Param Ajmera Book Report #1 – Daniel Defoe’s “Colonel Jack” (1722)

My pet book for this course is Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel Colonel Jack.[1] I have decided to work with this book because I am writing my Master’s thesis on Defoe’s fiction, and because the Boston Public Library’s Rare Books Division has a rich collection of Defoe’s work, including many editions and translations of this particular text. Since I am already deeply engaging with Colonel Jack in the context of early realism’s imbrication in liberalism, racism, and colonialism as part of my thesis work, I am using this course to study the material history, circulation, production, and reception of Colonel Jack.

When I visited the BPL on Tuesday the 13th of September to see the first edition of Colonel Jack, I was surprised by four characteristics of this text, which I suspect outs me as a neophyte practitioner of book history. Firstly, I was surprised by the weight and heft of this book. As the photos below underscore, this book was bound in leather and contains over 400 thick and durable pages, all of which contributes directly to the book’s weightiness and volume. In direct contrast to the 2016 Broadview scholarly edition of Colonel Jack, which is soft covered and consists of really thin paper that easily tears and smudges ink, the first edition of Colonel Jack, is built to last and sit proudly on a library shelf in perpetuity.





The second aspect that surprised me is that there are at least two “first” editions of Colonel Jack. There is a “cheap” version, whose photos are attached above, and there is an “expensive” version, whose photos I have attached below. This “expensive” version features an elaborately designed binding with gold tooling, gilded pages, as well as velvet lined inside covers. Interestingly, while the last line of the title page of the “cheap” version contains the price of the book (six shillings), the title page of the “expensive” version does not list this price. The absence of this price tag signifies in a number of possible ways — maybe an owner of this text consciously erased the price tag to hide cost of purchasing this book; maybe the price tag was never printed on the expensive copy, which allowed booksellers to hawk this book at different prices to different customers; maybe this is actually a pirated copy, which often comes with typographic differences, that someone has re-tooled to look like a fancy, expensive book. At this early stage I can only speculate on what this absence of the price tag might allude towards.






Thirdly, I was shocked to read that the title page of both versions of the first edition lists the date of publication as 1723. In all my prior scholarship on Colonel Jack, I have always seen its publication date being referred to as 1722. Addressing this strange contradiction, Geoffrey Sill and Gabriel Cervantes cite a number of newspaper advertisements from mid to late December 1722 that indicates that Colonel Jack was, in fact, published in 1722 (51). I believe that printing the wrong date was a strategic decision on the part of the publishers, booksellers, and, perhaps, Defoe himself, to perpetuate the impression that this is a “new” book and attract readers who might be looking for the current bestseller.


Lastly, I found the numerous marks of ownership in both texts to be quite revealing as well. Both texts contain a sticker from the Boston Public Library, indicating that they belong to the “William P. Trent Collection [of] Works Relating to Daniel Defoe and His Time.” Both texts also contain a sticker that reads “Ex Bibliotheca Tridentina,” whose significance I still haven’t figured out, despite no small amount of googling. Both books also contain a number of markings in pencil in their first or last pages that indicates when these books were ingested in the BPL, and how their purchase was financed. The “cheap” version also contains a signature in its title page next to the place of publication, which I find quite inscrutable. The “expensive” version of Colonel Jack contains a sticker for one “William James,” which also contains his family crest.






As I consider future directions that I want to take my analysis of Colonel Jack’s book history, I am drawn to D. F. McKenzie’s exhortation, “any history of the book — subject as books are to typographic and material change — must be a history of misreadings. This is not so strange as it might sound. Every society rewrites its past, every reader rewrites its texts, and, if they have any continuing life at all, at some point every printer redesigns them” (25). Persistent change, not only in the material construction of Colonel Jack, but also in its reception and interpretation, has become the guiding axis of my analysis. With differences in every edition of this text, this book’s “sociology” as McKenzie defines it, can allow scholars of the eighteenth century novel to construct arguments of history, of literature, of technology, of readerships; all of which are foregrounded by the genealogy of “misreadings” that have given us interpretations of Colonel Jack that continue shape our understanding of this remarkable text. It is my intention to add my “misreadings” to this motley tradition and, hopefully, make a few worthwhile critical interventions in the process.



[1] The full title of this novel is “The History and Remarkable Life of the Truly Honorable Col. Jacque, commonly call’d Col. Jack, who was born a Gentleman, and then Kidnapp’d to Virginia. Came back a Merchant, married Four Wives, and Five of them prov’d Whores; went into the Wars, behav’d bravely, got Preferment, was made of Colonel of a Regiment, came over, and fled with the Chevalier, and is now Abroad Compleating a Life of Wonders, and Resolves to Dye a General.”

Works Cited

Cervantes, Gabriel, and Geoffrey Sill. “A Note on the Text.” Colonel Jack. Broadview Press, 2016.

McKenzie, Donald Francis. Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts. Cambridge University Press, 1999.


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