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If Defoe had never written a novel, students of early 18th-century England would still be profiting from his activities as journalist, political pamphleteer and agent, chronicler of commerce, family counselor, and armchair sex adviser. With no sense of strain or gimmickry, Peter Earle composes a popular social history of the epoch from the writings of this tireless genius and hack. For Defoe, the wonderful process that transforms raw material into goods and jobs is the great reality cementing all political and geographical givens. Looking more closely, Earle (London School of Economics) shows us a strange, appealing mixture of insights and prejudices. Defoe can go just so far and no further in welcoming the shifting dynamics of employment. For example, he sees that complex chains of manufacture and distribution increase total employment, but cannot visualize labor-saving machinery as anything but a threat. His hymns to the economic benefits of increased consumption sit oddly with his remonstrances against vice and excess, and his mania for socioeconomic self-improvement clashes with any idea of humble Christian self-denial. Of course it is just such paradoxes which most clearly illuminate the age's sense of itself. Investment patterns, the state of the wool trade, the Dutch alliance, the liquor industry, mortality statistics--there is nothing that Defoe does not comb in search of formulas for the greater good of Englishmen. Earle has organized this huge grab-bag of material with determination rather than finesse. The sections on intellectual currents and dwindling religious belief tend toward the thinnest exposition; those on the last stages of mercantilism represent the most clearly developed arguments. A brisk, eclectic, enormously attractive study.

Pub Date: Feb. 17th, 1977
Publisher: Atheneum