Story Title: ‘The True and Genuine Account of The Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild’ [extract] by Daniel Defoe.
Source: The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism (Simon & Schuster)
Date Read: 9th August 2011
Afterthoughts: I said in my opening forethoughts for the anthology from which this extract comes from, that I would never have thought that literary nonfiction would have stemmed from the eighteenth-century, and the pen of Daniel Defoe. Yet reading this extract it’s clear that what Defoe has produced here is a piece of journalism that’s definitely rings true of the form, not least because it’s wholly unique, wholly original and wholly engaging (in a literary kind of way). Presented here is a portion of direct dialogue between a lady and the despicable criminal, Jonathan Wild. The lady has had an expensive watch stolen, and Wild, trying to be the cavalier ‘do-gooder’ assures the woman he knows the person who has taken it, and he can retrieve it for her. Of course, he’s really only after a little something for his trouble :). The remarkable thing, is how fully this verbal exchange between Wild and the woman is presented to the reader. Apparently Defoe gathered interviews from Wild and those who knew him at the time, and it would appear, given its comprehensiveness, that the details of this conversation were taken directly from Wild, or the lady herself, and presented to the reader verbatim.
And it doesn’t end there, the second half of this extract concerns the final days leading up to Wild’s execution where Defoe not only captures in fine literary style the man’s deteriorating condition (a condition made all the worse because Wild becomes somewhat addicted to liquid laudanum), but he also paints the mood of a baying public so comprehensively, that one can almost feel the tension in the air as one reads. It’s all quite remarkable really, and it leaves me wondering as to what kind of impact Defoe’s unique form of journalism had during the first half of the eighteenth-century. A great opener to the anthology, and one which has dispelled any impression I had that literary journalism was uniquely a product of the twentieth-century.
This work of literary nonfiction was read as part of an overall review of the The Art of Fact anthology of literary journalism. If you want to find out more about this anthology then I invite you to pop along to my forethoughts post for this title. I also encourage you to make a trip over to the publisher page for this title.