Joseph Addison’s major reputation as a moralist, stylist, and critic in the 18th and 19th centuries was based primarily on his essays for the Spectator (1711–12), a daily periodical he edited in conjunction with Richard Steele. After a short intermission the journal was revived in 1714 under Addison’s control. The Spectator was a development from Steele’s Tatler (1709–11) and led on to the Guardian (1713), both of which Addison wrote for. It was considered exemplary in both style and morality by 18thcentury critics such as Samuel Johnson and Hugh Blair. In the 19th century Thomas Babington Macaulay (in “Life and Writings of Addison,” 1843) was to praise Addison’s cumulative essays for the journal as “perhaps the finest…both serious and playful, in the English language.” There were many imitations, notably Johnson’s Idler (1758–60) and Rambler (1750–52), John Hawkesworth’s Adventurer (1752–54), and Robert Dodsley and Edward Moore’s World (1753–56), as well as continental Spectators in French, German, Italian, and other languages.
Addison was not a professional journalist and his venture into essay writing was in some respects “time out” from the more serious aspects of his career. He had begun as an academic, spending 12, years at Oxford, where he became a Fellow of Magdalen College.
He had then entered the service of the Whig party, achieving high office as secretary to the Earl of Wharton, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. It was his loss of office with the fall of the Whigs in 1710 that provided him with the leisure for sustained periodical journalism, which he quit on resuming his political career after the death of Queen Anne. His last venture into essay writing was with the Freeholder (1715–16), the title of which is indicative of the Whig association of political freedom with men of independent property.
It is Addison’s immersion both in the world of academic learning and in the work of the politicized civil service which gives particular experiential weight to his essays. But, although written at a time of bitter partisan controversy in politics and religion, the essays endeavor to be nonpartisan in expression. Their success, in this respect, is indicative of Addison’s major historical role in establishing the parameters and discourse of a generally acceptable “polite” culture in the 18th century.
That polite culture was centered upon “the club,” both in the real world (where Addison was a member of a Whig literary group, the Kit-Cats) and in the fictional world of “Mr. Spectator.” As the first numbers of the Spectator indicate, it purports to be the record of a small club of representative gentlemen, including Sir Roger de Coverley (an old-fashioned country squire), Sir Andrew Freeport (a man representative of the trading interest), Captain Sentry (the military), Will Honeycomb (a man about town and a wit), and “a clergyman, a very philosophic man, of general learning, great sanctity of life, and the most exact breeding.” The Saturday Spectators are a form of lay sermon by Addison (earning him the sobriquet “parson in a tie-wig”), and major influences in the promulgation of Anglican rationalism. Mr. Spectator himself claimed to write the papers of the club and is a peculiarly neutral figure, being a man of learning who has traveled widely, frequents London as an observer, but keeps free from political and religious strife.
The creation of a club of characters was an important element in providing variety in the journal and establishing the modes of discourse which united a wide-ranging body of contributors. Individual columnists were invited to assume an appropriate persona, with that of the Addisonian Spectator as normative. This was a new mode of organization of the journal as miscellany, as represented by the earlier Tatler and the subsequent Guardian. It has its roots in Horace’s satires and epistles (rather than in the formal model of the Senecan philosophical essay) and in the Socratic and Ciceronian symposium.
Diverse points of view are put in friendly exchange. The Horatian statement nullius addictus iurare in verba magistri (it is not my habit to swear by the words of any master) had been recently adopted as the motto for the Royal Society, and this skeptical empiricism (rather than dogmatic enthusiasm) was the sign of polite society. To the classical examples should be added Montaigne’s equally skeptical essays and those of the weary, worldly-wise Epicurean, Sir William Temple.
These formal models carry an ideological implication. Even in summary it is apparent that this is a masculine society and the readership was being shaped from male norms.
Within the club itself certain members are privileged over others. Sir Andrew Freeport represents all that is best in developing commercial society, whereas Sir Roger, although a delightful comic eccentric, signifies an out-of-date, small-world squirearchy (and thus votes Tory). In morality, the clergyman is normative, whereas Will Honeycomb carries with him certain aspects of “Restoration” society whose libertinage had been corrected or purged by societies for the reformation of manners. Likewise, in matters of taste, a correct canon of literature is representative of proper thinking. Addison was a major influence in establishing Paradise Lost as an English classic (Milton being purged of his republican and regicide views expressed elsewhere).
The enormous success of Addison in shaping polite society seems to have been achieved by his ability to present his substantial learning in an accessible manner and to clarify complex arguments. This is done with good-humored wit, in an easy tone, and always from a moral viewpoint. He claimed, “I have brought Philosophy out of Closets and Libraries, Schools and Colleges, to dwell in Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-Tables, and in Coffee-Houses” (Spectator no. 10). He is thus a popularizer who found (and made) a public eager to learn but alienated by pedantry, obscurity, and vicious partisan controversy.
Certain groups of essays provide (in easy “sound-bites,” as it were) both the most accessible, and the most advanced, treatment of current topics. In literature the series on “The Pleasures of the Imagination” (nos. 411–21) constitutes an important source for the development of Romantic theory and sensibility emerging from Lockean psychology, establishing key terms such as “fancy” and “beauty” (as well as “imagination” itself) and distinguishing between primary natural sources and those to be found in literature.
Addison’s social agenda is always prominent: “A Man of a Polite Imagination is let into a great many Pleasures, that the Vulgar are not capable of receiving. He can converse with a Picture, and find an agreeable Companion in a Statue. He meets with a secret Refreshment in a Description, and often feels a greater Satisfaction in the Prospect of Fields and Meadows, than another does in the Possession” (no. 411).
The religious agenda is implicit in setting the long series of essays on Paradise Lost on Saturdays, the lay-sermon days (nos. 267–369), but the emphasis here is on the pleasure of a great Christian poem, amply represented by quotation and easily placed within the classical tradition: “I have therefore bestowed a Paper upon each Book, and endeavoured not only to prove that the Poem is beautiful in general, but to point out its particular Beauties, and to determine wherein they consist. I have endeavoured to show how some Passages are beautiful by being Sublime, others, by being Soft, others, by being Natural; which of them are recommended by the Passion, which by the Moral, which by the Sentiment, and which by the Expression” (no. 369).
But for many readers it has been Addison’s and Steele’s Sir Roger de Coverley who runs away with the text. In this respect he is a median figure between Shakespeare’s Falstaff (who destabilizes the ideology of the History plays) and characters in the sentimental novel like Laurence Sterne’s Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy. His objection to anyone sleeping in church except himself (no. 112), his remedy for love in fox hunting (no. 115), or the account of his death by his servant, Edward Biscuit (no. 517), show both how much the essay here owes to drama, and how much it is involved with the development of the heteroglossia of the novel. Thus, Biscuit: “Upon his coming home, the first Complaint he made was, that he had lost his Roast-Beef Stomach, not being able to touch a Sirloin, which was served up according to Custom: and you know how he used to take great Delight in it. From that Time forward he grew worse and worse, but still kept a good Heart to the last.”
Equally important for the development of the novel is Addison’s critical banter on gender relations. “The Moral World, as consisting of Males and Females, is of a Mixt Nature, and filled with several Customs, Fashion and Ceremonies, which would have no place in it were there but One Sex. Had our Species no Females in it, Men would be quite different Creatures from what they are at present; their Endeavours to please the Opposite Sex, polishes and refines them out of those Manners which are most Natural to them…” (no. 433). This is a constant motif, but the account of Amazons and hermaphrodites which follows may now have acquired an unforeseen comedy.
Paradoxically it is in the area in which his essays were particularly effective—the education of “the fair sex”—that Addison’s writing may have acquired a provocative edge which originally it eschewed.
Born 1 May 1672 in Milston, Wiltshire. Studied at Charterhouse, London, where he met Richard Steele, 1686–87; Queen’s College, Oxford, 1687–89; Magdalen College, Oxford, 1689–93, M.A., 1693. Fellow, Magdalen College, 1698–1711. Received a government pension, 1699, and traveled on the continent, 1699–1704. Moved to London, 1704;
became a member of the Kit-Cat Club; served the Whig party, holding various appointed positions, 1704–10, including secretary to Lord Wharton, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, 1709–10; Member of Parliament for Lostwithiel, 1708–10, and Malmesbury, 1710–19.
Contributor to Richard Steele’s Tatler, 1709–11, and the Guardian, 1713; editor of the Whig Examiner, 1710, the Spectator, with Steele, 1711–12, and alone, 1714, and the Freeholder, 1715–16. Secretary to the Earl of Sunderland, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, 1714–15; appointed commissioner for trade and the colonies, 1715. Married Charlotte, Dowager Countess of Warwick, 1716: one daughter. Secretary of state in the Sunderland cabinet, 1717–18.
Died in London (as a result of a degenerative heart condition and dropsy), 17 June 1719.
Essays and Related Prose
The Tatler (periodical), edited by Richard Steele, nos. 1–271,12 April 1709–2 January
1711; edited by Donald F.Bond, 3 vols., 1987
The Spectator (periodical), written and edited with Richard Steele, nos. 1–555, 1 March
1711–6 December 1712; second series (written and edited by Addison alone), nos. 556–635, 18 June–20 December 1714; edited by Gregory Smith (Everyman Edition), 4 vols., 1907, reprinted 1979, and by Donald F.Bond (Clarendon Edition), 5 vols., 1965;
selection, as Critical Essays from “The Spectator”, edited by Bond, 1970
The Guardian (periodical), with others, nos. 1–175, 12 March–1 October 1713; edited by John Calhoun Stephens, 1982
The Free-Holder; or, Political Essays, nos. 1–55, 23 December 1715–29 June 1716; as The Freeholder, edited by James Leheny, 1979
Selections from the Tatler and the Spectator, edited by Angus Ross, 1982
Other writings: poetry, three plays (including the tragedy Cato, 1713), travel writing (Retmarks on Italy, 1705), and correspondence (collected in The Letters of Joseph Addison, edited by Walter Graham, 1941).
Collected works edition: The Works of the Right Honourable Joseph Addison, edited by Thomas Tickell, 4 vols., 1721, revised edition, 6 vols., 1811.
Rogal, Samuel J., “Joseph Addison (1672–1719): A Check List of Works and Major Scholarship,” Bulletin of the New York Public Library (Winter 1974): 236–50
Bloom, Edward A., and Lillian D.Bloom, Addison’s Sociable Animal: In the Market Place, on the Hustings, in the Pulpit, Providence, Rhode Island: Brown University Press, 1971
Bloom, Edward A., and Lillian D.Bloom, editors, Addison and Steele: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge, 1980
Bloom, Edward A., Lillian D.Bloom, and Edmund Leites, editors, Educating the Audience: Addison, Steele, and Eighteenth-Century Culture, Los Angeles: University of California William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1984
Elioseff, Lee A., The Cultural Milieu of Addison’s Literary Criticism, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1963
Humphreys, A.R., Steele, Addison, and Their Periodical Essays, London: Longman Green, 1959
Ketcham, Michael G., Transparent Designs: Reading, Performance, and Form in the Spectator Papers, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985
Nablow, Ralph A., The Addisonian Tradition in France: Passion and Objectivity and Social Observation, Rutherford, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990
Rau, Fritz, Zur Verbreitung und Nachahmung des Tatler und Spectator, Heidelberg: Winter, 1980
Smithers, Peter, The Life of Addison, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968 (original edition, 1954)
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