By John J. Miller
Tropical Storm Emily petered out over Cuba last week, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns of “high hurricane activity” in the months ahead, with three to five major hurricanes forming in the Atlantic Ocean and threatening coastlines. Next on the NOAA’s list of nicknames is Franklin, followed by Gert and Harvey. By December, we’ll know what became of them, as well as whether the storm-desk professionals made it all the way down their alphabetical list to Tammy, Vince and Whitney.
A little more than three centuries ago, a violent tempest with no name—and no meteorological forewarning—ripped through England. It was probably the fiercest storm in British history, which is saying something for an island whose inhabitants are famous for gripes about the weather. Yet it left more than a legacy of destruction. It also became a source of creative inspiration, giving birth to the first substantial work of modern journalism: “The Storm,” by Daniel Defoe.
On the morning of Wednesday, Nov. 24, 1703, Londoners felt the first strong breezes. By 4 p.m., the winds had picked up. The worst of the storm was still more than two days away, but that night the gusts were powerful enough to knock over part of a house and nearly crush Defoe, who was then a minor poet and pamphleteer in his early 40s. If he had died in that moment, he would not have gone on to scale the heights of English literature 16 years later with “Robinson Crusoe.”
When the storm struck, Defoe was fresh from prison. He had written a satirical tract on the religious intolerance of high-church Anglicans. For this offense he was fined, placed in a pillory and jailed for several months. Upon his release, Defoe was desperate for money to support his family and wrote at a frantic clip. The scholar Paula R. Bachscheider estimates that more than 400,000 words poured from his pen over the next year. About 75,000 of them went into “The Storm,” the first book-length work of his career.
After Defoe’s close call with the collapsing house, the winds remained high in London. On the night of Friday, Nov. 26, Defoe looked at his barometer. He had never seen the mercury so low and suspected that “the Tube had been handled and disturb’d by the Children.” Defoe rarely wrote about private matters, but in this line he provides a brief glimpse into what must have been a boisterous family life with six children.
As Friday turned into Saturday, the storm unleashed its full fury. The wind shrieked and homes rattled. “Most People expected the Fall of their Houses,” wrote Defoe. Even so, they judged it safer to stay put than to seek new shelter: “Whatever the Danger was within doors, ’twas worse without; the Bricks, Tiles, and Stones, from the Tops of the Houses, flew with such force, and so thick in the Streets, that no one thought fit to venture out, tho’ their Houses were near demolish’d within.” From start to finish, the mayhem lasted an entire week.
The human toll was substantial: 123 dead in and around London and an estimated 8,000 drowned at sea, including about one-fifth of the sailors in the queen’s navy. The physical wreckage was equally immense, with 800 houses flattened, 400 windmills demolished and the newly built Eddystone Lighthouse, off England’s southern coast, washed away. Whole forests blew over. On a tour of Kent, Defoe started to count the fallen trees but quit at 17,000, having grown “tired with the Number.” So it’s little wonder that he reached for superlatives to describe what he called “The Greatest, the Longest in Duration, the widest in Extent, of all the Tempests and Storms that History gives any Account of since the Beginning of Time.”
Defoe’s eyewitness account is valuable, but his real innovation was to collect the observations of others. Journalism was then in its infancy, and there was nothing like systematic and objective reporting on contemporary events. Within a week of the storm’s strike, however, Defoe was running newspaper ads that asked readers to submit stories. He and his publisher, John Nutt, must have regarded this invitation as an investment, knowing that they would absorb the cost of correspondence: In those days, the recipients of mail paid for postage.
While Defoe waited for the stories, he learned everything he could about the science of weather. He also contemplated metaphysical lessons: “I cannot believe any Man so rooted in Atheistical Opinions, as not…to apprehend the Possibility of a Supreme Being, when he felt the terrible Blasts of this Tempest.”
All of this appeared the following summer in “The Storm,” which might be called the world’s first instant book. The heart of the manuscript contains about 60 accounts of the tempest from around England, selected and excerpted by Defoe. He regarded them as truthful because “most of our Relators have not only given us their Names, and sign’d the Accounts they have sent, but have also given us Leave to hand their Names down to Posterity.” And so the name Elizabeth Luck survives along with her report from Tunbridge Wells, where hundreds of trees fell down, a church lost its steeple, and two horses perished beneath a smashed stable.
Like any good reporter, Defoe understood the importance of drama and human-interest stories. A letter from the Rev. James King of London tells of a chimney that crashed through a house and buried a maid. She was feared dead, but emerged the next morning from a small cavity in the rubble. Thomas Powell, a shopkeeper in Deal, was so appalled that his neighbors would not rescue sailors stranded on a sandbar that he paid them five shillings per head to help out. Defoe credits Powell’s initiative with saving 200 lives. Defoe also relates grimmer anecdotes, including the tale of the captain of a leaky ship who tried to escape his fate by committing suicide—only to have his vessel survive.
“The Storm” was not a best seller. A proposed sequel with additional material never went to press—a reminder that journalism and book publishing, for all of their occasional pretensions, are ultimately commercial enterprises and vulnerable to the whims of consumers. Yet Defoe had invented a new way to examine the world, and today’s journalists are his descendants.
Mr. Miller is director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College.
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