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“Books Frighted Them Terribly”: The Perils of Propagating Fear and the Ethics of Writing about Disease in Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year

Jonathan Taylor
Published: 1 January 2021

Abstract: This article challenges the view that Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) exploited or augmented the plague’s horrors. It demonstrates that Defoe denounced writers who sensationalized plague and explores his use of A Journal to debunk terrifying accounts of the disease published during the Plague of Marseille (1720–22). Section one explores how Defoe’s opposition to inciting fear was shaped by medical beliefs that fear increased susceptibility to disease and his observations about fear’s socioeconomic repercussions. Section two examines his conviction that “Books frighted [people] terribly” and A Journal’s attempts to discredit macabre images and tales circulated in contemporary plague writing. The conclusion addresses the relevance of Defoe’s observations in the context of modern anxiety about pandemic disease, the resonance of his conclusions with recent scholarship on the media’s augmentation of panic prior to pandemics, and the ethical questions A Journal poses for those writing about infectious diseases.
Keywords: Defoe / fear / augmented / writing / Journal / Plague / pandemic / Books / terribly / Ethics

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