Along with Daniel Defoe and his schoolmate, friend, and coadjutor, Joseph Addison, Steele stands as one of the inventors and masters of the periodical essay. After attending Charterhouse School and Christ Church, Oxford, and a stint in the Life Guards and Coldstream Guards, Steele, in the first decade of the 18th century, had a successful career as a playwright and political writer. He garnered several lucrative state offices, including the post of Gazetteer. But, as was the case throughout his life, he struggled financially as he pursued gentlemanliness, spending more than he earned.
On 12 April 1709, Steele published the first number of the Tatler, hoping it would be a moneymaker. As in the earlier Gazette (1707–10), Steele reprinted news items, but the Tatler achieved popularity, even fame, because it also offered an essay, frequently a gently ironic comment upon contemporary manners and mores. Steele took the name for the persona of the Tatler, Isaac Bickerstaff, from Jonathan Swift’s Bickerstaff papers (1708–09). Steele’s friendship with Swift, however, would soon fall victim to the divisions in British society created by the War of the Spanish Succession and the disputes between landed men and moneyed men, between Tories and Whigs that erupted during the ministry of Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford. Swift became Harley’s chief propagandist; Steele became one of Harley’s most visible and vociferous opponents.
In the years 1710 to 1714, Steele passionately defended the Duke of Marlborough’s war policy, repeatedly accusing the Oxford ministry of threatening the Protestant Succession as it attempted to negotiate a peace with France. In October 1710, the Oxford ministry stripped Steele of his Gazetteership. He responded to his financial loss by starting the Spectator, the first number appearing on 1 March 1711. Addison, who had not written for the Tatler until the 18th number, had also lost state offices and wrote for the Spectator from its inception.
The Spectator claimed “an exact neutrality” in political matters, but political discord intensified, as the Oxford ministry attempted to remove Marlborough and to conclude peace negotiations. By 1712., Steele wished to comment directly upon events; hence the journal concluded its first run on 6 December 1712. (Addison would later revive it). The following March, Steele began publishing the Guardian, which was followed in October by the Englishman, both journals claiming to defend traditional English liberties threatened by the conditions of the Peace of Utrecht. Steele’s political commentary became so controversial that, in 1714, he was expelled from Parliament and prosecuted for publishing seditious libels. With the death of Queen Anne and the Hanoverian Succession, however, Steele returned to political favor. He was awarded the Royal Patent for Drury Lane Theatre, and his last periodical, the Theatre (1720), concerned itself principally with matters of theater government and with establishing a model for comedy to replace that of the Restoration stage.
As Steele sought a large audience, so he avoided the Juvenalian satire of Swift, preferring to take a more Horatian tack, emphasizing social consensus and the importance of good nature. Steele tries to direct his satire at groups rather than at individuals, and he always seeks a temperate tone. Perhaps the best example of this is the most famous Spectator character created by Addison and Steele, Sir Roger de Coverley, a landed man and a Tory, the political opposite of Steele. Yet as he is characterized throughout the journal, most notably in a series of papers by Addison in which Mr. Spectator visits Sir Roger in the country, de Coverley acts with admirable if old-fashioned good will. He falls asleep at church services after requiring all other members of the congregation to remain awake; at the assizes he makes an irrelevant speech about a legal matter that he does not understand. He appears in equal parts superannuated and admirable.
As part of his campaign to shape manners (and to build a large following), Steele takes clarity as one of his great objects. “Hard and crabbed Words” (Tatler no. 2) are to be avoided, lest they alienate readers. In the Tatler no. 212, a letter from “Plain English” requests an explanation of a term, “Simplex Munditis,” used in an earlier essay. Although Addison and Steele were both cultivated, even (at least in Addison’s case) learned men, Steele, rather than jesting about his correspondent’s lack of education, patiently offers the explanation required. “Plain English” sets the standard to which Steele aspires. Papers in both the Tatler and the Spectator open with epigrams from the classical languages, but it is a rare paper that, at some point, does not gloss the epigram in English.
As part of this pursuit of clarity, Steele attacks punning as a device for “Men of small Intellects” (Spectator no. 504) and characterizes the conversational counterpart of punning—“biting”—as one symptom of a “Decay in Conversation,” as a technique in the “Art” of “being unintelligible in Discourse” (no. 12). He returns to the topic of biting in no. 504, dismissing it as an act of conversational duplicity and associating it with criminals. He claims that “a Biter is one who thinks you a Fool, because you do not think him a Knave.”
Despite his attacks upon verbal artifice—ambiguity, punning, biting—Steele relishes extended explanatory analogies. While he strives always to eliminate “double meanings” from his diction, he makes persistent use of allegory, so long as the allegory maintains an unambiguous and fixed correspondence between the characters and objects it describes and the virtues or vices they represent; for Steele “fable” and “allegory” are synonymous.
He uses allegory in its simplest form, the roman à clef, by inventing imaginary kingdoms that comment directly upon life in Great Britain.
Having established an analogy, Steele is loath to drop it; rather he will return to it and eliminate any ambiguity. In a series of Tatler papers on the evils of gambling, he opens by alerting his readers that an allegory will follow: “Aesop has gain’d to himself immortal Renown for figuring the Manners, Desires, Passions, and Interests of Men, by Fables of Beasts and Birds; I shall in my future Accounts of our modern Heroes and Wits vulgarly call’d Sharpers, imitate the Method of that delightful Moralist” (no. 59). He then compares sharpers to a “Pack of Dogs,” and, in subsequent numbers, categorizes the different species of “Curs,” even as he notes the similarities between a dog kennel and a gambling house. The last paper of the series (no. 76) describes the “Curs” as threatening the very being of the state because they illicitly acquire property, the basis of commonwealth in Steele’s Whiggish political thinking.
This last paper expands the relevance of the allegory and also links this series to ten papers in which Steele (along with Addison) compares the morally dead to the physically dead and urges many in his audience to consider if they should turn themselves in to “Upholders” (undertakers) for burial. Letters come in from upholders who defend the honor of their profession and from readers who wonder about their moral health, and Steele uses these to keep the topic alive, to refine our sense of what moral deadness actually is. At first, the comparison of the morally and the physically dead is witty, even ironic; the word “dead” is briefly ambiguous. But Steele never leaves his readers in this condition. He elaborates the analogy until it becomes familiar, even, as correspondents join in, conversational.
Steele frequently returns to comparisons and restates them. Statements like “In my last Thursday’s paper I made mention of” (Spectator no. 227) and “I shall reserve this Subject for the Speculation of another Day” (Spectator no. 275) bind the papers together. They also allow Steele to become his own interpreter. Steele—whose life was a busy blend of politics, attempts at commerce, and active socializing—was not above using such crossreferencing to ease his writing load. That load, heavy in the Tatler, which was published thrice-weekly, doubled in the Spectator. While the provenance of letters to the Spectator remains an open question, and some of the letters clearly were written by Addison and Steele, others come from actual correspondents. Correspondence both keeps issues going and helps to refine them. Thus, in the Spectator no. 268, a correspondent writes, “Your Discourse of the 29th of December [no. 201] on Love and Marriage is of so useful a kind, that I cannot forbear adding my Thoughts to yours on that Subject.” While what evidence we have shows that Steele used few letters as they were submitted, he did study them carefully, occasionally changing or improving them, so they could fit into a series of his devising.
The question of the respective contributions of Addison and Steele to the two great journals has been raised frequently and, in the 19th century, was pursued with remarkable intensity. Thomas Babington Macaulay in an 1843 essay on Addison praised him for bringing “suavity and moderation” to the political and literary conflicts of the early 18th century, even as he dismissed Steele: “His writings have been well compared to those light wines which, though deficient in body and flavour, are yet a pleasant drink if not kept too long, or carried too far.” Steele, however, found his defenders. John Forster (“Sir Richard Steele,” 1855) claimed that his stories “have all the warmth as well as brevity of unpremeditated accounts,” and that “the beauties as well as the defects of his style” follow from his mastery of the “colloquial.” Austin Dobson (1886), citing Leigh Hunt, judged Steele’s humor to be “so cheerful and good-natured, so frank and manly that … ‘I prefer open-hearted Steele with all his faults to Addison with all his essays’.” The contrast between Addison’s suavity and Steele’s sentimentality recurs in i^th- and zothcentury criticism. W.J.Courthope (Addison, 1901) mediates the two positions by describing Addison as an improver of “the opportunity which Steele affords him.” In this view, the impetuous and impecunious Steele opens territory that the urbane Addison
Steele had a remarkably busy life. His work as an essayist stands with his work as a playwright and critic; his literary career stands with numerous other public activities—be they as grand as speaking in Parliament or as mundane as fending off debt collectors.
Seeking to gain income from his essays, Steele was closely attuned to his audience, necessarily sensitive to changes in the reading public in the early 18th century. Perhaps his greatest achievement was his offering, in the Tatler and the Spectator most notably, a mediation between landed men and moneyed men, between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, between tradition and change. In the breadth of his activities and his sympathies, he helped to define polite behavior for a middle class that was just coming into being and did not yet define itself as such.
Born in Dublin; baptized 12 March 1672. Studied at Charterhouse, London, where he met Joseph Addison, 1684–89; Christ Church, Oxford, 1690; Merton College, Oxford, 1691– 92.. Served in the Life Guards, 1692–95, and as a captain in the Coldstream Guards, 1695–97; secretary to Lord Cutts, 1696–97; stationed at the Tower of London, by 1700, and in Lord Lucas’ regiment at Landguard Fort, Suffolk, 1702–05. Fathered an illegitimate daughter. Married Margaret Stretch, 1705 (died, 1706). Served Prince George of Denmark (Queen Anne’s husband), 1706–08. Married Mary Scurlock, 1707 (died, 1718): two sons and two daughters. Gazetteer, and editor, the Gazette, 1707–10.
Founding editor of several periodicals, including the Tatler, 1709–11, the Spectator (with Addison), 1711–12, the Guardian, 1713, the Englishman, 1713–14, the Lover, 1714, the Reader, 1714, Town-Talk, 1715–16, the Tea-Table, 1716, Chit-Chat, 1716, the Plebeian, 1719, and the Theatre, 1720. Member of Parliament for Stockbridge, Hampshire, 1713– 14 (expelled), Boroughbridge, Yorkshire, 1715, and Wendover, Buckinghamshire, 1722; on Hanoverian succession, held various appointed positions, including governor of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, 1714–24. Knighted, 1715. Died in Carmarthen, Wales, 1 September 1729.
Essays and Related Prose
The Tatler, nos. 1–271, 12 April 1709–2 January 1711; edited by Donald F.Bond, 3 vols., 1987; as The Lucubrations of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq., edited by John Nichols, 6 vols., 1786
The Spectator, written and edited with Joseph Addison, nos. 1–555, 1 March 1711–6
December 1712; 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, with others, nos. 1–175, 12 March–1 October 1713; edited by John Calhoun Stephens, 1982
The Englishman, nos. 1–57, 6 October 1713–15 February 1714; second series, nos. 1–38, 11 July–21 November 1715; edited by Rae Blanchard, 1 vol., 1955
The Reader, nos. 1–9, 22 April–10 May 1714
The Lover, nos. 1–40, 25 February–27 May 1714; edited by W. Lewin, 1 vol., 1887
Town-Talk, nos. 1–9, 17 December 1715–15 February 1716
Chit-Chat, nos. 1–3, March 1716
The Plebeian, nos. 1–4, 14 March–6 April 1719
The Theatre, nos. 1–28, 2 January–5 April 1720; edited by John Loftis, 1962
Periodical Journalism 1714–1716: The Lover, The Reader, Town Talk, Chit-Chat, edited by Rae Blanchard, 1959
Selections from the Tatler and the Spectator, edited by Angus Ross, 1982
Other writings: four plays, occasional verse, and correspondence (collected in The Correspondence of Richard Steele, edited by Rae Blanchard, 1968).
Bloom, Edward A., and Lillian D.Bloom, editors, Addison and Steele: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge, 1980
Bond, Richmond P., The Tatler: The Making of a Literary Journal, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971
Dobson, Austin, Richard Steele, London: Longman Green, and New York: Appleton, 1886
Goldgar, Bertrand A., The Curse of Party: Swift’s Relations with Addison and Steele, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961
Ketcham, Michael G., Transparent Designs: Reading, Performance, and Form in the Spectator Papers, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985
McCrea, Brian, Addison and Steele Are Dead: The English Department, Its Canon, and the Professionalization of Literary Criticism, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1990
Winton, Calhoun, Captain Steele: The Early Career of Richard Steele, and Sir Richard Steele, M.P.: The Later Career, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2 vols., 1964–70
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