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Joseph Addison (1672-1719) and Richard Steele (1672-1729).

These two men are usually discussed together because, although each one wrote independently, their most influential products were the two series of periodical essays that they produced jointly. They were born the same year and attended the same schools, Charterhouse and then Oxford. Both were Whigs in politics, but while Addison traveled in Europe and prepared himself for a diplomatic career, Steele went into the army. Both men later held government positions, though Addison's positions were much more influential. Both were members of the Whig club of wits, the Kit-Cat Club. Finally, they both wrote plays. Addison's tragedy Cato (1713) glorified an ideal hero of patriotism. The play was received more as a political statement than as a literary work. Steele's sentimental comedy The Conscious Lovers (1722) is a prime example of the type of weeping comedy that appealed to the sympathy rather than the wit of the early eighteenth-century audience. However, as essayists, both Addison and Steele set a standard for wit and polish that endured for a century.

The New Mass Audience

Although educated gentlemen, Addison and Steele were interested in speaking to the new mass audience, the modern readers who were literate in English but who did not read the ancient languages or have the education that would enable them to recognize an allusion to Homer's Iliad or Virgil's Aeneid unless it were pointed out to them. Such readers needed guidance; they did not know what was well written, but they were eager to learn and grateful for the simple advice that the essayists were about to give them in gently mocking tones. These middle-class readers liked to feel a part of the mainstream of culture and to be reassured that with some moderate efforts they could learn to enjoy the best that life offered. They read The Tatler and The Spectator avidly, passed copies around among friends and family, and sent copies to their cousins in the country.


In 1709 Steele started a thrice-weekly periodical called The Tatler (one who tattles or tells) under the pseudonym of Issac Bickerstaffe, a name previously used by Swift in a series of pamphlets mocking astrology. Steele's purpose was to reform manners, both in public and in domestic life. He set up framework based on supposed "news" dispatches from various fashionable public places around London. From these locations he reported social observations about dress, the theater, drunkenness, and encounters in coffee houses and in the streets. He mocked scolding wives and pompous men. The tone of Steele's social criticism was blandly ironic rather than severe. After some weeks, Addison began to send some contributions from Ireland. They were also published under Bickerstaffe's name. Addison too aimed to improve the reader. The Tatler lasted until January 1711, when Steele gave it up. The anonymity of his authorship had been penetrated, and he felt that he could not effectively correct his readers' behavior once they knew who he was.


In March of 1711 Addison began a new periodical, a daily essay entitled The Spectator. This had the same general purpose as The Tatler but a somewhat different emphasis. This time the framework fiction was a club of men who represented various types and classes from English society: Sir Roger de Coverley, an old Tory squire who recalled the rakish days of the Restoration; Sir Andrew Freeport, a new man of commerce; Will Honeycomb, a middle-aged would-be ladies' man, and others. The activities and opinions of these characters broadened The Spectator's range of topics, but increasingly Addison set aside the fiction of the club and took up more ambitious projects to improve literary tastes. By writing several series of essays that extended over several issues he was able to develop a single topic in more depth. For example, one of these series concerned an appreciation of Milton's Paradise Lost; another, The Pleasures of the Imagination, was an influential discussion of aesthetic theory. Richard Steele also contributed essays to The Spectator, but Addison's interests dominated. Addison's easy yet polished prose style became a model for English writers. The Spectator lasted until the end of 1712 and had a brief revival in 1714. Both The Tatler and The Spectator were later reprinted in bound volumes and continued to be read and imitated for many decades.

The first half of the eighteenth century, sometimes called the Age of Reason, is often of as essentially an age of prose. Such a name, however, ignores the poetic achievements of Pope and Swift and implies that literature of wit and irony is less valuable than literature of emotion. The satirists of this era saw clearly that emotion is a strong force in human nature; they did not ignore feeling but showed the dangers of following the promptings of feeling without the restraints of reason or judgment. They sought a balance between passion and reason and demonstrated how difficult this balance is to achieve or to maintain. Their favorite mode--irony--was useful in its capacity to say two things at once--to balance the overt statement against the implied meaning. Parallels and contrast structure the poetry and prose of this age as the writers sought to define the difficult and unstable middle way, which to them always appeared to be the best way.
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Author:McCoy, Kathleen; Harlan, Judith A.V.
Publication:English Literature to 1785
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1992
Previous Article:Alexander Pope (1688-1744).
Next Article:Eighteenth-century (1700 to 1785): Swift, Gay, Pope, Addison and Steele.

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