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Born Daniel Foe, the son of James Foe, a butcher in the Stoke Newington neighbourhood of London, England, he would later add the aristocratic sounding "De" to his name as a nom de plume. He became a famous pamphleteer, journalist and novelist at a time of the birth of the novel in the English language, and thus fairly ranks as one of its progenitors.
Defoe's pamphleteering and political activities resulted in his arrest and placement in a pillory on July 31, 1703, principally on account of a pamphlet entitled "The Shortest Way with Dissenters", in which he ruthlessly satirised the High Anglican Tories, purporting to argue for the extermination of dissenters. The publication of his poem "Hymn to the Pillory", however, caused his audience at the pillory to throw flowers instead of the customary harmful and noxious objects, and to drink to his health.
After his three days in the pillory Defoe went into Newgate Prison. Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, brokered his release in exchange for Defoe's co-operation in acting as an intelligence agent for the Tories. After the Tories fell from power, Defoe continued doing intelligence work for the Whig government.
Defoe's famous work, arguably the first novel written in English, Robinson Crusoe (1719), tells of a man's shipwreck on a desert island and his subsequent adventures. The author may have based his narrative on the true story of the shipwreck of Alexander Selkirk.1
He also wrote Moll Flanders (1722), a picaresque first-person narration of the fall and eventual redemption of a lone woman in 17th century England. She appears as a whore, bigamist and thief, commits adultery and incest, yet manages to keep the reader's sympathy. Both this work and Roxana (1724) offer remarkable examples of the way in which Defoe seems to inhabit his fictional (yet "drawn from life") characters, not least in that they are women.