c. 1660-1731) helped to invent one of our most popular and important forms of literature: the novel. Not only did he write some of the first English novels, he imagined some of our most compelling novelistic plots. In Robinson Crusoe (1719), he famously depicted a man shipwrecked on a desert island, detailing the strategies Crusoe used to create a “civilization of one”—and survive cannibal attacks! In Moll Flanders (1721) he imagined a woman who navigates the teeming streets of London, surviving by her wits, her beauty, and her pick-pocketing skills!  In these novels, Defoe captured extreme challenges to human existence and depicted how the individual thinks through difficulties and achieves success.  By creating imaginative worlds that are best explored in lengthy prose stories, Defoe created the new form of the novel.

As this rare books exhibition showed, Defoe wrote much more than the novel. One of the most popular “hack” writers of the early eighteenth century, Defoe is credited with authoring over 400 different works. He wrote “how to” conduct books (The Family Instructor), historical accounts (A Journal of the Plague Year), religious pamphlets (The Shortest Way with the Dissenters), economic essays (The Complete English Tradesman) and supernatural studies (An Essay on…Apparitions). Also considered a founder of modern journalism, Defoe wrote one of the first newspapers, the Review. His willingness to enter into political and religious controversy got him arrested and placed in the pillory—and he responded by writing a poem (Hymn to the Pillory) that wins over the crowds who gather to see him. At the end of an amazingly prolific career, when he is in his late 50s, Defoe interweaved the strands of thought captured in these many forms of writings, placed them in fictional contexts, and embodied them in fictional characters. The novel was born!  

This exhibition featured the riches of the Boston Public Library’s William P. Trent Collection of Defoe and Defoeana. One the most comprehensive rare book collections of Defoe’s works, the Trent Collection also features works that represent the early print culture of his time. This exhibition displayed Defoe’s novels, positioning them within the larger context of his other writing. The exhibition provided insight into Defoe’s novels, his life as a writer, and the lively British culture that helped to give birth to this new art form. 

This exhibition was the result of an innovative ongoing partnership between UMass Boston's English MA Program and the Boston Public Library. UMass Boston students take a course in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Room, engaging in hands-on research that generates a student-curated exhibition. This exhibition presented the findings from a seminar that focused on the rise of the novel.