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Defoe, Fielding and the Deluge of Authors

In 1711, the Talter was using the word novelist to mean journalist. By 1719 Robinson Crusoe was published, and in the next few years "a deluge of authors", as Scribblerus put it, had covered the land. Many of these authors sought to legitimize their fictions by appealing to an external authority, and often this involved the presentation of the new genre as a way to help the reader ‘better to enjoy life or better to endure it’ in Johnson’s words. Both Fielding and Defoe present their novels in part as a way of disciplining wilderness, both in the formal sense - governing the new genre - and as part of the moral ideology underpinning their novels. At first sight however, Tom Jones and Robinson Crusoe seem to be on opposite sides of the Augustan paradoxical commitment to both truth to nature and nature to advantage. The contrast between them is obvious. Fielding’s aspirations to an epic form were set out in the preface to Joseph Andrews in which he argues narratives which contain all the elements of epic and are ‘deficient only in metre’ are ‘prose epics'. Defoe, on the other hand, wrote novels that masqueraded as histories, and admitted to being the most immethodical writer alive. 

In McKeon’s terms Fielding belongs to the extreme sceptics, who can be seen as developing from the Augustan world of letters rather than social change. Fielding’s rejection of plain narratives and a level of specification and detail which Shaftsbury saw as the province of "face painters and historians" is part of the neoclassical view of art as depicting ‘manners and not men’. 

Defoe’s fiction on the other hand, as na´ve empiricist, is part of what Woolf saw as the new middle-class's wish for a literature which reflects their ‘humdrum lives.’ Defoe’s ‘factual fictions’, as Davis calls them, are often based on facts, and the non-literary precedents and influences on his work add to the ‘verisimilitude’ of his work. Critics of RC have often pointed out the Selkirk story as it's original, to the extent that Bernbuam famously calimed that all Defoe's longer narratives will prove to have such originals. 

This view of Defoe as compiler is part of a wider view of his work as disjointed or shapeless, which seems to be opposed to the Neoclassical emphasis on order and form as the basis of civilised society. However as Sutherland has argued Defoe’s admission to being the ‘most immethodical writer alive’ in fact adds to his truth to nature, as it adds to authenticity of the fallible first person behind which the author effaces himself, in a way similar to Swift use of mouthpieces. Crusoe's journal includes mistakes and is immethodical, however it's errors in fact speak for its truthfulness. Yet this contrast cannot be applied simplistically. Fielding’s use of the epic cannot be seen as direct imitation, for as Watt has noted Fielding sees the classics as a standard in an age of what he saw as literary anarchy, rather than as a source or orginal. The paradox between the Augustan demand for 'truth to nature' and the epic emphasis on the surprising or the Marvellous can seen in Fielding’s rejection of a novel which is only what may be met with in a newspaper - the journalistic type of novel Defoe wrote. Hoever this distaste for commoness is complicated by the distance from the classics, which Addison noted, saying that reading Homer was like reading the literature of another species. 

Addison’s stress on the necessity of simplicity as opposed to the gothic mode led to his equating the classics with a ballad like Chevy Chase. Johnson’s criticism of this as too close to unimaginative philistinism is an indication of the fine line between the necessity to ‘fill the mind’ and demonstrate knowledge, and the new sense of the need to address a more ‘indifferent reader’. 

The move away from figurative language at this time led to criticism of Fielding’s poetic embellishment, and in fact Fielding implicitly recognised the incompatibility of the epic parodic style and truth to nature, in excluding pleasurable parody from his characters out of concern for this truth. This problem can be seen as part of a wider pattern in Augustan literature. For example, Pope’s hypercorrect couplets and assertion that ‘wit’ is only ‘what oft was said’ can be seen as a defence against the Puritan prejudices, a defence of the parodic, satiric style of Aufustan poetry. 

Fielding's recognition of the need for ‘humbler prose’ and that the depiction of private character cannot be corroborated led to a lean towards probability. While TJ abounds in coincidences and the authorial intrusions which Henry James described as the betrayal of a sacred office, the narrator asserts the limitations of art as well as its controlling function in a way similar to RC: ‘it is our province to relate facts’ in Tom Jones and ‘all I can say is …to describe the facts’ in Robinson Crusoe differs only in pronoun. 

It is significant in this context that Richardson disparaged Amelia for containing biographical elements, in the same way RC has been seen as a pseudo biography. However, as Hunter has noted the procedures of journalist and moralist are antithetical. The view which sees Defoe as dishonest plagiariser does not take into account the clearly defined structure of RC, whether it is read as the epic of individual enterprise or as spiritual biography or partaking in both. What Secord saw as a shapelessness which imitates life, Hunter argues is not in fact shapeless but rather part of a pattern with a clear moral rationale. 

Skinner’s reading of Fielding as a literary magistrate similarly sees ‘major ideological underpinnings’ to TJ. The difficulty for both authors is how to present their ideological arguments in a form which preserves a legitimising function. 

Both TJ and RC contain generic instability, a shifting use of a variety of techniques. As Skinner has argued, TJ contains not only the picaresque form but also the periodic essay in the prefaces, as well as elements of drama which can be seen as a more direct influencer than epics. RC is similarly shaped by its use of a sequence of forms, as Bender has noted, moving from fact to journal to reflections in a search for an equivalent to the formation of thought. 

In the panorama of TJ the narrator is the cohesive force, and his controlling function is most obvious in the prefaces. Skinner’s reading of the prefaces points out the significance of Book II where the narrator presents himself as benevolent monarch, with the readers as his subjects. This can be compared to the use of the first person in RC.Here the narrative is respective and as such the narrator as in Fielding is above events, mediating between the immediate and the observed. 

Both novels thus use the distanced narrator in order to impose control on the wilderness, literal and metaphorical contained in their texts. As Watt has noted, Fielding presents a deterministic plot in which the characters are passive and shown to be part of a pattern which reveals the work of unerring nature. Woolf similarly commented that in RC the constant solidity which frustrates the reader’s expectation of sunrises is so pervasive that it ‘rope[s] the whole universe into harmony’. 

The religious overtone is as Richetti says not simply rigmarole but a way to depict Crusoe as a passive figure who needs to be delivered. Critics contending Watt’s reading of RC as the therapy of work, emphasise the aim ‘to honour providence’ outlined in the preface. Similarly, Fielding’s narrator rebukes readers for criticism part before seeing the whole, and this concentration on the larger picture can be seen as part of both novels legitimatisation of their procedures. 

In this context the contradictions often noted of the characters in Fielding and Defoe can be seen as part of a wider moral view. TJ’s lectures to Nightingale, or his constancy speech, like the famous gold incident in RC are not simply deflation or irony. As Skinner has argued, it can be seen to invite identification with the aesthetically bad, but it can also be seen as a comment on society, depicting the sinning character as representative. 

TJ’s common names implies this. In RC Wordsworth’s view of Crusoe as inspiring because uncommon would seem to suggest that Crusoe is not intented as a representative of mankind. However, it could be argued that part of the ‘verismilature’ of the book lies in RC’s rejection of heroism and grand gestures. As Sutherland has noted, this seems to be symbolised in the antlike activity of his salvaging of the wreckage, in his efforts to construct an earthenware pot, in the detail of every step of his attempt to civilise the island. 

Fielding's moral scheme is perhaps more ambigous. In Johnson’s words, TJ was seen by some as ‘corrupt’ in its depiction of wrong which are not punished adequately. This can be seen as part of the epic tradition which in Defoe’s words turns scoundrels into heroes and heroes into gods. However this sequence can also be seen as relevant to RC, whose progress from scoundrel and sinner to master and creator of himself is the whole story. 

Both novels trace their characters development from sinners to repentance, if not to sainthood. This theme of the prodigal is in Watt’s view an indication of Fielding’s broadmindedness, a depiction of transgression as a stage in moral growth. On the other hand in Defoe’s novel this prodigal theme seems to escape into wish fulfilment as the island turns into a utopia and as the elements of material and psychological unreality become magnified into the establishment of a paradise in ‘a little city in a wood’. 

This relates to McKeon’s argument, which sees the economic and the spiritual aspects of the book as inseparable although contradictory, because it is through this combination that mobility is given religious overtones. 

This point of class mobilitiy determines the struture of both novels. In Fielding the secret birth is a way for the narrator to control the text – TJ is no proletariat hero, and he returns in the end to his proper position, while in RC the rejection of the calling has religious implications, resolved only when RC has learned to spiritualise event. 

McKeon’s comment that virtue in RC is ambiguously close to the ability to invoke providence convincingly demonstrates RC’s ‘art’ in controlling the narrative, as he controls the mutiny. Resolving contradictions in himself, he is able to control land, animals, savages, and finally Europeans. TJ similarly goes through a series of transgressions and adventures which are controlled by a mediating narrator who restores the prodigal son. 

It could perhaps be argued that Ford Maddox Ford’s comment on Fielding's rebels applies to RC, who also rebels against his father, only to be given an estate. In terms of the religious allegory, Father is captialised, for as Damrosch has noted, the sin is Adamic. However, there is no return, no visit to a grave. RC’s rebellion seems providential, as TJ’s transgressions enable him finally to discover the secret of his birth. 

The fortunate fall in both novels can thus be seen as part of the turn from moral to story which Aiken noted in Defoe's work. This perhaps implies a broader trend in the rise of the novel, incorporating both entertainment and instruction as justification for literary license. The controlling function of the narrative serves not only to discipline wilderness but to describe it – through both impression and assessment. 

written: 2007
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