Popularity of The Spectator Papers

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Great Popularity The Spectator Papers

      As The Spectator gained immediate and immense success, its popularity is not doubted. Considering the population of England at the time and also the percentage of literacy, the circulation figures of this paper, (initially three thousand per day and later rising to four thousand a day) were stupendous. Even when the stamp tax imposed and many other papers were affected and had to shut down, the Spectator remained unaffected. Even when it raised its price, the circulation fell off only a little. This speaks of the great popularity which the paper enjoyed in its own days.

Reasons for Popularity

      The main reason for the popularity of The Spectator lay in the fact that the writers were able to gauge the public need and tastes. They exploited to the full the possibilities of the literary form of essay and adapted themselves to the limited space. The following are the main reasons for its popularity:

      (i) They kept in mind the taste and requirements of the age. They realized that the essay had to deal with things of familiar interest if they were to get any attention, as a reader would not be approaching such a publication with the same receptive mood of a book reader. The subjects had to have a ready appeal for the average reader. The variety of subjects catering to the taste of a wide range of public. The treatment reflects this desire for having an appeal for the average reader. The language is easy, clear and lively.

      (ii) The subjects chosen were such that would interest the readers while giving an opportunity to the writers to censure the vices and follies of the society. Thus the stage, manners of the fashionable set, especially the foibles and follies of women, become the target of the writer’s satire even while forming interesting subject matter for the reading public. These essays preserve their interest for the modern reader by giving a clear and vivid picture of the eighteenth-century England.

      (iii) The avoidance of political topics also went towards making the paper popular. His essays are free from political fanaticism and bias. Sir Roger de Coverley is a most lovable Tory squire and his characterization has been done by Addison, a Whig. The avoidance of political matters has contributed towards making the Spectator popular to this day.

      (iv) Yet another aspect that led to its popularity was the tone of moderation employed by the writers of the Spectator. They reconciled two apparently irreconcilable forces—the Restoration wit and refinement and lightness with the Puritan zeal for good conduct They left out bad aspects of both extremes. They left out the license of the Restoration tradition and the Puritan rigidity and gloom. Drinking, swearing and dueling are castigated and charity, constancy, and a spirit of service are recommended. This tone of moderation and a happy blend of morality and wit must have come as a great relief to an age which had come to associate wit with profligacy and morality with dullness. This mixture of instruction and wit has a perennial popularity.

      (v) There are plenty of illustrations in the form of anecdotes, especially humorous anecdotes which are made up about fictitious characters, fables and parables, analogies and allusions. These help to elucidate arguments and help the reader to understand a point better. They also add to the interest and appeal of the essays, and thus to their popularity.

      (vi) Humour is another important device which goes a long way towards making the essays popular. The humor is most of the time used for the purpose of reforming. Delectable humor and irony, which is the very essence of this humor, make popular most of the essays and increase their appeal for the modern reader too. That this humor is never bitter or savage and hurtful, is another aspect of the essay's popularity. The general nature of the satire also contributes towards the popularity of the papers.

      (vii) Uptil the time of the Spectator, there had not been a lively picture in English literature outside drama of men and manners in the ordinary social sphere of the day. The popularity of the Spectator must have increased because of the delightful picture of the society that it offered. The character studies in the ‘Spectator’ are personal and vital; they are no longer catalogs of qualities but the characters move and talk amidst different scenes. Sir Roger de Coverley is said to be the greatest achievement of Addison. There is humor and sympathetic humor in the delineation of this gallery of portraits.

      (viii) Last but not least, the style of the writers, especially that of Addison, did a great deal towards popularising the “Spectator,” It is a personal (though not excessively familiar) style which establishes a close relationship with the reader. The essays are brief and this brevity must have made the essays popular. It must have made them easy reading for the public which wanted to read but was not willing to read pages and pages. The refinement and polish of Addison's prose style contributed to the popularity of the Spectator just as the easy manner of Steele made for a warmth which the readers must have found attractive. The simplicity of the periodical essay had a good effect on the prose style and also accounts for its popularity. 


      Cazamian, speaking upon the reasons for the popularity of the essays, says: “The variety of subjects, a supple adaptation to the preferences of the public, and at the same time a sufficiently skillful reaction against certain habits, certain defects, to call into play the deeper resolutions of a society bent on disciplining itself as to superficial habits of selfishness; a gift for the concrete illustration of themes, a gallery of original portraits, a broad outlook upon social realities, with nothing that recalls that open struggles of interests, a harmony with an obscure instinct of middle-class minds, which urges them towards the affirmation of more rational ways of living and feeling—such are the major reasons for the success of the Spectator. But a finished literary art also contributes its share.” With these qualities also went the brevity, humor and the personal note of the writers.

University Questions

1. What were the causes of the popularity of the ‘Spectator’?
2. Account for the popularity of Addison as an essayist.
3. Account for the perennial popularity of the Spectator.

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