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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

§ 6. Beginnings of The Tattler

This movement was so inchoate that the middle classes themselves were hardly conscious of it. Steele certainly did not perceive into what a world of thought and sentiment he was penetrating when he ventured, in The Tatler, to appeal to coffee-houses. After writing The Tender Husband, he seems to have relinquished the theatre for the more lucrative career of a court favourite. He, probably, never lived within his income and, after losing, in 1708, his position of gentlemanwaiter to prince George of Denmark and failing to obtain two other posts, he returned to literature in order to meet his debts. Since the censorship had been removed from the press, journalism had become a profitable enterprise, and Steele’s chief motive in starting The Tatler on 12 April, 1709, was, undoubtedly, the fear of bankruptcy. However, the desire to improve his fellow-creatures was as strong as in the days of The Christian Hero. Steele was himself a frequenter of coffee-houses. He knew how confused and misguided their political discussions often were, thanks to the irresponsible news-sheets which flooded London; and he also realised how many other topics were wrongly or superficially canvassed in those daily and nightly gatherings. So, he set himself to enlighten, as well as to entertain, his fellow-talkers. As gazetteer, he could give the most trustworthy foreign news, and, as a man of culture and society, he could tell them what to think concerning other matters which occupied a discursive and critical generation. The paper came out three times a week, and each issue (unlike The Spectator) contained several essays, dated, according to their subjects, from particular coffee-houses.

Thus, in its original conception, The Tatler was hardly more than an improved imitation of Defoe’s Review and The Athenian Mercury. From the first, Steele aimed at making his paper more comprehensive. He perceived that different coffee-houses stood for widely different interests, and he laid them all under contribution. He persevered in finding instruction or amusement for every taste, till The Tatler became almost as diversified as the opinions of its readers. In the hands of most editors, so undiscriminating a policy would soon have reduced a journal to a periodical miscellany, and Steele the essayist is certainly not free from charges of inconsistency and confusion. But it must be remembered that his long struggle after a sober, scholarly existence, though hardly successful in his personal life, had rendered him keenly responsive to kindred influences around him, and enabled him to discover and give expression to the spirit of humanised puritanism which existed beneath the babel of coffee-houses. Like all originators, he had to feel his way. He began by making a feature of foreign intelligence and theatrical news and, full of middle-class disgust at frivolity and incompetence, exposed the vagaries of prominent social characters, apparently convinced that offenders would mend, if pilloried under a pseudonym. Inspired by the same respect for order and regularity, he gave expression, in some rather commonplace articles, to the public antipathy against gambling, and argued, in a series of papers, that duelling was a senseless, guilty practice, observed by exquisites as an affectation of bravery but secretly condemned by level-headed burghers. He warned his readers against swindlers, pointing at certain well-known sharpers as dogs, but without a touch of the old English amusement at roguery. Indeed, except for two jestbook stories, a mock testament and a few sentimental extravagances in the style of seventeenth century romances, his earlier attempts in a lighter vein consist of coffee-house discussions on literary questions and talks on current topics of city life such as changes in slang and the abuse of the title esquire.