The Periodical Essay– The Rise of Journalism, Addison and Steele

Journalism had burgeoned by leaps and bounds at the close of the 17th century. The deluge of newspapers offered political views, surveyed social gossip and discussed current topics. The eminent newspapers included The Postman, The Postboy, The Supplement, The English Post and so on. Ergo, the Periodical Essays emerged during the early part of the 18th century. Typically one or two pages in length, these essays appeared in cost-effective publications twice or thrice a week. They were called ‘periodical’ due to their publication in journals and magazines and not in book form.

The two major periodicals were The Tatler and The Spectator, and their major contributors were Richard Steele and Addison. Richard Steele, an ingenious mind inspired by Defoe’s The Review, founded The Tatler in 1709. The Tatler was an overarching publication containing accounts of gallantry, entertainment, poetry, foreign and domestic news. As a social humourist during the reign of Queen Anne, Steele treats the very streets and drawing rooms of Old London. He documents not only the political and literary disputes but also the beaux and belles, prevalent characters, social mannerisms, the new books and new plays. The Tatler, published thrice weekly, was initially run by Steele alone under the pseudonym ‘Mr Bickerstaff'(borrowed from Swift). By 1711, he had contributed one hundred and seventy papers to The Tatler. Later, he became a coadjutor of The Spectator along with Addison in 1711. As opposed to The Tatler’s crude machinery of coffee houses, The Spectator, along with characters absorbed from the various strata of society (like Sir Roger, Sir Andrew, Will Honeycomb) offered a kind of unity.

Addison is said to have possessed the ability to ridicule without besmirching. He contributed several articles to The Tatler and later earmarked the incipience of The Spectator. He was a social critic and a judicious reformer, and wanted to transmute the desperate vice of that age towards recovery. His conviction is reflected in the entrails of his works, like Gothic cathedrals that bear the stamp of the architect’s individuality. Addison attempted to reconcile the hostility between the Court and Puritans, and treated the excesses and antagonism of both with humour. To this relief, he excellently illustrates Sir Roger, who is made to moralize the party spirit. He presented papers “On Devotion”, “On Prayer”, “On Faith” and so on, to inculcate in the privileged that true religion is not at loggerheads with good breeding; for the trading classes where Puritanism was ubiquitous, he wrote three essays on cheerfulness to invigorate them from a state of gloom.

Addison pro-actively used his apparatus of literature to correct the shallow license of Restoration manners. He noted the absurdity and hypocrisy of the party system and calibrated himself to a position of “exact neutrality between the Whigs and the Tories”.  Addison unmasked the trifles and fatuities of the fashionable belles. He claimed that “the right enjoyment of their hair” was their principal concern. Wifely extravagances were reprimanded, giggling damsels in the church were reproved, and feminine violence in party politics was ridiculed. Addison’s didactic social criticism in The Spectator is the mainstay of the modern social novel. He was a genial humorist, and his humour is humane, serene and impartial, reflecting the nobility of his temperament; the great satirist looked on the feeling of benevolence tinctured with contempt. He had a unique sense of the ludicrous as exhibited in Sir Roger De Coverly and Will Honeycomb. Macaulay writes of Addison as one who has “blackened no man’s character”.

Addison almost created and wholly perfected English prose as an instrument for the expression of social thought. Rickett talks about Addison’s ‘general intimacy’ with the reader. Addison’s prose is lucid and his rhythm perfect. His style is not abstruse or unmelodious as per Dr. Johnson. Furthermore, he uses metaphors to impart clarity.

Rickett sees Steele and Addison as co-crafters, each of whom could give what the other lacked. Steele was a passionate man of romantic mindset, whose novelty was inventive. Addison, a finished writer, was correct, scholarly and subtly humorous. He is more dignified, classical and as per several critics, superior to Steele. The Spectator is regarded as the forerunner of the novel. Addison and Steele brought about a sense of characterization in the simplicity of Sir Roger and Will Honeycomb, and the publication put forth a vivid picture of contemporary society. According to Raleigh, the great novelist should primarily be a humorist and by this extension, The Spectator is suffused with generous humour. The Periodical Essays that attempted to polish the manners of society were called Social Essays. About them, Hazlitt opines –

“It makes us familiar with the world of men and women, records their actions, assigns their motives, exhibits their whims, characterizes their pursuits in all their singular and endless variety, ridicules their absurdities, exposes their inconsistencies, holds a mirror upto nature.”

Picture Courtesy- The British Library

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