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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

§ 5. Literature and Clubland

Men learned other things in coffee-houses besides the amenities of social intercourse. Clubland had taken so universal a hold on London that nearly every man of intelligence frequented some resort of this kind. Now, these were just the people who read and wrote books; they created thought and taste; the future of literature depended on their ideas and ways of expression. Until the time of the restoration, neither writers nor readers had practised the studied simplicity of true conversation. Even pamphleteers like Nashe, Dekker or Rowlands, whose one aim was to follow popular taste, had never broken away from book knowledge, despite their slipshod style, and the literary cliques which handed round manuscript essays and characters had reproduced in their writings only such conversation as might be a vehicle for their clinches and conceits. Men had confined their literary interests to the library and, as a consequence, their style was either ponderous or precious. The Royal Society had already started a movement against redundance of phrase; but it may well be doubted whether the protests of Spratt, Evelyn and South would have had lasting effect without the influence of coffee-houses. It was here that, besides practising benevolence in small things, men learnt to unravel literary ideas in a style that was colloquial as well as cultured. Conversation has a mysterious power of awakening thought. Commonplaces and trifles appear in a new light, and fresh notions are continually struck off like sparks. The man who has formed his mind by intercourse is more versatile and alert than he whose intellect has grown by reading, and he has learnt to speak in short simple sentences, because the ear cannot, like the eye, follow long periods. Moreover, he must abandon the phraseology of books, because the written word had long assumed a formal, almost impersonal, air, and must borrow turns and phrases from daily parlance to give an individual touch to his theories.

Thus, the middle classes were accomplishing their own education. They were becoming thinkers with a culture and a standard of manners born of conversation and free from pedantry of thought or expression. Coffee-houses had given them a kind of organisation; a means of exchanging ideas and forming the public opinion of their class. But this spirit was at present manifest only in the atmosphere where it had been formed. It was not found in theatres, universities or salons. Coffee-houses had unconsciously become fraternities for the propagation of a new humanism, and a writer could come into touch with the ideas and sentiments of the age only in those centres.