In a general sense, the term “periodical essays” may be applied to any grouping of essays that appear serially. Charles Dickens once referred to himself as a “periodical essayist,” and various 20th-century columnists whose syndicated work appears with some frequency might be given this designation. The term “periodical essay” appears to have been first used by George Colman the Elder and Bonnell Thornton in their magazine the Connoisseur (1754–56). By the time it occurred to them to use these two words to describe the form of publication in which they were engaged, serial essays which shared a number of characteristics with the Connoisseur had been published (in England especially) for half a century. So numerous were these serials, so persistent a feature of the reading diet of people throughout English society during nearly the entire century, and so natural did it seem to an 18th-century author to develop a periodical essay series or at least to contribute a paper or two to a series established by another writer, that any discussion of the periodical essay is most appropriately situated in this period.
The confluence of three separate cultural developments appears to have caused the emergence of the periodical essay form early in the 18th century. The first of these was the rise of publications that conveyed news, commentary, and (frequently) political propaganda to the general reading public. Governmental licensing controls over publishing had been allowed to lapse in the latter years of the 17th century, and by the end of the first decade of the 18th a variety of publications, most appearing weekly or two to three times per week, were serving a wide reading audience. Daniel Defoe estimated the total national weekly circulation of such periodicals at 200,000 in 1711, and the sharing of papers at coffeehouses and within families doubtless created a larger audience even then. The second development was the rise of the informal essay at the same time, undoubtedly influenced by the writings of Montaigne as well as by the recognition that particular kinds of prose style might be more appropriate to some discourses than to others. Ephraim Chambers’ entry on the essay in his Cyclopaedia (1728) refers to “sudden, occasional Reflexions, which are to be wrote much at the Rate, and in the Manner a Man thinks…” A third factor contributing to the popularity of this form was the 18th-century fondness for pseudonymous writing—the adoption of fictitious personae appropriate to the expression of particular views. Jonathan Swift and Richard Steele are only two of the most visible practitioners of this technique; it is also to be found employed with similar energy by hundreds of other writers.
The formal properties of the periodical essay were largely defined through the practice of Joseph Addison and Steele in their two most widely read series, the Tatler (1709–11) and the Spectator (1711–12, 1714). Many characteristics of these two papers—the fictitious nominal proprietor, the group of fictitious contributors who offer advice and observations from their special viewpoints, the miscellaneous and constantly changing fields of discourse, the use of exemplary character sketches, letters to the editor from fictitious correspondents, and various other typical features—existed before Addison and Steele set to work, but these two wrote with such effectiveness and cultivated such attention in their readers that the Tatler and Spectator served as the models for periodical writing in the next seven or eight decades. Unlike their contemporary Defoe, whose Review of the Affairs of France (1704–13) moved to more general cultural topics from a
central engagement with political issues, Addison and Steele devoted themselves to matters of style, fashion, behavior, opinion, and manners characteristic of middle-class life; it was this rapidly growing and prospering audience that established so solid a readership for periodical essays in several successive generations.
A listing of the most successful and influential 18th-century periodical essays would be a very long one. When the popularity of the form was at its height in the middle and later years of the century, the leading series included: Henry Fielding’s Covent Garden Journal (1752); Samuel Johnson’s Rambler (1750–52) and Idler (1758–60); John Hawkesworth’s Adventurer (1752–54), to which Johnson also contributed; the World
(1753–56), which Edward Moore conducted in collaboration with Horace Walpole, the Earl of Chesterfield, and Richard Owen Cambridge; the Connoisseur (1754–56) of Coleman and Thornton; Oliver Goldsmith’s “Chinese Letters” in the Public Ledger (1760), which he published separately as The Citizen of the World two years later; and Henry Mackenzie’s Mirror (1779–80) and Lounger (1785–87).
One measure of the popularity of periodical essays was the emergence of an entirely new and separate periodical form, designed to allow readers better access to such literature: in 1731, Edward Cave’s Gentleman’s Magazine was established as a monthly collection of the best periodical essays from the previous month. Cave and his staff printed digests of the essays they selected in the interests of gentlemen who wished to keep abreast of the latest periodical commentary but simply did not have sufficient time to read it all as it appeared. Ultimately, the form evolved in ways that integrated it into the general conventions of literary publication; that is, the essay series was continued until sufficient numbers had been published to make up two- or four-volume sets. In 1764, when William King published as The Dreamer a group of essays (infused with all the qualities of the periodical essay form) which had never been published serially, the serial form may be said to have reached historical closure. Wonderful essays continued to be written—by gifted new writers such as Charles Lamb and by others who perpetuated the stylistic and topical qualities that had made the periodical essay so important. But such essays came to readers as preformed collections in bookshops or lending libraries, rather than as segments of discourse delivered to readers as a regular feature of their daily lives.
See also Topical Essay
Weed, Katherine Kirtley, and Richmond Pugh Bond, Studies of British Newspapers and Periodicals from Their Beginning to 1800: A Bibliography, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1946
Bateson, F.W., “Addison, Steele, and the Periodical Essay,” in Dryden to Johnson, edited by Roger Lonsdale, New York: Bedrick, 1987
Black, Jeremy, The English Press in the Eighteenth Century, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987
Bond, Richmond Pugh, Studies in the Early English Periodical, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957
Bond, Richmond Pugh, Growth and Change in the Early English Press, Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1969
Graham, Walter, English Literary Periodicals, New York: Nelson, 1967 (original edition, 1930)
Marr, George Simpson, The Periodical Essayists of the Eighteenth Century, New York: Appleton, 1924
Watson, Melvin Roy, “The Spectator Tradition and the Development of the Familiar Essay,” English Literary History 13 (1946): 189–215
Watson, Melvin Roy, Magazine Serials and the Essay Tradition, 1746–1820, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1956
Wiles, R.M., Serial Publication in England Before 1750, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957
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