Literary Daybook, May 22

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published May 22, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On May 22, Rathbone makes his debut as a stage hypnotist.
-- "Sugar + Rum" (1988)
by Barry Unsworth

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

- - - - - - - - - - -

Today in Literary History
On this day in 1703, Daniel Defoe was arrested for writing his satirical pamphlet "The Shortest Way With Dissenters." Defoe was neither Church of England nor Catholic, but a Protestant "Nonconformist" or "Dissenter." "The Shortest Way With Dissenters" was supposed to be funny, a satire of the overzealous Anglican Tories currently in power. They had recently passed the Occasional Conformity Bill requiring everyone in political office or on the public payroll to practice Anglican worship. Defoe's anonymously written pamphlet suggested that enforcing the bill was a needless waste of time; wouldn't the shortest way with Dissenters be to execute them, and be done with it?

"'Tis vain to trifle in this matter! The light, foolish handling of them by mulcts, fines, etc., 'tis their glory and advantage! If the gallows instead of the Counter, and the galleys instead of the fine were the reward of going to [their places of worship], there would not be so many sufferers! The spirit of martyrdom is over!"

Defoe soon found out that he had broken the cardinal rule for satire: He hadn't gone far enough. Many radical Anglicans, assuming that one of them had written the pamphlet, thought it a pretty good argument, and spoke out in favor of execution. Many Dissenters already holding political office were so alarmed, and so eager to hold on to their power as well as their heads, that they readily conformed to the bill, going very publicly to Anglican Chapel in the morning, and then very privately to Dissenter worship in the afternoon -- a practice that Defoe called "playing Bo-Peep with God Almighty."

When everyone realized they had been duped, and by Defoe, he was thrown into Newgate for "seditious libel" and eventually sentenced to three days in the pillory. As a hostile crowd had savagely stoned another pamphleteer a few weeks earlier, this was no bargain. Out of defiance or strategy, Defoe hurriedly composed "Hymn To The Pillory," a vicious satire of those who had sent him there. It was smuggled out of Newgate and printed in time to be hawked to the crowd during his three-day ordeal. The London mob so enjoyed the poem, and so admired the man who had dared to cheek the high and mighty, that they drank Defoe's health, and decked his pillory with flowers.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Richard Blumenthal