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Dec 9, 2014

Journalism & Essays (18th Century)


The essay (meaning, according to Montaigne, 'an attempt') originated as a repository of casual ideas on men and matters. To Montaigne it was more a means of thinking aloud, than a literary type. In England it was cultivated by Bacon and the humanists. But as literature became more formalized and academic in the latter half of the 17th century, its practice gradually passed out of fashion. Later, a combination of circumstances peculiar to England gave a group of humanists the "opportunity of creating it anew. Their work appeared in a detached, fragmentary form like the essays of Montaigne, Bacon or Cowley. But in method and scope it was an achievement of marked originality, and exercised a profound influence of the prose style, and indeed on the civilization of their epoch. In origin, the 18th century Addisonian essay had little in common with the Renaissance essay, but belongs to the history of the daily press. Since the beginning of the Civil War, England had been the home of diurnals and news-sheets. But, thanks to the Licensing Act of 1662, the 17th century produced no serious attempts at journalism. From the time of William's accession, news-sheets and Mercuries began to multiply. In 1690 John Dunton hit on the ingenious idea of publishing the Athenian Gazette,afterwards changed to the Athenian Mercury, a periodical to answer questions; in 1702 the Daily Courant began its long Career till 1735; and in 1704, Daniel Defoe started the publication of The Review.

As a pamphleteer Defoe showed great grasp of details and an intuitive foreknowledge of events that characterize great journalists and social writers. Towards the end of the 17th century he published An Essay Upon Projects, proposing various social and economic improvements in England, as well as displaying an insight into the manners and morals of his contemporaries-one of the chief qualifications of an essayist. In his writings Defoe kept harking upon politics and public controversy. Though Defoe's prose is vigorous, fluent and homely, he had not cultivated the subtle persuasiveness of style without which the public does not care to read about its own manners and mannerisms. The same is true of his Review. This remarkable venture into journalism is an admirable attempt to estimate the forces of international politics and to weigh the merits of commercial and ecclesiastical questions at home. But when he turned to the culture and conduct of his age, he created nothing great. The Review is by no means Defoe's only contribution to the progress of social journalism. Some ten years later he was to return to the investigation of city morals and manners, and was then to find highly developed organs of expression and a large appreciative public of readers.

Richard Steele was a playwright, tractarian and cavalry officer who plunged into journalism and produced a new literary type out of the Mercuries, reviews and gazettes. He was the first venturer to perceive that up till now political essays had been addressed to the wrong public. It was a time when the English monarchy had lost its hold on the nation. At the same time the growth of cdmmerce was giving importance to the middle class. It was an age of domesticity, and literature ceased to draw inspiration from the court. Such tendencies had created for themselves a publicity in the coffee-houses. Thanks to the Londoner's passion for club life, this new type of tavern had multiplied enormously since the Civil War. Every house had its distinctive members who respected each other's opinions and tolerated each other's eccentricities.

The man who opened the eyes of his fellow townsmen to the humours of middle class life was Richard Steele. Steele had the ordinary equipment of an educated man of the period, but contact with life on all its sides had developed in him an unfailing insight into artificiality and a generous admiration of worth. He could appreciate the trivial and serious sides of life in their correct proportion. It was not in his ideas that his genius displayed itself, it was in the way he expressed them. When the Tatter first appeared (April 12, 1709) it was conceived on much the same lines as any previous periodical.  A section was devoted to society news and theatrical criticism, another to poetry, another to literature and yet another to politics, each under the article of a coffee-house.

Ever since Tudor times London had been growing fast, and the constant migration to the capital had created a new need - the need of a standard of city manners of urbanity. Steele used the periodical to supply this want, and gradually evolved a new mouthpiece of public opinion. For a long time he confined himself to destructive criticism. He protested against the impertinences of the newly constructed middle-class society and satirized swindlers, bores, chatterboxes and coxcombs.  

Gradually, Steele's satire began to penetrate more deeply. He was the first English author to discover how far virtue and happiness depend on the intimate relationships of family life. His interest in domesticity led him inevitably to the problems of married life. Steele was one of the first English authors who wrote for women; he was also one of the first who put into prose the new ideal of feminine perfection. There are moments when he looked beyond the accomplishments of social life and caught glimpses of the morbid tendencies which the restraints of civilization sometimes aggravate. One can remember in this regard his studies of 'inferiority complex', megalomania and envy. As was to be expected of a humanist, Tatler discovered some of the purest gems of human nature hidden in obscure lives.

Joseph Addison was the presiding genius of the Spectator (March 1, 1711 to Dec 6, 1712). Steele had succeeded in discovering the range and scope of the periodical essay, but Addison realized its artistic possibilities. He knew that it should become a stylized type of literature, and he set himself to a single theme and to deal with familiar things. At the same time the essay must have the charm of novelty. Addison was fully aware of these problems. In the Spectator he excluded politics, religious controversy and pedantry, but he embraced every topic of literary, social or moral interest. He adapted and applied universal wisdom to shed light on questions of current interest, and he peopled his pages with types and characters to illustrate his pronouncements. Unlike the Tatler, he dwelt more insistently on the moral purpose of his paper; and each issue of the Spectator contained a single thought, every creation distinct from its neighbour, though all bearing a strong family likeness. But it is in the tone and attitude of theSpectator that its originality and merit will be found. If it staged the familiar scenes of city life, it showed them the scenes from the viewpoint of a humanist. The new periodical shut its eyes to all distinctions accept that of vice and virtue, and employed no criterion but that of common sense.
The Spectator purported to be conducted by a small club, including Sir Roger de Coverley, who represents the country gentry, Sir Andrew Freeport, Captain Sentry, and Will Honeycomb, representing respectively commerce, the army and the town. Mr. Spectator himself, who writes the papers, is a man of travel and learning, who frequents London as an observer, but keeps clear of political strife. The obpct of the papers was 'to enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality'.
Addison taught his age restraint, good manners, good sense, forbearance and mutual esteem. He pointed out that drama was decaying under the influence of French scenery and stage effects. He recalled literary men to the spirit and simplicity of old ballads, and social thinkers to the rising importance of commerce. He encouraged self-culture by contending that English readers could find in Paradise Lost as high a standard of excellence as was consecrated by the Iliad and the Aeneid.
 Addison's Satire
Unlike Dryden, Pope and the Tatler in its earlier numbers, Addison never satirized persons, but ridiculed customs and prejudices. His method was to collect as many examples as possible of some prevailing absurdity, gravely crowd them all into one illustration and then leave the reader to laugh at the incongruous result. In this way he ridiculed the staging of the opera, headdresses which make the wearers hideous, men who fill their letters with French military terms, and a number of other issues. Never has more wit and accurate knowledge with less venom been employed on the censure of folly.
Addison and Steele: a comparison
Steele did not have Addison's gift of drawing a moral, or his scholarly knowledge of current topics, or] his polished style. But Steele had the playwright's eye for situations and for the interplay of characters. He had by nature a surer gift of reading the human heart, and by experience a keener insight into city life. Steele went deeper when he discussed education and insisted that the true place where young people are made or marred is home. He gave the middle class their standard of good manners and warned them of the darker vices of city life.

Both Tatler and Spectator provoked many rivals and enemies. Some of them wereFemale Tatler, The Inquisitor, Free Thinker, Plain Dealer, Medley and Rambler (the last by Dr.Johnson).

Of the papers that were most influenced by the new journalism, the most important was The Examiner. Swift found that he had much in common with both Addison and Steele, and with something of their spirit but with more power he attacked imposters in the person of John Partridge. His immortal pamphlet Predictions for the year 1708,made famous the name of Issac Bickerstaff, which Steele was glad to adopt in theTatler, as a symbol of good sense and sincerity. Swift made several suggestions for theTatler, and contributed at least 5 papers; but soon his mood became too saturnine (gloomy) and savage for the witty and humane creation of his two friends. Swift's almost inhuman indictment of life could find expression only in books and pamphlets which compromise nobody but the author. 20th century criticism has stressed Swift's sanity, vigour and satirical inventiveness rather than his alleged misanthropy.


After the Spectator ceased publication, both Addison and Steele busied themselves with the stage, but neither could throw off the habit of social journalism. In 1713 Steele brought out The Guardian to deal with society, and detail the privacies of life and character. Later Addison joined in. The Chief interest of the Guardian will be found in the renewed interest it created in the art of essay writing. But very few contributors survived the tide of time for the reason that they were put off by the apparent informality of the work. An art which sets the writer off into self-revelation requires from him a certain temperament. Because it enters so many houses and coffee-houses so frequently, it must have something common to all its readers. It must be tolerant, universal, reactionary, free from anything sectarian, polemic, controversial. Hence some of the talents which produced brilliant pamphlets spelt sheer disqualification for essay-writing. Pope, for instance, contributed to the Guardian-his subtle wit and graceful colloquial style is undeniable, but his thoughts were charged with too much venom. Of the other contributors, George Berkeley is perhaps most significant.

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