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General History of the Pyrates Authorship Menu:   1     2       <<Prev

Authorship of The General History of the Pyrates, Page 2

A General History of Pirates

Furbanks and Owens make quite a case against Moore personally and his attribution of General History to Defoe. In fact, they spend the entire chapter about Moore discrediting this attribution in particular. Since this is what interests most people who have read this far, let's review some of their reasons:

  1. Biographical Inaccuracies?
    Part of the reasoning behind the attribution of the General History to Defoe is that biographer William Lee claimed that Defoe worked for Applebee's Journal which "specialized in the lives and dying speeches of criminals [such as pirates]." "...Applebee and his deputies had access to Newgate [a prison], and thus Defoe got into the habit of visiting and questioning prisoners there..." (p. 73) However, this may or may not be true. They further note that "...Lee has produced no hard evidence for it whatever - not even for [Defoe's] having been associated with Applebee." (p. 73)

    That's a crucial blow to the A General History attribution IMO. I have seen this "fact" cited as the reason Defoe must surely have written A General History on the web several times.

  2. Henry Avery/Every
    Disagreeable Facts
    Defoe has been credited as the author of The King of the Pirates, a pamphlet about Henry Avery/Every. This pamphlet disagrees in both fact and tone with A General History. Of course, William Lee was the person who credited this pamphlet to Defoe, we can only say Defoe wrote it based on his word.

    Another pamphlet Lee put down as being by Defoe was about pirate John Gow called An Account of the Conduct and Proceedings of the Late John Gow. This also disagrees with some facts in A General History, even though History quotes parts of this pamphlet.

    So Defoe has been given credit for works that disagree with each other. This may or may not be enough to remove credit from him. As noted previously, his works sometimes contradicted each other. Sometimes it was because he thought it was humorous, other times he changed his mind on a subject and still others he appears to have been paid to write for the opposing viewpoint. While true, why would a man change his mind about the facts of a pirate's life?

  3. Personal Bias
    Furbanks and Owens also note that Moore had a huge vested interest in maintaining that A General History was written by Defoe despite the facts. They claim he was a proud man who would become very upset when this attribution was questioned. I personally don't much care for this line of reasoning and inclined not to weight it too heavily.

  4. An Accumulation of Defoean Style
    One of the things that made me change my mind about the authorship of A General History was the style question. Because Defoe was apt to copy styles, many of the biographers who chose to assigned published material to him attributed works that are markedly different in style than those that Defoe publicly claimed. To compound this error, when new biographers added new works to Defoe's canon, they often said (in essence), "While this style is not like Robinson Crusoe (or whatever) it is like the style of an other work attributed to Defoe, so it must also be him," even when the "other works" had never been rigidly proven to be by Defoe.

    In their book, they quote Rodney Brine on this point, "Not only did Mr. Moore fail to distinguish between what is peculiarly Defoean and what is merely conventional in contemporary narrative style and idiom; he also drew for his parallels upon works which have been since shown to works by others." (p. 108).

  5. Temporal Anomalies
    Perhaps the most damning evidence in my mind is that Moore was the first person to assign A General History to Defoe when none of the previous biographers had thought to do so. Moore first proposed this in Defoe in the Pillory and Other Studies in 1939, more than 200 years after the events took place!

In Sum

All in all, I am inclined to agree that Defoe did NOT write A General History, although I do not much care for some of Furbanks and Owens' methodology in this book.

Their worst crime, in my mind, is that after they put the fox among the hens, they don't follow through. They spend their whole book complaining about the History and accepted Defoe canon (the one by Moore), but don't provide us with a revised list. They only say that "our own estimate is that [the number of Works almost definitely by Defoe] might at most amount to some 150 of the over 570 works currently in the cannon." (p. 173) and "Our own, very incomplete investigation suggests that the number of works qualifying as [Works probably -but not definitely- by Defoe] might amount to over fifty, but would probably not be as many as a hundred." (p. 174)

This raises yet another problem I have often seen in academic research: the researcher doesn't really have to produce results. If they were doing this research for industry (which is, of course and unfortunately, absurd), they would have had to identify the problem (Defoe didn't write 570+ works), prove it (of which I believe they have done a reasonable job) and then offer a solution.

Instead of providing such a solution, Furbank and Owens cop out with, "...the production of a new Defoe bibliography would be a formidable undertaking, not to be entered upon lightly. Our only concern here has been to sketch out a possible structure which might enable the attribution issue to be dealt with adequately. It will be obvious that a host of other problems would have to be considered by those with the temerity to embark on such an undertaking." (p. 174) In other words, they don't seem to me to want to be bothered with (or aren't willing to risk) revealing their thoughts on the "true" canon. They'll tear things down, but won't rebuild them.

(However I have learned a great deal about attributing material to authors from reading this book. Who knew that Defoe was such a big question mark?)

Note: this material edited from a post by the author that originally appeared on the forums on August 29th, 2004.

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