The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 14. The Rambler and the Revival of the Periodical Essay
The conditions amid which Johnson revived the periodical essay differed widely from those amid which it originally flourished. In the interval of forty years, there had been a development of journalistic enterprise which was not paralleled in any other country. More than 150 periodicals, of one kind or another, had been meeting the needs of the reading public, and contributing to its steady growth in size and power. Some of these were on the model of The Spectator, while others, written with a different purpose, or planned to include a greater variety of matter, showed its influence. The periodical essay no longer offered any of the attractions of novelty. In its strict form, it was a type of journalism that was being crushed out of favour by politics and news. By 1750, The Gentleman’s Magazine enjoyed a secure popularity, and had its rivals; and, in the previous year, The Monthly Review had been established. The time was not auspicious for beginning a paper devoted exclusively to meditations on matters of no immediate interest, without the assistance of any item of news, or of a single advertisement. But, in The Rambler, the periodical essay reasserted itself, and entered on the second of its two great decades, that of The Rambler, The Adventurer, The World, The Connoisseur, The Idler and The Citizen of the World.
The effect of The Rambler was the more remarkable, in that Johnson was deficient in the qualifications of a periodical writer. The maxim that “the drama’s laws the drama’s patrons give” is equally true of the essay. It was not in Johnson’s nature to bow to the public, however much he believed in its ultimate verdict. He spoke in his first number as if success depended on the choice of subject. But, in the treatment of his choice, he lacked the art of going to meet his readers; and they never came in great numbers. The circulation of The Rambler was only about 500 copies. But it raised the literary level of the periodical essay and set a standard of excellence to such papers as The World, whose sale was numbered in thousands.