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Daniel Defoe was born in 1660 in London, to James and Alice Foe. His father worked as a butcher and made and sold candles, and the young Daniel regretted the fact that he was not of the gentry class and could not attend a prestigious school, such as Oxford or Cambridge. The fact that his parents had left the Church of England to join the Presbyterian fold compounded the boy's problems, especially in finding acceptance among the upper crust of society. Early in his life, Defoe made preparations to become a Presbyterian minister, but after studying religion for some time, he decided against the ministry, feeling that a parish life would be too restrictive. Later, he settled into the business world, setting up an import-export business and haberdashery in London. In January of 1684, he married Mary Tuffley, the daughter of a wine cooper.
By the early 1690s, Defoe's business had failed; his marriage was also failing. In search of a new career, he involved himself in politics and became a profile journalist and pamphleteer. He published a political tract against James II and in defense of the accession of William of Orange. In 1702, he published the pamphlet, The Shortest Way with Dissenter, attacking the Church of England. As a result of his controversial writings, Defoe was arrested, imprisoned for a period of time, tried, and sentenced to pay a fine and to stand three times in the pillory. Supposedly, the crowd cheered when he stood before them on the pillory.
After his release from prison, Defoe immersed himself in political journalism, often contributing to newspapers. For a period of time, he was a secret agent for the government and afterwards he wrote for different parties, switching his allegiance to whoever would pay him the most. At times he would even publish simultaneously and anonymously written articles expressing opposite points of view, one supporting the Whigs and the other the Tories. From 1704 to 1713, Defoe published The Review, a periodical that was the forerunner of the work of Steele and Addison.
Defoe was never accepted during his lifetime by the literary class, who sneered at his background and the common people who read his books. To improve his image, Defoe tried his best to be a gentleman, even changing his name from Foe to Defoe. He also bought an expensive coach with a coat of arms emblazoned on it. These accoutrements, however, could not hide the nature of the tradesman who lurked behind the façade. In spite of his popularity with the commoners, he never became wealthy, for his financial dealings were a mess. In fact, he never really recovered from the failure of his business, which occurred more than forty years before his death.
Defoe died at the age of seventy, on April 24, 1734. At the time, he was a poor man, hiding from his creditors in Ropemaker's Alley. Today, however, he is recognized as the father of the English novel, and Robinson Crusoe, his first work of fiction, has remained one of the most popular adventure stories in Western literature.