Periodical Essay: Origin, Growth & Definition in 18th Century

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Introduction: A Brief History of its Origin

      The periodical was the peculiar product of the 18th century's social life and condition. The periodical essay, as the name itself suggests, appeared periodically or at intervals of fixed time in magazines or journals, and not in book form. The periodical essay is special in so far as it differs from other essays in its aims which were deliberately social. They aimed at the improvement of the society, its morals and manners. The duty of the author of these periodical essays was to inform the mind and delight the heart of the reading public.

Prose registered a distinct advance in the age of Pope. Joseph Addison, Steele, Defoe and Swift contributed to the development of English prose and prose acquired flexibility and ease for use for all practical purposes.
Periodical Essay

      In England, there had been news sheets published in the Elizabethan times but these were irregular efforts, issued only on the occasion of something important, such as a flood or other calamity In 1622, a weekly English journal began to be published which was edited by Thomas Archer. This, however, dealt with information about foreign wars alone. These publications dealing with foreign news were banned in 1632. They re-appeared in 1638. The reign of Charles I saw the high pitch of political passions which led to the This period produced a number of journals and periodic which, for the first time, started printing news of the home front. These journals show some of the modern features of the newspapers and Plications were suppressed. This suppression of the liberty of the press was hefted partially in 1659 when three people were given permission to publish journals. Henry Muddiman’s The London Gazette was published in 1665.

      It was in 1682 that the freedom of the press was completely restored. Now there was a spate of publications It was the 18th century however, which saw the rise of journalism proper and with it, the periodical. The climate of this period was one of terse and intense political rivalry. This rivalry between the two major parties of the country, the Whigs and the Tories, brought about an expansion of the press. More and more pamphlets were published and it was rare to find a writer without political affiliations. Among the early periodicals may be counted Daniel Defoe’s Review was first published in 1704. Earlier than this was the publication of Athenian Mercury (1690) started by Dunton. This clearly pointed the way towards the periodical essays of the 18th century. Courthope believes that this magazine had a decided role to play in the emergence of the periodical essay. “Men of active and curious mind with a little leisure and a large love of discussion were anxious to have their doubts on all subjects resolved by a printed oracle.” Their tastes were gratified by the ingenuity of John Dunton. The Athenian Mercury was creating the sort of readership which would look for satisfaction towards the periodical press. But the periodical essay could be said to have actually taken birth with the publication of Steele’s Tatler. The Tatler was started by Steele in 1709. It can easily be called the model or ‘archetypal’ of periodical papers. The Tatler started with news items, anecdotes and poetry, gradually developing into a series of essays on a number of subjects. Addison also contributed to the Tatler. The Tatler ran till January, 1711. Three months after the disappearance of the Tatler came the Spectator and this periodical was closely allied to the interests of the Tatler. The popularity of the Tatler as well as the Spectator was conspicuous.

The Causes of the Rise of Periodical Literature

      There were a number of causes which led to the emergence or the periodical essay in the eighteenth century:

1. Political Rivalry and Growth of Political Parties

      The eighteenth century saw the emergence of the two major political parties, the Whigs and the Tories. Each party vied with the other for political popularity and powers. This development gave a large scope for the literary powers of the writers of the age. The parties had to convey their particular views to the common man. To do this, they employed writers and there came about publishing of pamphlets. “It was indeed the Golden age of political pamphleteering, and the writers made the most of it”, as E. Albert remarks. This pamphleteering was a definite Influence in the emergence of the periodical essay.

2. The Role of The Coffee—Houses

      Another significant feature of the eighteenth century was the emergence of the coffee-houses all over London. It was in these coffee-houses that people of similar (or divergent) views gathered and gave rise to heated and elaborate discussions on various topics. Soon each coffee-houses developed an identity of its own in terms of its clientele. The influence of the coffee-houses is seen in the statement of Steele in the first issue of the Tatler, that all the activities of his paper would be based upon the different clubs. Me says: “All accounts of gallantry, Pleasure, and Entertainment shall be under the article of White's Chocolat-Honse; Poetry under the Will's Coffee-House; Learning under the title of Grecian; Foreign and Domestic News you will have from Saint James’s.” In the Spectator we find Addison saying that he visits many, coffee-houses and thus is able to gather what goes on in each one of them and that he would acquaint the reader with these happenings. Once again in E. Albert’s words, “these coffee-houses became ‘clearing houses’ for literary business, and from them branched purely literary associations such as the famous Scriblerus and Kit-Cat Club, those haunts of the fashionable writers which figure so prominently in the writings of the period”.

3. The Rise of the Middle Classes

      A very important factor in the rise of the periodical essay is the rise of the middle classes which came about in the eighteenth century. The century saw the prosper of the trading community. Trade had been expanded and with this commercial expansion came the rise of the trading community which was the major unit in the middle class. With riches this class became an important force to reckon with in the literary field. Writers had to cater to the tastes of this class. The people of this class had their special tastes and requirements. They frowned upon the licentiousness and profligacy of the ‘elite’ classes, the aristocracy which followed the loose morals and easy conduct set in fashion by the Restoration court. On the other hand, this class of people also wanted to cultivate the refined manners and culture of the elite classes. In other words, they wanted to be educated; they desired to improve their manners, but they would have nothing to do with the loose morals of the ‘fashionable’ set of the society.

      The periodical essay caters especially to the tastes of this class of society. Steele and Addison addressed themselves to society in general and did not forget to take into account the middle classes. The periodical essay suited the temperament of this new class of readers. Firstly, it was short and could be read easily and quickly and without great concentration. It dealt with topics which were of general interest. Secondly, it strove to bring together virtue and pleasure, the two elements which had slowly but surely separated to opposite ends. Addison and Steele brought about a reconciliation between laughter and virtue, entertainment and instruction, pleasure and morality. This was what the hour needed and Addison and Steele having accomplished this, ensured the popularity of the periodicals.

Aims and Objectives of the Periodicals and their Significance

      It has already been remarked that the periodical essay was envisaged by Steele and, later, Addison strove to bring together entertainment and instruction, pleasure and morality. The Tatler aimed at improvement of the reader’s mind as well as giving him pleasure. It took the step in laughing at vice and folly instead of virtue which was what had been in fashion so far. It set the tone by criticizing vulgarities such as practical jokes, swearing, coquetry, affectation and frivolity, all kinds of extravagances, and other such social customs which went against essential good sense and good manners. Goodness, on the other hand, was exalted. In Steele’s own words, the purpose of the Tatler was to expose the false arts of life, to pull off the disguises of vanity, cunningness and affectation, and recommend a general simplicity in our dress, our discourse, and our behavior. The aim of the Spectator was equally to reform social manners and dispel ignorance. The aims of these periodicals were pre-eminently society oriented.

      Satire abounded in these papers but it was always good-humored satire. It was intended to correct and not to hurt. The Spectator naturally lacked the ‘freshness’ of the Tatler, as it was in the nature of a sequel rather than an original idea. But it was better planned and well executed. Its plan was to wage a relentless war against follies and social vices and instruct its readers constantly upon the importance of domestic, social and religious ideals. Another important factor was the exclusion of political matters from the range of its subjects. This, too, contributed to the popularity. Yet another innovation by Steele and Addison was that for the first time literature was being addressed to women readers. Both the Tatler and the Spectator aimed at the improvement of the status of women and their education. The papers were often marked by a bantering criticism of female vanities, foibles and extravagances.

      The Spectator achieved a great popularity not only because of its wide range of subjects which were at the same time not too high flown, but also because of the method of treatment of these subjects. There is humor in the exposure of the vices. The language is refined but not difficult. It is the language of everyday speech without, of course, its slang and colloquialisms. The style was lucid, fluent and easy to understand.

      In conclusion, we may quote Routh who says: “Steele had succeeded in discovering the range and scope of the periodical essay, but Addison realized its artistic possibilities. He saw that these essays should be treated neither, on the one hand, as news sheets for polite circles, nor, on the other, as detached chapters of a book. They should become a highly specialized type of literature: and he set himself to create both their form and their spirit.”

      The genre of the periodical essay was established by Steele and improved upon by Addison. Their efforts proved to be highly popular and important in the development of social as well as literary history. The popularity of the Tatler and the Spectator gave rise to several imitators but none of these ever gained the position or circulation figures of the periodicals of Steele and Addison. The form soon fell into decay after Oliver Goldsmith who contributed some whimsical papers to the Bee and The Citizen of the World. Indeed, if any form could be said to be a peculiar product and mirror of any particular age, it is the periodical essay which is a particular creation and mirror of the Augustan age in England. And it was the special contribution of Steele and Addison through the Taller and the Spectator.

The Emergence of The Periodical Essay

      Prose registered a distinct advance in the age of Pope. Joseph Addison, Steele, Defoe and Swift contributed to the development of English prose and prose acquired flexibility and ease for use for all practical purposes.

       Rise of the Periodical press was an important factor for the expansion of prose literature. The first periodical published in Europe was the Gazetta (1536) in Venice. This was a manuscript newspaper. In England news sheets were published during the reign of Elizabeth, but they were irregular in their appearance, being issued only when some notable event, such as a great flood or fire made their sale secure. The first regular English journal was a weekly publication begun in 1622 by Thomas Archer and Nicholas Bourne who were authorised to print information on foreign wars.

      The political passions which led to the civil war (1642-1649) produced a spate of journalistic writing. The civil war gave rise to numerous ephemeral Posts, Spies and Scouts and to the Mercurius Aulicus (1643-1645) published on both sides. The Royalists published the Mercurius Aulicus, the Mercurius Academicts and the Mercurius Pragmaticus, while the Round heads replied with such journalist a The Mercurius Britaunicus and Mercurius Politicus. In 1655 Cromwell suppressed the licensed press with the exception of the official organ, The Public intelligance. Hem Muddiman was the greatest of all seventeenth century journalists who publish The Parliamentary Intelligencer (1659), The Mercurius Publicus and the London Gazere (1665).

      In 1682, the freedom of the press was restored and large numbers of Mercuries and other periodicals appeared. In 1702 The Daily Courant, the first daily newspaper was published. In the early years of the eighteenth century, the fierce contests between the Whigs and Tories brought rapid expansion of the press. The most famous of the issues were Defoe's Review (1704), a whig organ and the Examiner a Tory organ to which Swift and Prior contributed.

      In 1709 Steele published The Tatler. It was meant as a newspaper, but both Steele and Addison made the daily essay the chief feature. The Spectator begun in March 1711 carried the tendency still further. The literary journal became popular. Steele's The Plebian (1719) is an early example of the political periodical. Dr. Johnson started The Rambler (1750-1752).

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