What Matthew Arnold describes as “our excellent and indispensable eighteenth century” added three new literary genres to the fund of English literature. These genres are the mock epic, the novel, and the: periodical essay. All of them enjoyed much popularity in the century and the mock epic and the novel, even beyond the termination of the century. However, the periodical essay was the most popular of all, even though it did not extend beyond the century. About the importance and phenomenal popularity of the periodical essay A. R. Humphreys observes: “If any literary form is the particular creation and the particular mirror of the Augustan age in England it is the periodical essay. The Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature lists ninety periodicals founded between The Tatler in 1709 and 1720.” The Tatler and The Spectator, indeed unleashed a virtual deluge of periodicals which overran eighteenth century England. Mrs. Jane H. Jack refers to “the remarkable proliferation” of this type’of essay in the years following the first number of The Tatler. Throughout the eighteenth century, and especial ly the first half of it, the periodical essay was the most popular, if not the dominant, literary form. Men as different as Pope, Swift, Dr. Johnson, and Goldsmith found the periodical essay an eligible medium. As a matter of fact it was, unlike the novel for example, the only literary form which was patronised without exception by all the major writers of the century. It is hard to name a single first-rate, or even second-rate, writer who did not write something for a periodical paper. In the words of Mrs. Jane H. Jack, “from the days of Queen Anne-who had The Spectator taken in with her breakfast-to the time of the French Revolution and even beyond, periodical essays on the lines laid down by Steele and Addison flooded the country and met the eye in every bookseller’s shop and coffee-house.”
The periodical essay had its birth and death in the eighteenth century. It was born with The Tatler in the beginning of the century (1709) and breathed its last (about 1800) after remaining in the throes of death in the years following the French Revolution (1789). The reason for its popularity in the eighteenth century is to be sought in the rapport which it had with the genius of the century.
Now let us consider briefly the chief causes of the popularity of the periodical essay in the eighteenth century.
Suited the Genius of the People:
The first and foremost reason of the popularity of the periodical essay in the eighteenth century was its pre-eminent suitability to the genius of the people of that age. The eighteenth century, especially its earlier phase, is known in the social history of England for the rise of the middle classes. With the unprecedented rise in trade and commerce the English masses were becoming wealthy and many poor people finding themselves in the ranks of respectable burgesses. These nouveaux riches were, naturally enough, desirous of giving themselves an aristocratic touch by appearing to be learned and sophisticated like their traditional social superiors–the landed gentry and nobility. This class of readers had hitherto been neglected by highbrow writers. Literary productions before the eighteenth century were invariably meant for the higher strata of society. Only “popular literature”, such as the ballad, catered to the lower rungs. Literary works were very often published by raising subscription among the enlightened few, and men of letters were very often dependent upon their patrons who were rich and influential. There was little literature meant especially for the middle classes of society. Works like Browne’s Hydriotaphia or even Milton’s Paradise Lost were much above them, and those like ballads and roundelays much below them. These middle classes had now become a force to reckon with. Moreover, in the early eighteenth century, as Bonamy Dobree puts it, the two hitherto well-defined and well-divided groups of readers came to converge into each other. Consequently the writers of the age like Swift, Defoe, Addison, Pope, and Steele-addressed themselves not to a particular group of readers, but all society in general. However, they seem to have been particularly mindful of the middle classes who made up the bulk of readers and consequently but for whose appreciation and patronage they would have been denied all popularity and success. The periodical essay was particularly suited to the genius of these new patrons of literature. It was the literature of the bourgeoisie. It gave them what they wanted. It gave them pleasure as well as instruction, the age of parliamentary democracy had then recently dawned and the novel and the periodical essay became the literary embodiments of its spirit.
Not “Heavy” Literature:
The periodical essay was a delicate and sensitive synthesis of literature and journalism. It was neither too “literary” to be comprehended and appreciated by the common people nor too journalistic to meet the fate of ephemeral writings. It could be read, appreciated, and discussed at the tea-table or in the coffee-house. Its lightness and brevity were its two major popularising features. Accounting for the enthusiastic reception of the periodical essay, Mrs. Jane H. Jack observes in “The Periodical Essayists” in vol. 4 of The Pelican Guide to English Literature: “one principal reason for the success of Addison and Steele was the fact that they kept the tastes and requirements of their readers, male and female, constantly in mind. One of the attractions of their new form was its brevity. The seventeenth century had been the century of long books. A seventeenth-century reader seems to have been able to read anything. The only brief forms with any literary pretensions were stiff with ‘wit’. The increasing ‘reading public’ of the eighteenth century brought a demand for easier reading. It was a time when writers paid more attention to the human frailty of their readers and treated them with greater consideration.” A periodical essay, normally, covered not more than the two sides of a folio half-sheet; quite often it was even shorter.
Suited the Moral Temper of the Age:
But it was not mainly owing to its brevity or any other formal feature that the periodical essay became the darling of eighteenth century readers. The main reason lies in the fact that it suited their moral temper. The periodical essayists, particularly Steele and Addison struck a delicate and rational balance between the strait-jacketed morality of the Puritan and the reckless Bohemianism of the Cavalier. The average middle class man, with a hard core of common sense about him was sick of the profligacies and cynicism of the post-Restoration courtiers still surviving in the eighteenth century. Equally was he repelled by the immoderately self-righteous outlook of the pleasure-hating Puritans in whose eyes beauty was a snare and all pleasure a sin. The man in the street in the early eighteenth century spurned both the unthinking epicurism of the Cavalier and the rigid asceticism of the Puritan. Some via media, after the demand of common sense and reason, was being sought after. It was for the periodical essayists, particularly Addison and Steele, to effect a synthesis between these two mutually militating views of life. They were to show in their periodical essays that virtue and pleasure were not always incompatible with each other, that pleasure was not always irrational and necessarily irreligious. As A. R. Humphreys points out, “conventionally the code of pleasure was that of the rake; Steele and Addison wished to equate it with virtue, and virtue with religion.” They strove to emphasize that religion and virtue, far from being incompatible with good breeding, were the ‘most important signs of it. In the words of Taine theirs was “the difficult task of making morality fashionable.” But they did not flinch. They not only fulfilled their self-imposed task, but fulfilled it so well that they (especially Addison) became popular idols. As Addison put it, the task of Mr. Spectator was “to temper wit with morality and to enliven morality with wit.” The periodical essayist, then, worked as a popular moral mentor. But he was more : he enriched the life of the common man with general knowledge which was then called “philosophy” and was limited to the closet of the specialized scholar, “It was,” wrote Addison, “said of Socrates that he brought Philosophy down from Heaven to inhabit among men; and I shall be ambitious to have it said of me, that I have brought Philosophy out of the closets, and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and coffeehouses.” The periodical essay was welcomed by the busy trader and men of affairs because it made accessible to them that knowledge which had till then been considered the monopoly of the chosen few.
Appeal to Women:
The doses of morality, philosophy, and religion administered by the periodical essayists to their readers were fairly dilute, in keeping with their constitution. They, especially Addison and Steele, taught their coarse age the lesson of refinement and elegance. They instinctively felt that women could do a lot in setting the tone of society. But before they were able to do so, women themselves had to learn a lot. They had, for instance, to give up French fopperies, coarse as well as frivolous behaviour, and to cultivate the virtues of domesticity and modesty. Most periodical essayists followed the lead of Addison and Steele in writing many of their essays about and for women. “It became,” says Mrs. Jane H. Jack, “an important part of the Tatler and Spectator ‘platform’ to stress that the authors were writing for women as well as men and to emphasize that women must play a large part in the civilizing which they were striving to promote. Attention to the interests of the fair sex became one of the invariable conventions of the periodical essay, and there can be little doubt that the essayists did much to improve the status and education! of women.” Addison was quite explicit in his intention : “But there are none to whom this paper will be more useful than to the female world.” He meant to offer women “an innocent if not an improving entertainment,” and urged them not to grudge “throwing away a quarter of an hour in a day on this paper.” Swift was indignant at Addison’s too frequent treatment of topics of female interest and wrote to Stella in a tantrum: “Let him fair sex it to the world’s end!” At any rate, by “fair sexing” it too much Addison and Steele became extremely popular with both the sexes, for they emerged as the first writers in the history of English literature to give adequate importance to specifically female interests.
Avoidance of Religious and Political Controversies:
One of the reasons for the general popularity of the periodical essays was that they (with the exception of party organs), shunned religious and political controversies and kept their attention focused only on topics of general interest. Steele and Addison were the writers who with their pose or poise of neutrality set an example for their successors. The eighteenth century was a period of fierce party strife between the Whigs and Tories, and though Steele and Addison were both uncompromising Whigs, yet in their periodical essays at least they maintained a neutral attitude. Mr. Spectator says in the very first issue of The Spectator: “I never espoused any party with violence, and am resolved to observe an exact neutrality between the Whigs and Tories, unless I shall be forced to declare myself by the hostilities of either side.” When in The Guardian Steele shed his neutral attitude and started espousing the Whig cause, his popularity declined.
The Interest in Trade:
We have already referred to the phenomenal rise of the trading community in early eighteenth-century England. One reason why the periodical essay (particularly The Spectator and The Taller) made a special appeal to this community was that it showed a healthy interest in trade. Most of the traders were Whigs and most of the landed gentry and nobility, Tories. The clash between the two parties was not only political but social too. In numerous Spectators Addison ladled glowing praise to th,e trading community much to their gratification. Up to that time the merchant in literary compositions had served only as an object of satire for his alleged dishonesty, meanness, and calculating nature. But in The Spectator Sir Andrew Freeport was given a place equal to the other respectable men who constituted “the Club.” The Spectator essay describing the mercantile activity at the Royal Exchange is quite sentimental in the expression of complacency at the tremendous prosperity of the rich merchants.
Most of the periodical essayists used a simple and conversational style so as to be able to be understood and appreciated by their semi-educated or, at any rate, unscholarly readers. Mrs. Jane H. Jack observes: “The periodical writers prided themselves on being ‘nearer in our style to that of common talk than any other writers’ (Tatler, No. 204) and there can be little-dtmbt that the ubiquity of these essays had a good effect on the prose-styteof the century as a whole.” The periodical essayist could indulge in individual whimsies, conceits, witticisms, or even “hard words” only at his peril. Women, who made up a large proportion of the readers,–.could appreciate such things even less than their male counterpartsvThe stylejiad to be simple and clear. How disastrous an effect the use of a heavy style could have on the popularity of a periodical essayist is obvious from the case of Dr. Johnson’s Rambler which never circulated above five hundred copies. The Spectator, on the other hand, ran to no fewer than five thousand.