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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

II. Steele and Addison

§ 15. His style as an Essay-writer

Addison had completely mastered the art of essay writing when Steele discontinued The Tatler. The fall of the whig ministry in the previous year, deprived both writers of lucrative positions. But the reasons for resuming the interrupted work were not merely financial. The production of The Tatler had brought with it experiences such as no other contemporary writer had been privileged to enjoy. While ransacking society, clubland and literature for “copy,” Steele and Addison had discovered, partly in themselves and partly in others, a moral and intellectual tone purer and more humane than the spirit which they had breathed into their own paper. Greatly as that periodical had developed, it could not altogether escape from the desultory and superficial character which it had assumed at its origin. Yet a new journal offered boundless possibilities, and the artist’s instinct, as well as the moralist’s zeal, played a part in founding The Spectator.

Thus, the new enterprise was not a mere sequel to The Tatler—a pennyworth of diversion containing something to suit all tastes. The old paper, in its primary conception, had been too much like a medley in which social scandal, city gossip and foreign news emulously claimed the reader’s attention. Its successor was to be a series of literary pamphlets, concerned only with morals and manners, each number being confined to a single theme and bearing a distinct message from the world of religion, thought or humour. Though its appeals were narrowed in scope, they were to be more often repeated. The paper appeared every day and, by sheer frequency, grew into the life of its readers like an intimate counsellor or a constant friend. Above all, the periodical was to have the persuasiveness of personality. As the editors could not write in their own names, they profited by the example of Isaac Bickerstaff and published their reflections under a fictitious character. While, however, the astrologer of The Tatler had been merely an ingenious embellishment, a suggestive curiosity introducing its readers to truths which they could have appreciated without him, Mr. Spectator both gave his name to the paper and typified the spirit in which it was written. The first number, on 1 March, 1711, was given up to a sketch of his mind and this portrayal marks an epoch in the history of English culture. Addison, who drew the picture and is, indeed, the inspiring genius of the whole periodical, here really describes his own mental attitude since he left “academic bowers,” taking with him all his classical learning, to join the observers of modern life. His ideas were largely due to the new atmosphere in which he now found himself; but, as his intellectual emancipation had cost him much, he realised his purpose more intensely than did his fellows. For Mr. Spectator is the type of a new culture which grew out of puritanism. Men of profound learning had, under the old civilisation, been specialists—theologians, demonographers, jurists, philosophers or university scholars. Mr. Spectator is also profoundly learned; he is acquainted with all celebrated books in ancient and modern tongues. Nay, more, he is a traveller, and, like the great renascence scholars, has visited every accessible country in search of knowledge. Yet he has no profession; he does not belong to a school of thought. He has simply stored his mind with the wisdom, wit and humour of other countries and ages, and he spends his life in observing his contemporaries and, consciously or unconsciously, comparising their manners, customs and ideas with those of which he has read. He visits “The Exchange,” theatres, coffee-houses; wherever men gather he is to be found, until, as Addison says, “he has made himself a speculative statesman, soldier, merchant or artisan without ever meddling with any practical part in life.” Such Addison had learnt to be, and such, also, without the concluding qualification, was the ideal of the protestant middle class of this century. Now that the great disputes as to religion and government had been settled, the descendants of the puritans were free, fifty years before Voltaire, “to cultivate their garden.” They brought to the task of self-education an ever growing knowledge of books and the same seriousness and humanity which began to guide the more enlightened so far back as the civil war. Such a generation might reform and, on occasion, take an interest in the theatre or even cultivate belles lettres; but their true sphere was found in the routine of daily life. Conversation and study made them thoughtful; yet it was a practical thoughtfulness centring round their institutions, manners and intellectual development. Steele, and especially Addison, while writing for The Tatler, had hinted that the wisdom and integrity of other ages were the best guides towards the improvement of their own; but it was one of the distinguishing marks of the new journal that both essayists avowedly adopted this principle.