*The Spectator, 1711–12, 1714
British periodical, 1711–12, 1714
In the Spectator, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele combined their talents and interests to produce a series of periodical essays that both established and defined the genre, rendering it more elegant, social, and edifying than ever before (or since). This periodical is distinguished by its high social topics, its formal and detached style, and its abstract and polite vocabulary. Its authors were witty, trenchant, perspicuous, and edifying, while its readers were assumed or encouraged to be attentive, literate, wellinformed, and contemplative. Six days a week between March 1711 and December 1712, the Spectator exhibited and promoted common sense, decorum, discretion, equanimity, good nature, good taste, politeness, and virtue. These qualities still enrich its pages, even for those readers who no longer regard them as essential to human happiness and a wellordered polity.
Addison’s boast, in the Spectator no. 10, that there were already 3000 papers distributed every day, with some 60,000 readers, suggests how well and how quickly the publication took hold. He promised this sizable, thoughtful, and, above all, new readership that he would endeavor on their behalf “to enliven Morality with Wit, and to temper Wit with Morality,” to the considerable advantage of their “Virtue and Discretion.” Few periodicals, before or since, have concerned themselves with the virtue and discretion of their readers. Fewer still would have deftly balanced a figure drawn from the forging of swords in a sentence calculated to remind acute readers of the differences between “wit,” which is lively and cutting, but brittle, and “morality,” which is weighty, divisive, and sturdy.
In the same paper, “Mr. Spectator,” the bland but pleasant and serviceable persona that Addison and Steele adopted, announced his ambition to have it said of him that, whereas Socrates “brought Philosophy down from Heaven, to inhabit among Men,” he himself had “brought Philosophy out of Closets and Libraries, Schools and Colleges, to dwell in Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-Tables, and in Coffee-Houses.” Those unsocial, masculine, and pedantic places to which “Philosophy” (i.e. love of thinking, wisdom) had previously been confined were bookish, isolated, sparse, and argumentative. The places in which the Spectator proposed to make wisdom shine are, instead, social, pleasurable, conversible, and polite. Two of them, the Assemblies and the Tea-Tables, were frequented by women, and Addison and Steele presumed to discuss the concerns and behavior of women in many issues. It must be admitted, however, that the overall air of the Spectator is that of the male coffeehouse, into the workings, concerns, and assumptions of which we are given many vivid glimpses. Some 50 different coffeehouses are mentioned by name and location, and many of them are visited or described.
These places call attention to the Spectator’s delicate and pervasive sociability, its concentration on the social realm, where representative individuals enter into select company. The essays deal with characters rather than identities, and with sets and clubs rather than private concerns or confusions. When Addison and Steele write about such psychological abstractions as jealousy, envy, zeal, and ambition (as they often do), it is with their social consequences in mind, and it is the reactions of others that the essays develop. Other essays pay sustained attention to the workings of such social abstractions as shame, derision, modesty, impertinence, impudence, cheerfulness, and esteem. Even courting and married couples, the most numerous characters of all, show themselves in public, where Mr. Spectator and others can observe them. Those who stay in their homes and contribute to the paper write of follies and extravagances, misfortunes and visits, rather than of intimacies.
Mr. Spectator might have done well to include two other places that his essays refer to and discuss repeatedly: the print shop and the theater. He relied on the first, of course, to print and distribute papers to an audience that, by definition, took printing very seriously.
Books are quoted at the beginning of every paper, and quoted or referred to throughout most of them. Fewer journals have ever been more literate, in the exact sense of that word.
And when they weren’t reading, subscribers seem to have been attending or thinking about the theater. A good many of the essays are, in effect, theater criticism, whether discussions of Tragedy (nos. 39, 40, 42, 44) or critiques of single plays (e.g. no. 270, on Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Scornful Lady). Others deplore the new fashion for opera or puppets, which offend against the Spectator’s insistence on language that makes sense, or correct the techniques of actors or the manners of the audience. Many other issues invoke passing references to plays or the theater. In no. 370 Steele quotes the motto above the stage in Drury Lane: “the whole World acts the Player.” “It is, with me [he continues], a Matter of the highest Consideration what Parts are well or ill performed, what Passions or Sentiments are indulged or cultivated, and consequently what Manners and Customs are transfused from the Stage to the World, which reciprocally imitate each other.”
Its continuing popular success is confirmed by a series of collected editions of the individual papers. The first collection was issued by subscription early in 1712. All seven volumes of the 555 original papers were out by 1713. There were innumerable reprints in the 18th century, and seven new editions thereafter, culminating with the definitive Clarendon Edition edited by Donald Bond in 1965. In 1714 Addison tried to revive the Spectator, writing 25 papers himself, and enlisting such contributors as Eustace Budgell,
Thomas Tickell, and four or five others to compile 80 papers in all, generally agreed to be inferior to the original 555.
The readership that Addison estimated amounts to about 15 percent of the population of London; there is also contemporary evidence of scattered readers in Dublin, Scotland, Boston, and Sumatra. Glimpses of this readership may be had from the correspondents, real or imaginary, and the advertisements in the original papers, as well as the subscription list to the collected volumes. In his introduction to the Clarendon Edition,
Bond quotes a personal advertisement from no. 297 in which we get a vivid glimpse of people we would like to think of as regular readers of the Spectator: “A Person in a white Cloth Suit, laced with Silver, who handed two Ladies out of the Box in the Gallery of the Play-house in Drury-lane, on Wednesday last, is desired to come this Day, without fail, to the Abby Church in Westminster, betwixt 3 and 4 in the Afternoon.” Bond also summarizes the list of subscribers to the 1712–13 collected edition in some detail, enumerating members of the Peerage, the Church, and the university (the names Isaac Newton and Godfrey Kneller figure in these lists), but also prominent bankers, merchants, and civil servants. The list also includes the names of 36 women.
The commercial nature of the venture is apparent not only in the authors’ attention to audience and sales, but also in the increasing number of advertisements for such things as books, plays, housing, and clothing. The business acumen of the two essayists carries over into the celebration of merchants (e.g. no. 174) and a gentle preference for Sir Andrew Freeport, with his eye for the main chance and the bottom line, over Sir Roger de Coverley’s outmoded, and landed, patriarchy. But the businessmen, like the gallants, the prostitutes, the servants, and the actors and actresses in the Spectator, are all uncommonly articulate and polite.
Several features of the Spectator which render it of importance to literary history complicate its status as a collection of essays: its joint, or rather divided, authorship; its reliance on letters from readers to form part of the content (Steele incorporated outside contributions into many of the papers he wrote, though it is probable that he and Addison wrote some of the letters themselves, and edited the content of others); its construction of a fictional “club,” with the personalities, opinions, and, occasionally, actions of the members becoming the focus of a single essay (e.g. no. 517, on the death of Sir Roger); its frequent veering from essay into narrative, with a story drawn from the past (e.g. no. 349, of Moluc) or imported from afar (e.g. no. 11, of Inkle and Yarico), or a representative and usually cautionary fiction featuring emblematic rather than particularized characters (e.g. “Constantia” and “Theodosius” in no. 164).
Twenty-six papers emanate from a visit to Sir Roger’s country estate and report and reflect on the social life of the countryside. Eighteen papers analyze the importance of Paradise Lost; six consider, seriously but wittily, wit in the empirical philosophy of Locke; and 11 delve into the psychology and aesthetics of the imagination. The Saturday papers, by Addison, ponder serious topics such as devotion and death; other numbers reflect soberly on what can only be called the human condition—one that has not changed noticeably since these essays were written: “Since we cannot promise our selves constant Health, let us endeavour at such a Temper as may be our best Support in the Decay of it” (no. 143).
Generally, however, the Spectator wrote about courtship and marriage, follies and extravagances, disappointments and impertinences, and other large, human concerns. It made the ordinary and social workings of the human body and the human mind its daily topic. What men and women wore and said, read, gossiped, quarreled or bantered about, how they greeted friends and treated strangers—these are its concerns, all vividly presented, thoughtfully developed, and eloquently expressed. The language used in public (and in letters) by real and imagined contemporaries of the original readers is one of the most frequent and fruitful of the Spectator’s concerns. Whole essays are given over to appraising the social and semantic value of conversations, trivial or empty expressions, the conventional utterances of courtship, swearing, “ingenious Ribaldry” (no. 155), and a principled distrust of pedantry and “cant,” wherever they are uttered (e.g. no. 147).
For Addison and Steele the essay was a social collaboration, not just between themselves and the other occasional contributors, but with their readers, who supplied them with materials, correspondence, and, sometimes, whole papers. (See no. 46, for an outline of topics and materials for future papers, supposedly mislaid in a coffeehouse!)
Their style, as we have seen, is formal, witty, abstract, and elaborate. They delight in antithetical paragraphs contrasting wise and foolish behavior, and in extended examples, allegories, and analogies which set the reader’s mind to work along clearly marked paths:
“A modest Man preserves his Character, as a frugal Man does his Fortune; if either of them live to the Height of either, one will find Losses, the other Errours which he has not Stock by him to make up” (no. 206).
The authors frequently comment on their own style and methods: “When I make Choice of a Subject that has not been treated of by others, I throw together my Reflections on it without any Order or Method, so that they may appear rather in the Looseness and Freedom of an Essay, than in the Regularity of a Set Discourse. It is after this manner that I shall consider Laughter and Ridicule in my present Paper” (no. 249).
Though emphasizing the relaxed structure of the essay, this statement also reminds us of Mr. Spectator’s willingness to reflect, his consciousness of the work of others, his assortment of subjects, his attention to connections within an essay, and his overriding concern with abstractions that entail moods, attitudes, and behavior.
Subsequent writers admired and emulated the Spectator. It became a model from which Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, and Giuseppe Baretti learned to write elegant English. In his Lives of the Poets (1779–81) Samuel Johnson praised Addison because “He not only made the proper use of wit himself, but taught it to others; and from his time it has been generally subservient to the cause of reason and truth” and for a “middle style…on grave subjects not formal, on light occasions not groveling” and that is pure, exact, and easy. Thomas Babington Macaulay, writing in the Edinburgb Review
(1843), praised Addison as one who had “reconciled wit and virtue,” though Macaulay and his contemporaries had a diminished conception of those two entities, as, indeed, do we. Nevertheless, the Spectator continues to be read, admired, and studied.
The Spectator, written and edited by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, nos. 1–555, 1
March 1711–6 December 1712; second series (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
Bateson, F.W., “Addison, Steele, and the Periodical Essay,” in Dryden to Johnson, edited by Roger Lonsdale, London: Sphere, revised edition, 1986; New York: Bedrick, 1987:117–35
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
Bloom, Lillian D., “Addison’s Popular Aesthetic: The Rhetoric of the ‘Paradise Lost’ Papers,” in The Author in His Work: Essays on a Problem in Criticism, edited by Louis L.Martz and Aubrey Williams, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1978: 263–81
Bond, Donald F., “The First Printing of the Spectator,” Modern Philology 47 (1950):164–77
Bond, Donald F., “Addison in Perspective,” Modern Philology 54 (1956): 124–28
Damrosch, Leopold, Jr., “The Significance of Addison’s Criticism,” SEL 19 (1979):421– 30
Elioseff, Lee A., The Cultural Mtlieu of Addison’s Literary Criticism, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1963
Furtwangler, Albert, “Mr. Spectator, Sir Roger and Good Humour,” University of Toronto Quarterly (Fall 1976):31–50
Furtwangler, Albert, “The Making of Mr. Spectator,” Modern Language Quarterly 38 (1977):21–39
Ketcham, Michael G., Transparent Designs: Reading, Performance, and Form in the Spectator Papers, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985
Knight, Charles A., “The Spectator’s’ Generalizing Discourse,” Prose Studies 16 (1993): 44–57
Knight, Charles A., “‘The Spectator’s’ Moral Economy,” Modern Philology 91 (1993):161–79
Lewis, C.S., “Addison,” in Essays on the Eighteenth Century Presented to David Nichol Smith in Honour of His Seventieth Birthday, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1945; New York: Russell and Russell, 1963
McCrea, Brian, Addison and Steele Are Dead: The English Department, Its Canon, and the Professionalization of Literary Criticistn, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1990
McKenzie, Alan T., “Into Company and Beyond: The Passions in ‘The Spectator’,” in his Certain, Lively Episodes: The Articulation of Passion in Eighteenth-Century Prose,
Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990:89–117
Saccamano, Neil, “The Sublime Force of Words in Addison’s ‘Pleasures’,” ELH 58 (1991):83–106
Watson, Melvin R., “The Spectator Tradition and the Development of the Familiar Essay,” ELH (1946):189–215
Zeitz, Lisa M., “Addison’s ‘lmagination’ Papers and the Design Argument,” English Studies 73 (1992):493–502.
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