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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

§ 24. Steele, Addison and the Essay

Steele and Addison produced other work separately. But, when they ceased to collaborate in The Spectator, which was subsequently continued by one of their circle, both became authors of secondary importance. Their task was already done. The peculiar circumstances of their lives gave them an unrivalled opportunity of observing the movement of their time. Thanks to a certain conventionality of intellect, coupled with amazing cleverness, they became the heart of this movement, and made it literature. In this sense, they collaborated with their age. As a comparison between the two writers is almost inevitable, it may be said, in conclusion, that Steele was the more original and Addison the more effective. Steele conceived the periodical essay, but never perfected it; he accidentally discovered the short story and verged upon the domestic novel, without substantially influencing the development of either genre. This ineffectiveness was partly due to his volatile nature and somewhat unstable life, but it was also largely due to the presence of Addison. That successful and self-contained mentor seems to have unconsciously restrained Steele’s initiative. But, while he curbed his companion’s talents, he displayed the utmost efficiency in the use of his own and, without any deep fund of ideas or sympathy, raised Steele’s conception of an essay to a degree of perfection never since surpassed. The Londoners of queen Anne’s reign chiefly valued The Spectator for Addison’s humorous papers and religious dissertations. The modern student most admires its accuracy and penetration, and the true and long-enduring picture which it gives of middle-class culture and character.