Eighteenth Century Periodical Essay

Eighteenth Century Periodical Essay-70
The public sphere constituted the forum in which private subjects came together to exercise their reason: it was an ‘Öffentlichkeit von Privatleuten’—a public of private subjects.” The argument I make in this essay is indebted to scholars like Cowan, as well as Paul Kelleher, Markman Ellis, and Anthony Pollock, who have shown that the interaction between private subjects and public life in periodical essays, coffeehouses, and other key sites of public sphere life was much less harmonious and unproblematic than Addison and Steele encourage us to assume.But the traditional account of the early eighteenth-century periodical essay is worth repeating because it summarizes what a particular group of essayists, including Addison and Steele, were attempting, sometimes through coercive rhetorical strategies.

The public sphere constituted the forum in which private subjects came together to exercise their reason: it was an ‘Öffentlichkeit von Privatleuten’—a public of private subjects.” The argument I make in this essay is indebted to scholars like Cowan, as well as Paul Kelleher, Markman Ellis, and Anthony Pollock, who have shown that the interaction between private subjects and public life in periodical essays, coffeehouses, and other key sites of public sphere life was much less harmonious and unproblematic than Addison and Steele encourage us to assume.But the traditional account of the early eighteenth-century periodical essay is worth repeating because it summarizes what a particular group of essayists, including Addison and Steele, were attempting, sometimes through coercive rhetorical strategies.

The Tatler and the Spectator are justly famous for having nurtured an essayistic critical style in which it was possible to be intellectual without being scholarly, vigorous without being contrary, and to engage deeply with a contemporary issue without bogging down in factional argument.

As Richard Squibbs puts it in an article about the evolution of the familiar essay from Addison and Steele to Emerson, writers forged an alignment of “strong individualism with universal humanity.” The conventional account of the two periodicals is that they supplied reading matter for the newly emergent “public sphere.” A useful reminder of what the public sphere was in theory is provided by Brian Cowan, who substantially revised our understanding of what it was in practice: “Habermas’s bourgeois public sphere originated in what he thought was an increasing ability to distinguish between the private subject and public life.

Its stylistic signature was a roughness and sense of spontaneity that communicated the reality of a mind in thought.

Croll offers wonderful descriptions of what it feels like to encounter the speaking voices of the great seventeenth-century personal essayists in the period of Montaigne and Bacon, arguing that their style “renders the process of thought and portrays the picturesque actuality of life with equal effect and constantly relates the one to the other.” Croll eventually settled on the term “Baroque” rather than “Attic” to describe the new essayistic style because, in the words of his posthumous editor, “Baroque” connotes “exactly the suggestions he wanted of the human mind struggling bravely with resistant masses of thought, and producing in the effort masterpieces of asymmetric design.” One implication of Croll’s arguments, crucial for understanding the eighteenth-century essay, is that the form depicts individual minds in the process of ­struggle—and that in spite of the struggle they are able to create masterpieces of intellectual coherence and emotional power.

(Nutt didn’t register the copyright for the Tatler until May 1710, evidently thinking it wouldn’t succeed.) Steele’s speaking persona in the first issues of the paper was Isaac Bickerstaff, a name taken from Swift, who had used the character in a literary hoax of 1708, when Bickerstaff had predicted the death of the superstitious almanac maker John Partridge.

The Tatler, in other words, is closely connected to the trenchantly political, polemical style and sensibility for which Swift was famous after A Tale of a Tub, the publication with which the newspaper shared its publishing lineage.

The pairing of Richard Steele and Joseph Addison is so familiar that their collaborators are mostly overlooked, but Swift himself was among them.

It was Swift, not Addison, who helped Steele to negotiate the first issuing of the Tatler in April 1709 with the printer John Nutt, who had also printed Swift’s A Tale of a Tub in 1704 and its subsequent reprints.

The periodical essay, like all serial publication, is part of the evolution of the professional writer from his or her role as a creature of the court or parliament to his or her reliance on publishers and, through them, on the reading public.” Addison and Steele valorized the interior lives of their readers while locating the individual subject as part of a community, and they authorized subjective experience as a source of valuable collective knowledge.

Their essays conjured a vision of thinking subjects living in benignly self-regulating, consensual communities as the ideal basis on which to build a progressive modern state.

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